Beyond the Internet: Week 25 Gaol records

Beyond the Internet

This is Week 25 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens and the topic is gaol records. In this context I’m not planning on dealing with convict records with which I have limited experience but rather more recent excursions at His/Her Majesty’s pleasure. Please do join in and write comments or posts on your experience with these records.

So you’ve found one of your relatives in the gaol records…where now?

Firstly you need to learn to which gaol/jail your ancestor was admitted, unless the court records have already told you this, as the location may have changed over time and while you may know the city of interest, the gaol may have been different in earlier times. To learn more about this you may need to do some reading around the topic either online or the old-fashioned way in a library (remember not everything is digitised). While a book may not provide a name-reference to your ancestor it will provide that necessary background.

Your next priority is to check out the online catalogue for the relevant local archive to see what they may have in regard to the gaol/jail to which your ancestor was admitted. Do they have any online guides to gaol records which might be of use to you?

Having established what is available and which records might host an appearance by your ancestor, it’s time to make the trip to that archive if at all possible, or you may need to contract a professional researcher to find the documents.

Image from Office Clip Art

  • A physical description of him/her: height, weight, distinguishing marks (eg tattoos), eye and hair colour, compelexion.
  • The ship on which he/she immigrated and perhaps a year.
  • Past convictions.
  • Behaviour in prison (if those records survive)
  • Release from gaol.

In short you have a good opportunity to learn more about them especially if you don’t have a photo in your collection.  Last week in Melbourne, prison records confirmed that my husband’s ancestor, Biddy McKenna was definitely the Biddy Gallagher who arrived as an Irish Famine Orphan. I had known a Bridget Gallagher was married to William McKenna and this was one of my husband’s ancestral lines. What I wasn’t absolutely certain of, was whether this was the same woman who’d arrived on the Lady Kennaway. Because the gaol admission records provided this information, the query was resolved entirely. We also know she’d had prior convictions for vagrancy even quite close to when one of her children was born. There are also detailed descriptions of her appearance on each admission so, lacking a photo, we can now form some picture of her. So these gaol records have provided us with a great deal of information about the sad life of this woman….and by inference the equally difficult life of her husband and children.

I have also used these records for one of my own lines though with rather less effect simply because I already had photos and knew what he looked like. His offence was what we’d now call white collar crime and he seems to have kept a low profile in jail.

In short, gaol records can illuminate your family story, provide physical details of an ancestor and provide answers to genealogical questions.  If you have an ancestor with any sort of criminal history they are well worth exploring and don’t forget to follow the trail through all possible documents.

I apologise that this week’s post is late due to family commitments last week.