Oct 25, 2015

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Week 42 Gaol and Prison Records in 52 Weeks of Genealogical Records in 2015

This personal genealogy blog challenge is to stimulate my own genealogy blogging efforts in 2014 – 2015 by focusing on a different kind of genealogical record each week. I wanted a challenge that reflected my own archival background as well as my own genealogy interests and there are probably lots of other records that I could have included. The challenge has an Australian focus but most of these records will be found just about anywhere in the genealogy world.

The 52 different types of genealogical records I finally decided on are listed in no particular order (each week will be a random surprise). Originally I planned to do this over 52 weeks in 2014 but soon realised that I have to factor in travel and illness so it is continuing into 2015 from Week 26.

Anyone is welcome to do all or part of this blogging challenge.  Let me know if you are participating and I will put a link to your post under each week’s challenge.

Links to Weeks 1-25 are here. Week 26 School Records Week 27 Census Records Week 28 Tombstones Week 29 Military Records Week 30 Postcards Week 31 Photographs Week 32 Asylum Records Week 33 Church Records Week 34 Maps Week 35 Sporting Records Week 36 Hospital Records Week 37 Military Histories and Unit War Diaries, Week 38 Trade Union Records Week 39 Old Age Pension Records Week 40 Company Records  Week 41 Convict Records

Week 42 Gaol and Prison Records

These are very similar to last week’s convict records but these records are where someone commits an offence here in Australia and receives a gaol or prison sentence. Quite a few of my ancestors went to gaol for a variety of crimes. Some were convicted and did hard labour while others were acquitted at trial either found not guilty or there was a lack of evidence to convict. However records were still created in the court and prison systems so I have information about them that I would not have had if they led quiet, unexciting lives.

Anyone who has heard my talks over the years will know that I have quite a few ancestors who spent time behind bars so it is hard to decide who to feature this week.  A favourite is my Irish ancestor John Finn who was charged with alleged arson but he was eventually found not guilty. But because he was charged, I have reference to him in police reports, court records, prison records (while he was awaiting trial) and perhaps more spectacularly in newspaper reports of the trial.

Hampstead St house sketch 1903On 31 August 1903 John Finn was arrested and charged with wilfully and unlawfully setting fire to a dwelling house in Hampstead Street, Woolloongabba on Sunday morning 30 August. He was remanded in H.M. Prison, Brisbane until 8 September. The prison record gives a very detailed description of John at this time.  He was 52 years old, a labourer, Roman Catholic, 5 feet 7 1/2 inches tall, of proportionate build, sallow complexion, hair greying, eyes blue, weight 10 stone 12 pounds and he could read and write.

As there is no surviving photograph of John this physical description was fantastic as it gave me a rough idea of what he looked like. The prison record also showed that he walked lame, as his right leg had been broken previously. John had described this injury in his letters to the Lands Department in 1890 and the prison record shows the lasting impact it had on his life. I wrote about this in Week 6 Land Records in this personal genealogy blog challenge.

The record also tells how his left thumb was deformed, his nose sharp with a red mole under the left nostril and finally a mole on his left ribcage. Details like this don’t appear in a photograph even if one should turn up one day.

When John appeared before the South Brisbane Police Court on Tuesday 8 September 1903 evidence was heard from Constables Colman and Martin, Emily Corrie, Mary Nolan and Mary Finn. The latter was John’s daughter and my great grandmother. John was again remanded in custody until Monday 14 September when further evidence was heard. After the presentation of all evidence the case against John was dismissed.Mary Finn sketch 1903

John Finn sketch 1903The Brisbane Courier  reported on the case with just a broad outline of the trial sittings but you should never just look in one newspaper. The Brisbane Truth took a much bigger interest in the trial and devoted a whole page to the story including three fantastic sketches of John Finn, Mary Finn and the house the family were living in and that he allegedly burnt down.  This was a fantastic discovery and I would not have these images if John had not been accused of arson.

Gaol and prison records, police and court records can all be found in the state archives and look for any brief guides or fact sheets that explain how to search these records. Trove‘s digitised newspapers might be the first place that you get a clue to any criminal activity in the family’s past.

My family history is ever so much more interesting  because my ancestors had brushes with the law. I know so much more about some of them as a result and I am fortunate that most of the crimes were not too serious. Although I will admit to being a bit shocked here and there but I am still glad that I looked into prison records. All those people in prison are somebody’s ancestors or relatives, have you looked yet?



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