We tend to assume that our ancestors lived trouble-free lives, but this was not always the case. In fact, after digging a little deeper, many of us will discover an ancestor who had a brush with the law. The good news for us is that if they were convicted of a crime, they just became a whole lot easier to trace! Detailed records on prisoners were often kept by the authorities, including a physical description of the prisoner.

Let’s take a look at what records are available for Victoria.

Nettleton, Charles photographer. Power the Bushranger. 1870. H96.160/1578

Prison registers

If you think your ancestor had a criminal record in Victoria, the Register of male and female prisoners (1855-1947) on the Public Record Office Victoria’s website is a great resource to check. The online registers include information on male and female prisoners who were held in Melbourne prisons and female prisoners held in regional prisons. Other regional prison registers can be found by searching the Public Record Office Victoria’s website for the name of the prison, browsing through the record lists and looking for a title called ‘Register of Prisoner’s Received’ in the correct date range.

Prison records can be incredibly detailed and include details such as the prisoner’s name, number, aliases, personal description, where they were tried, offences, sentences and behaviour. From around 1870, prisoners who were given a sentence of more than 6 months had their photograph included in the register.

Collins, John T., Coburg Pentridge Gaol. 1964. This work is in copyright. H94.200/955

Court records

Court records can contain information on the accused, the offence, names of witnesses, the verdict and sentence information. A selection of historical court records or indexes are available to view online:

Findmypast – Victorian Petty Session Registers 1854 – 1985
The Court of Petty Session records include details on minor criminal cases, such as drunkenness, traffic offences and theft. These registers can be searched and viewed on the Findmypast website (available for free in the Library building).

Ancestry – Selected Trial Brief and Correspondence Registers and Other Images, 1837-1993
In this collection you can find the following records for a selection of years:

  • Criminal Trial Brief Registers and Records
  • Supreme Court Action Cause Index
  • Castlemaine Prison Police Magistrate’s Register
  • Crown Prosecutor Unregistered Correspondence
  • Bourke Court Of Petty Sessions Deposition Book
  • Richmond Courts Watchhouse Charge Book
  • Gisborne Police Station Letter and Report Book

Although these records have not been indexed they can be browsed through the Ancestry website (available for free in the Library building).

Public Record Office Victoria (PROV)
The Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) hold an extensive collection of court records. Some of these records have been digitised or indexed and can be accessed through the PROV website.
Digitised records include:

For more information and links to their collection, please see PROV’s Justice, Crime and Law research page.

Victorian Genealogy website
This website is a fantastic guide to Victorian genealogy resources. On their Court records page you can find links to a range of indexed and digitised Victorian court records. It is a great starting point for anyone researching historical Victorian court records.

Victorian Police Gazettes

The Victorian Police Gazette began in December 1853 and was originally for police eyes only. The issues contain an incredible amount of detail, including some rather unflattering (and sometimes flattering) physical descriptions of people. You can find information on missing persons, inquests, crimes and criminals, police appointments, prisoners discharged, deserters, rewards, ticket of leave and more. For more information on accessing the Gazettes, see our blog on Using the Victorian Police Gazette to research your ancestors.

The Victorian Police, 1889. IAN06/11/80/196c

Newspapers

Trove’s digitised newspaper database is a fantastic resource for researching criminal activity in Australia. Searching across hundreds of historical Australian newspapers, you can find articles about crimes, court cases and convictions. Try searching for your ancestor’s name to see if an article comes up. Adding in the location that they lived or the keyword ‘court’ or ‘charged’ can help narrow down results to criminal activities. For example, the search “Louis J Moore” charged brought up the following article in Trove.

A stolen book. The Age, 5 August 1922, p.15.

Other records

Victorian Sheriff’s Office warrants

The State Library holds a collection of Victorian Sherriff’s Office warrants predominantly from 1842 to 1933 and a small range of earlier and later years. Information contained in these warrants can include – the name of the person, their occupation, origin, date of the warrant and further comments. A index of warrants between the years 1842-1869 and small range of other years is available to view on the Library’s online research guide.

Helen Doxford Harris’ historical indexes (Police correspondence files)

This website includes a selection of indexed Police correspondence files from the Public Record Office Victoria’s collection. You can find information on crimes, criminals, missing persons and wife and child deserters.

Archival Access – Register of Juvenile Offenders 1893-1925

Indexed from the Public Record Office Victoria collection, you can search for the names of juvenile offenders between the years 1893-1925. The full records are held at the Public Record Office Victoria.

Prosecution project (Griffith University)

This website allows you to search historic Supreme Court records across Australia as well as a selection of other crime related material. The following Victorian records are included:

  • Victoria Supreme Court – person’s tried 1841 – 1943
  • Victoria Police Gazette – person’s discharged from prison 1857 -1906
  • Victorian female prisoners – person’s in prison 1855-1934

More to explore:

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