Monday 21 March 2016

How do you feel about your criminal ancestors?

Have you discovered some of your ancestors were on the wrong side of the law? If so, a Dublin-based PhD student would like to know how you feel about that discovery. The reason for your family's brush with the criminal justice system doesn't matter – it could be non-payment of a dog licence, squabbling with the neighbours, politically-motivated involvements or for acts more likely of hardened or violent criminals.

As part of the Digital Panopticon project, Aoife O Connor wants to hear from family historians across the globe who have found ancestors who were connected to a crime and is conducting short anonymous online surveys at to explore our response to the discovery.

Says Aoife: "The digitisation of the records of the criminal justice system and newspapers are bringing to light a side of our ancestors that may have previously been kept secret.

"The documents which record their crimes often have amazingly rich details not found in birth, marriage, or even census records. From prison registers we can get physical descriptions of someone who lived long before the invention of photography; we can learn their height, weight, eye and hair colour, and whether they had any distinguishing scars or features such as tattoos. From newspaper accounts of trials, we can hear their voices as they give evidence.

"But how do we feel when we come across an ancestor who broke the law?  And how do they shape how we view our family’s history? Is a criminal ancestor someone to be ashamed of, to celebrate, or part of a larger story?  What do their crimes, and the punishments they received tell us about them as people, and about the time and society they lived in?  You can help provide the answers."

Aoife is studying for her PhD part-time with the University of Sheffield. Her own family history includes one ancestor aged 18 imprisoned in 1821 for thirteen days on suspicion of stealing a frame saw (the same ancestor was also fined for excise duty evasion to the tune of £12 10 shillings in 1838), and another who was fined two shillings at the Petty Sessions Court on 24 December 1855 for driving a horse and cart with no reins.