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Assize Records (Crime, Criminals & Courts)

Nature of Source

Records of criminal and civil cases tried before professional judges held twice yearly in each county. The Courts Act of 1971 replaced the Assizes with Crown Courts, although in Liverpool and Manchester the Assizes closed down in 1956.

Cases heard at the Assizes included serious offences such as treason, riot, murder and burglary with violence which together were referred to as felonies. These more serious crimes requiring an indictment were heard before a jury and judge at the Assizes or at one of the higher courts. Those found guilty of a felony were liable to forfeit their property and personal possessions or could be sentenced to the death penalty or transportation to a penal colony overseas. Less serious or summary cases known as misdemeanours were heard in one of the lower courts such as the Quarter Sessions by a magistrate only. The Criminal Law Act of 1967 covering England and Wales abolished the distinction between a misdemeanour and a felony.

Each county formed part of an assize circuit and by the 19th century, England comprised of six circuits: North, Midland, Oxford, West, Norfolk, Home. Under the Judicature Act of 1875, England and Wales were reorganised into the following circuits: Northern, North-Eastern, Midland, Wales and Chester, Western, South-Eastern. As the records are arranged by Assize circuit and then by type, it is important to know the circuit a county belonged to. The county coverage for the pre-1875 circuits can be found here and for the current circuits, here.

The counties of Chester, Durham and Lancaster, collectively known as county palatines, operated under separate jurisdiction. During the 19th century these Palatinate courts were integrated into the established assizes. Before 1834, sessions in London and Middlesex were heard before the Lord Mayor so records can be found at the London Metropolitan Archives which also holds the records formerly held by the Corporation of London Record Office. From 1834 the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey served as the assize court for London. Bristol also operated under separate jurisdiction up to 1832 and these court records can be found at the Bristol Record Office. Thereafter the records are held at The National Archives. Up to 1830 Assize session papers from the Court of Great Sessions are held at the National Library of Wales and thereafter at The National Archives.

The court papers were written in Latin before 1733 with most records surviving from about 1559. Before Assizes, cases were heard at the General Eyre. A County Court is the modern equivalent of an Assize.

Begin a search with minute books but also look for indictments, agenda books and depositions (witness statements). Depositions (sometimes referred to as session papers) were pre-trial accounts by witnesses of the facts of details of a matter, sworn on oath or by affirmation. A person giving the statement is known as a deponent. The deposition should provide the deponent's name, address, age and occupation and other personal information. The sheriffs' assize vouchers in series E 389/241 contain calendars of prisoners. Assize vouchers list those sentenced at assizes. Roman Catholics often appear in the records on more serious charges.

A small selection of published records of civil and criminal trials can be found in law reports which provide reference points for the legal profession. The 'All England Law Reports' published commercially by LexisNexis Butterworths contain court reports dating back to 1936 with a further series covering 1861 to 1935. The company also produces the 'All England Law Reports Reprint' which includes key cases from 1558 to 1936. The publication 'All England Law Reports Consolidated Tables and Index 1936-2009' provides a finding aid to individual cases. Another collection of reports can be found in 'The English Reports' containing judgments compiled privately of the English Courts reported between 1220 and 1873. The collections consists of 178 volumes including two volumes of indexes. Along with the print set the reports are available online by specialist legal databases such as Justis, HeinOnline and Westlaw.

In 1865 a new body was established called the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting who began publishing The Law Reports which aimed to provide the legal profession with an authoritative record of court cases. These semi-official reports replaced and absorbed the private reports.

Many civil and criminal trials covering courts in the UK and Ireland were recorded as pamphlets and offered for sale to the general public. A collection of these is contained in 'British Trials 1660-1900' (published by Chadwyck-Healey) and indexed by defendant, plaintiff and victim. The microfiche collection is available at The National Archives and some reference libraries.

The court order of precedence, in descending order, for dealing with the majority of cases is as follows:

Lower Courts
Petty Sessions/Magistrates Courts
Quarter Sessions/Crown Courts
Assizes/Crown Courts
Higher/Senior Courts
High Court of Justice (Including the King's Bench/Queen's Bench, Chancery Division and the Family Division)
Crown Court
Court of Appeal

Those appearing in court included the following groups of people:

Plaintiff
A plaintiff is the person who brings a legal action and could appear in the following documents: Charge/Summons/Indictment form (the formal accusation against a person that an offence has been committed); Minute Books (sometimes referred to as crown books or gaol books); Calendars of Prisoners & Criminal Registers (only applicable to those tried by jury); Pleadings (statements made by both parties setting out the claim/defence of parties involved in civil proceedings)

Defendant/Respondent
The defendant is the person being sued, standing trial or appearing for sentence and could appear in the following documents; Charge/summons/indictment form (the formal accusation against a person that an offence has been committed); Pleadings (statements made by both parties setting out the claim/defence of parties involved in civil proceedings); Minute Books (sometimes referred to as crown books or gaol books); Newspaper reports and other printed books and pamphlets, some of which have been republished for example by Chadwyck-Healy; Calendars of Prisoners & Criminal Registers (only applicable to those tried by jury); Court orders for imprisonment or transfers from prison to prison; Prison Registers (Records of those incarcerated awaiting trial or sentenced to prison; Registers of Habitual Criminals (Registers compiled by prison authorities naming locals deemed likely to re-offend having been released from prison); Transportation records; Criminal Petitions (petitions made by convicted persons seeking the revocation or reduction of their sentences); Applications for clemency (mainly relates to those sentenced to death or transportation); Licence Registers/'tickets of leave' (Records of licences issued to criminals in prison released on grounds of good behaviour before the end of sentence)

Also see
Calendars of Prisoners
Criminal Petitions
Criminal Registers
General Eyre
License Registers/'tickets of leave'
Petty Sessions
Prison/Hulk/Gaol Registers
Registers of Habitual Criminals
Transported Convicts

Where Found

The National Archives (Series ASSI, Records of Justices of Assize, Gaol Delivery, Oyer and Terminer, and Nisi Prius; DURH, Records of the Palatinate of Durham; CHES, Records of the courts of the Palatinate of Chester, including the county of Flint; PL, Records of the Palatinate of Lancaster; PCOM 1, HO 16 and CRIM, Records of the Central Criminal Court including Old Bailey records and depositions)
London Metropolitan Archives (London and Middlesex session records before 1834 including copies of TNA series PCOM 1, HO 16 and CRIM)
Society of Genealogists (The unique collection of records in the Society of Genealogists’ library holds considerable information about crime in books, records and pamphlets. The SoG’s regional resources contain records that relate directly to criminal ancestors, such as calendars of prisoners, microfiche copies of summary convictions and other court records)
Bristol Record Office (Court session records before 1832)
National Library of Wales (Welsh Assizes or Great Sessions to 1830)

Period Covered

1348 - 1971

Genealogical Value

Name, address and occupation of defendant and plaintiff. Family relationships may be cited.

Further References

Assize Related  
Cockburn, James Swanton. A History of English Assizes 1558 -1714: Cambridge University Press, 2008 (Preview available from Google Books)  
Cockburn, James Swanton. Calendar of Assize Records (Volumes cover the Home Circuit as well as the Kent, Sussex, Hertfordshire, Essex, Surrey and Somerset circuits. Preview of the Kent Indictments available from Google Books. Other digitised Assize records can be found at the Internet Archive)  
Johnson, Douglas. Staffordshire Assize Calendars 1842-1843: Staffordshire Record Society, 1992 Buy Now on Amazon
Jeaffreson, John Cordy (ed). Middlesex County Records. 4 Vols: Greater London Council, 1972 (1886) (Volumes available to download and view at the Internet Archive or at British History Online)  
Crime General  

Bard, Robert. Tyburn: The Story of London's Gallows: Amberley Publishing, 2012

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Bard, Robert. Death in London: Places of Execution, Then and Now: Historical Publications, 2007 Buy Now on Amazon

Bevan, Amanda. Tracing Your Ancestors in the National Archives: The National Archives, 2006

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Brandon, David & Brooke. Alan. London West End 1800-1850 Murders And Misdemeanours: Amberley Publishing, 2009

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Brandon, David & Brooke. Alan. Olde London Punishments: The History Press (30 April 2010 Buy Now on Amazon

Cale, Michelle. Law and Society: An introduction to sources for criminal and legal history from 1800: PRO Publications, 1996

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Campbell, Charles. The Intolerable Hulks: British Shipboard Confinement 1776-1857 Fenestra Books, 2001

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Decharne, Max. Capital Crimes : Seven Centuries of London Life and Murder: Arrow Books, 2013

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Emsley, Clive. Crime and Society in England: 1750-1900: Routledge, 2010 Buy Now on Amazon
Emsley, Clive. Crime and Society in Twentieth Century England: Routledge, 2011 Buy Now on Amazon

Gilfillan, Ross. Crime and Punishment in Victorian London: A Street-Level View of the City's Underworld: Pen & Sword Books, 2014

Gray, Adrian. Crime and Criminals of Victorian England: The History Press, 2011

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Hall, Malcolm. Gloucestershire Murders and Misdemeanours 1820-1829: Amberley Publishing, 2008

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Hawkings, David. Criminal Ancestors: A Guide to Historical Criminal Records in England & Wales: The History Press, 2009

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Hawkings, David. Bound for Australia: A Guide to the Records of Transported Convicts and Early Settlers: The History Press, 2012

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Herber, Mark. Criminal London: A Pictorial History from Medieval Times to 1939: Phillimore & Co, 2002

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Higgs, Michelle. Prison Life in Victorian England: The History Press, 2007

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Hitchcock, Tim & Shoemaker, Bob. Tales from the Hanging Court: Hodder Arnold, 2006

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Howse, Geoffrey. A History of London's Prisons: Wharncliffe True Crime, 2012

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Jack, Elizabeth. A Victorian Prisoners of Gloucester Gaol: A Rogues' Gallery: The History Press, 2009

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Knapp, Andrew & Baldwin, William. The Newgate Calendar: London, 1828 (Available from: Google Books)

 

Marson, Edward. Prison: Five Hundred Years of Life Behind Bars: The National Archives, 2009  Buy Now on Amazon

May, Trevor. Victorian and Edwardian Prisons: Shire, 2008

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Oates, Dr Jonathan. Tracing Villains and Their Victims: A Guide for Family Historians: Pen and Sword Books, 2017
Paley, Ruth & Fowler, Simon. Family Skeletons: Exploring The Lives of our Disreputable Ancestors: The National Archives, 2005  Buy Now on Amazon
Reake, Janet. How to Trace Your Convict Ancestors: Their Lives, Times and Records: Hale & Iremonger, 1999 Buy Now on Amazon

Stevens, Mark. Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum: Pen and Sword Books, 2013

Storey, Neil. The Victorian Criminal: Shire Publications, 2011

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Wade, Stephen. Tracing Your Criminal Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians: Pen & Sword Books, 2009

Wade, Stephen. Tyranny and the Lash : Prisoners & Punishment in British History: Robert Hale Publishers, 2011

Buy Now on Amazon

Watson, Katherine. Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and their Victims: Hambledon Continuum, 2006

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Woolf, Alex. Past In Pictures : A Photographic View of Crime and Punishment: Wayland Publishers, 2013

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TNA Research Guides:
Civil trials in the English assize courts 1656-1971
Criminal and civil trials in the Welsh assize courts 1831-1971
Criminal trials in the assize courts 1559-1971
Criminal trials in the English assize courts 1559-1971

Websites

www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/looking-for-person/criminal-trial-or-conviction.htm?WT.lp=rg-3111 (TNA Guide: Looking for records of a criminal trial or conviction)
www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/catalogue/RdLeaflet.asp?sLeafletID=156 (County by county coverage of Assize records held at TNA with series references and date coverage)
www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/looking-for-subject/crime-and-punishment.htm
(TNA Guide: Looking for records of crime and punishment)
www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/looking-for-person%5Cdefault.htm (TNA Guide: Criminals, bankrupts and litigants)
www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/looking-for-subject/crime-and-punishment.htm?WT.lp=rg-3082 (TNA Guide: Looking for records of crime and punishment)
www.sog.org.uk/learn/help-getting-started-with-genealogy/guide-7-criminal-records (Society of Genealogists: Guide Seven: Criminal Records: Finding criminal ancestors)
www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/laworder/court/overview/assizes (Parliament: Law and Order: The Assizes)
www.familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Assize_Court_Records (Research Wiki: Assize Court Records)
www.wolverhamptonhistory.org.uk/politics/law/courts (Guide to the Assizes, Quarter Sessions and Petty Sessions from the Wolverhampton Archives & Local Studies)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assizes_(England_and_Wales) (Assizes entry from Wikipedia)
www.londonlives.org/static/Crime.jsp
(Researching Crime)
www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/victorians/crime/crimepunishment.html (British Library Learning, Victorians: Crime including Victorian Prisons and Executions and Transportations)
www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Linked-records.jsp (Guide and links relating to records and sources for researching criminal cases)
www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Crime.jsp (The Historical Background to the Proceedings of the Old Bailey: Includes a glossary of judicial terms, explanations of types and categories of indictable offences, trial procedures, verdicts, punishments and other topics)
www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/guildhall-library/family-history/Pages/Sources-for-tracing-London-criminals.aspx (Guildhall Library: Sources for Tracing London Criminals including Old Bailey Sessions Papers, Accounts of the Ordinary of Newgate, the British Trials microfiche and the Criminal Register Indexes)
www.southwalespolicemuseum.org.uk/en/content/cms/visit_the_archives/the_glamorgan_const/the_glamorgan_const.aspx (The Glamorgan Constabulary and Assize Duty)
www.cyndislist.com/prisons.htm (Links to relevant sources and resources)
http://vcp.e2bn.org (Victorian Crime and Punishment resources for crime and punishment in the 19th Century)
www.exclassics.com/newgate/ngintro.htm (Free download of the Newgate Calendar based chiefly on the Navarre Society 1926 edition)
http://blacksheepancestors.com/uk/prisons.shtml (Prisons, Prisoners & Convicts in the United Kingdom)
http://blacksheepancestors.com (Links to UK, US & Canadian criminal resources)
www.victorianweb.org/history/crime (Crime related essays covering Victorian England)
www.genuki.org.uk (Information covering UK & Ireland including mugshots & prisoner lists)
www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/index.html (Capital Punishment U.K.)
www.nas.gov.uk/guides/crime.asp (Research Guide Crime and Criminals)
www.londonancestor.com (Descriptions of London places and buildings including prisons)
www.hrionline.ac.uk/normans/sources.shtml (Lands of the Normans in England, 1204-1244: The historical sources. Guide to sources in The National Archives including Charter Rolls (C 53), Patent Rolls (C 66), Close Rolls (C 54), Fine rolls (C 60), Pipe rolls (E 372), Duplicate Chancellor's rolls (E 352), records of the General Eyre and commissions of assize and gaol delivery (JUST 1), Final concords or Feet of Fines (CP 21/1)

Online Databases

Some cases published or indexed at a local level.
British History Online (The site consists of a digital library of British historical sources developed by Institute of Historical Research and the History of Parliament Trust. The site is free to use with a search facility linking users to full transcripts of various sources)
Gloucestershire Archives' Genealogical Database (Gloucestershire gaol calendars, 1815-1879)
www.ancestry.co.uk (Gloucestershire, England, Prison Records, 1728-1914)
TNA Online Collections (Victorian prisoners' photograph albums 1872-1873. TNA Online Collections is produced by The National Archives and contains online access to indexes, transcriptions and digital images of some of the TNA's most important holdings. Searches are free but a fee is levied for each downloaded item. However downloads are free if used at TNA or the Society of Genealogists)
www.oldbaileyonline.org (Old Bailey Proceedings Online: Online edition of the Old Bailey Proceedings containing accounts and calendars of trials held at London's central criminal court, equivalent to the assizes. Expect to find the names, address and occupations of the accused, the victims and witnesses as well as the names of judges and jurors. These are accounts of the trials written by journalists and are not public records. The contents of Old Bailey Online can also be searched at Connected Histories together with a number of other databases)
www.thegenealogist.co.uk (Court and Criminal Records. Criminal records covering indictable offences in England and Wales between 1782 and 1892 taken from TNA series HO 27, Criminal Registers, England and Wales; HO 13, Criminal Entry Books Lists of pardons; HO 20/13, Prisons Correspondence and Papers including Bethlehem Hospital; CRIM 1, Central Criminal Court Depositions)
www.ancestry.co.uk
(UK, Police Gazettes, 1812-1902, 1921-1927. This collection contains printed publications used for communication between members of the police force in the United Kingdom between 1812 and 1927, with gaps in coverage. It contains information on wanted criminals, crimes committed, criminals who had been apprehended, and missing persons)
www.findmypast.co.uk (England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935. Were your ancestors in trouble with the law? Follow them through over 3 million records of criminals who passed through the justice system in England and Wales between 1779 and 1935. For updates and other resources see Crime, Prisons and Punishment. These record sets are produced in association with the National Archives and include: Registers of Convicts in Prison Hulks, Ref: ADM 6; After-Trial Calendars of Prisoners, Ref: CRIM 9; Convicts, Miscellanea, Ref: HO 7; Convict Hulks, Convict Prisons and Criminal Lunatic Asylums: Quarterly Returns of Prisoners 1824-1876, Ref: HO 8; Criminal Entry Books 1782-1871, Ref: HO 13; Criminal Petitions Series I, Ref: HO 17; Criminal Petitions Series II, Ref: HO 18; Register of Criminal Petitions, Ref: HO 19; Registers of Prisoners from National Prisons lodged in County Prisons 1847-1866, Ref: HO 23; Prison Registers and Statistical Returns 1838-1875, Ref: HO 24; Judges’ Reports on Criminals 1784-1830, Ref: HO 47; Criminal Registers, Middlesex, Ref: HO 26; Criminal Registers, England and Wales, Ref: HO 27; Newgate Prison Calendar 1782-1853, Ref: HO 77; Miscellaneous Criminal Books 1798-1831, Ref: HO 130; Calendar of Prisoners, Ref: HO 140; Habitual Criminals' Registers and Miscellaneous Papers, Ref: MEPO 6; Prison Records, Ref: PCOM 2; Male Licences 1853-1887, Ref: PCOM 3; Female Licences, Ref: PCOM 4; Old Captions and Transfer Papers 1843-1871, Ref: PCOM 5 Convict Hulks 1802-1831, T 38/310-338; Treasury: Departmental Accounts, Convict Hulks, Ref: T 38)
www.findmypast.co.uk
(Hue & Cry Index 1797-1810. Index of published notices of wanted criminals and the offences they committed. This index includes information on many who were sentenced to transportation in the Australian colonies)
www.findmypast.co.uk
(London Lives, Culture & Society 1680-1817. London Lives chronicles the lives of Londoners through the exploration of a variety of sources including criminal registers, session papers, ordinary’s accounts from Old Bailey, apprentice records, coroner inquests, workhouse minutes, Register of admissions to workhouse, clerks’ papers, Churchwarden's account books, Vestry minute books/vestry minutes, Register of removal orders, Pauper examination books/examination books, bastardy bonds and much more)
www.findmypast.co.uk (Middlesex, London, Old Bailey Court Records 1674-1913. Explore over 782,000 court records from London's Old Baily/Central Criminal Court, the central criminal court of England & Wales. The collection is composed of both transcripts and links to images of the original documents)
www.londonlives.org (London Lives: Old Bailey Proceedings, Old Bailey Sessions and other court session papers)
www.manchester-family-history-research.co.uk/new_page_18.htm (Manchester And Lancashire strays in Millbank Prison)
http://vcp.e2bn.org (Prisoner records 1799-1898)
www.llgc.org.uk/sesiwn_fawr/index_s.htm (Index to the Gaol Files of the Court of Great Sessions in Wales, 1730-1830. The database contains information on criminals and their crimes and punishments as well as details on the victims. Records from less serious crimes heard at Quarter Sessions are held at county record offices and can be searched at Archives Wales. Monmouthshire formed part of the Oxford circuit and are available from The National Archives at Kew)
https://familysearch.org (Wales, Court and Miscellaneous Records, 1542-1911. This collection contains browsable images of Court Records and Marriage Bonds from the National Library of Wales. Records include Consistory Court papers, Court records-Crown Books, Court records-gaol files, Marriage bonds and Memoranda of the Great Sessions)
www.fhindexes.co.uk (Family History Indexes: Criminal Register Index)
www.british-history.ac.uk/catalogue.aspx?gid=114&type=2 (Middlesex Quarter Session transcripts, edited by William Le Hardy and John Jeaffreson)
www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=38828 (Online Hackney Petty Sessions Book 1730-1753, with index)
http://blacksheepancestors.com/uk (Online prisoner & execution lists)
www.nas.gov.uk/guides/highCourt.asp (Online access to catalogued and indexed criminal trials held in the High Court of Justiciary, 1800-1930)
www.staffsnameindexes.org.uk (Calendars of Prisoners at Staffordshire Quarter Sessions, 1779-1880)
www.yorkcastleprison.org.uk/family-history.html (Database of almost 5000 convicted criminals imprisoned York Castle Prison 1700s. Includes transported criminals, Criminals executed and debtors who pleaded insolvency)
www.yorkfamilyhistory.org.uk/assizes.htm (An index of prisoners brought to trial at York Assizes, 1785-1851)
http://genuki.cs.ncl.ac.uk/DEV/Exeter/Police1/index.html (City of Exeter Police Charge Book, Sep 1847-21 Feb 1849; transcribed by Brian Brassett)
http://johnjohnson.chadwyck.co.uk/marketing.do (John Johnson Collection: An Archive of  Printed Ephemera: The collection provides access to scanned items from the Bodleian Library's holdings documenting various aspects of everyday life in Britain from the 18th to the early 20th century including posters and handbills for theatrical and non-theatrical entertainments, broadsides relating to murders and executions, book and journal prospectuses, popular topographical prints. The contents of John Johnson Collection can also be searched at Connected Histories together with a number of other databases)
http://digital.nls.uk/broadsides (National Library of Scotland Digital Gallery: The Word On The Street: Online collection of nearly 1,800 Scottish broadsides between 1650 and 1910)
http://broadsides.law.harvard.edu (Online collection of more than 500 broadsides)
www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/ballads/ballads.htm (Online collection of 30,000 broadside ballads)
www.ancestry.co.uk
(Dorset Records: Jury Lists, 1825-1921)

CD Roms

Archive CD Books (Newgate Calendar)
www.fhindexes.co.uk
(Family History Indexes: Criminal Register Index)