West Suffolk Gaol Books and ‘Wanted’ Books

‘A criminal in my family – never’ is what you hear so many people say. Me, I’m inwardly shouting ‘hurrah’ and celebrating the fact.  Why? Depending on what records have survived you don’t just end up with a family tree full of just names and dates but you are able to literally put flesh on the bones with a physical description of them and from c.1870 a photo of them as well.

At Bury St Edmunds Record Office, we have gaol books for Bury Gaol for the period 1844 – 1878 (BA500/D/4/3) and a volume of ‘wanted’ persons details for the period 1900 – 1910 from all over the country not just Suffolk with several records including photographs (ED500/D4/1). Both sets of records give detail of the person’s name, last residence, place of birth, occupation, age and description – including height, colour of hair and eyes, complexion and any distinguishing features ie scars, tattoos, birthmarks etc., and offence committed. However, the gaol books also give details of the prisoner’s father’s name, occupation and residence as well as the prisoner’s marital status, number of children, whether the prisoner went to school and could read and write and military service.

Whilst the ‘wanted’ book might not give this information there is a section on each page for comments which can be very illuminating. As a result I find the ‘wanted’ book a far more interesting read.  In it we have deserters from the army, a former rector of Hessett charged with sacrilege and stealing two cases from the alms boxes of churches, a bigamist, a police constable wanted for stealing £8 17s 10d from the Standing Joint Committee of the County Salop and a blacksmith wanted for stealing 1000 bananas and notes of the modus operandi of a number of the men.  Along with the general occupations that you’d expect to find there is one person who is described as an acrobat and contortionist and another as an actress.  There’s a Mr Kitcatt and people born in Russia, Germany, USA, New Zealand, Switzerland, Australia, Hungary as well as closer to home; Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich, Diss, Cambridge and Norwich.  As you might expect some photos show people who look as though they couldn’t possibly have committed any offence whilst others look like your stereotypical villain.

Jane Ingle

Searchroom Assistant

Bury St. Edmunds Record Office