Criminal petitions

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 4, Key stage 5

Time period: Empire and Industry 1750-1850, Victorians 1850-1901

Curriculum topics: Political and social reform, Victorians

Suggested inquiry questions: What was a criminal petition and its purpose? What was the role of a petition in the judicial system? What do these documents reveal about the treatment of criminals in the nineteenth century?

Potential activities: Students design their own advice leaflet for treatment of prisoners from the perspective of prisoner reformer in Victorian times.

What do they reveal about the justice system?

In this lesson you will explore some original nineteenth century criminal petitions held by The National Archives.

Petitions are formal written requests made to an authority such as a monarch or government department. Petitioning was a long-established right to appeal to a higher authority to ask for a favour or correct an injustice.

Petitions could be made by anyone in society, but they were usually written by people who were less powerful or wealthy than those they petitioned. Despite their humble position, by asking for help, petitioners offered their obedience in exchange for valuable assistance from the monarch or government. Those who received petitions were obliged to listen and to respond. However, the outcome of the petition was not always successful.

Although criminal petitions are usually about one individual they also are useful case studies to learn about wider changes in attitudes towards crime and punishment.


Look at Source 1.

This is a petition written by group of people on behalf of Catherine Gillis who was convicted of manslaughter in 1845, Catalogue ref: HO18/149/40

[Note: Not all the signatories are shown here.]

  • Catherine Gillis was convicted for manslaughter. Why has this petition been made on her behalf?
  • Why is this petition addressed to the Queen and not the Home Secretary?
  • What factors of Catherine Gillis’ circumstances and past conduct were used to build support for her case?
  • Why have her supporters objected to the sentence of transportation?
  • Why was it important for people to sign their names and address at the bottom of a petition?
  • How could the inclusion of the signatures from prosecution witnesses be seen to add support to this petition? [Clue: check meaning of prosecution and defence witnesses in a criminal trial]

Look at Source 2(a).

This is a petitioning letter written on behalf of Robert Brown by his former master to the Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, 30 July 1838. Robert Brown was a Jamaican boy convicted of stealing two pairs of sailor’s trousers and sentenced to two months imprisonment, Catalogue ref: HO 17/121/54

  • Why was Robert Brown sent to prison two times?
  • Robert Brown does not write his own petition. How difficult is it to know the possible reasons why he stole?
  • How does Robert’s master explain Browns’ actions and change in behaviour?
  • How does the wealth and status of the author of this petition affect the style of the request?
  • Do you think a petition from Robert Brown himself would be more/less effective?
  • What does this petition reveal about the judicial system?

Look at Source 2(b).

A letter of response by the committing magistrate, William Ballantine at the Thames Police Office about Robert Brown to the Home Office, 2 August, 1838, Catalogue ref: HO 17/121/54

  • How many people were needed to approve the case of Robert Brown?
  • What does this case reveal about the opportunities and limitations within the judicial system?

Look at Source 3.

This is a personal petition written directly by the prisoner George Hey who admits being guilty of embezzlement [theft from his workplace] in 1 January, 1845, Catalogue ref: HO18/149/41

  • What is different or similar about the style and format of this personal petition compared to Sources 1 and 2 (a)?
  • George Hey admits to theft and does not ask for a pardon. What is the aim of his petition?
  • What does this source tell you about the prisoner’s views on imprisonment versus criminal transportation to Australia?
  • What do the official’s notes written on the side of the petition reveal about how the document were recorded by the Home Office?
  • How could the official’s notes be useful to a historian?
  • How important was the health of the prisoner considered? What action was taken as a result of this petition?


Petitioning has a long history dating back to the medieval period. By the nineteenth century, the volume of petitions had greatly increased. Personal petitions, those written about one individual, became the normal way ordinary people could make their voices heard. For the government, petitions could also be a useful way of understanding public opinion on social issues.

Petitions became more accessible to ordinary people due to a rise in literacy and letter writing manuals offering instructions on how to write them. For those who could not read and write they could pay to have their petition written for them.

The decision to whom to direct a petition was an important factor in making it effective. Criminal petitions were usually addressed to the Home Secretary or less commonly to the monarch. In naming the correct recipient, petitioners demonstrated their awareness of how the system worked and that they had been active in taking steps to seek advice on how to craft and submit their petition.

Petitions were written in a set way and respectful style which did not intend to question the established power structure. Those written by or for criminals to the Home Secretary rarely criticised the legal process. Instead they were used as a means to negotiate sentences. In the nineteenth century, the death penalty was often not a final sentence and petitions could help achieve lesser punishment or even pardons.

Some petitioners made their personal case more appealing by using flattering language, often asking for ‘your Lordship[‘s] great humanity’ to gain sympathy and mercy.[1]Petitioners could also make use of their gender to appeal. For example, one petitioner appealed to Queen Victoria as a mother as well as a monarch, writing ‘your Majesty knows as a wife and mother that it is hard to be separated from those we love’.[2] In a system that was discretionary, emotional appeals could sometimes act as a strategy for success.

These documents are interesting because they passed through the hands of many people in society. Each petition offers insights into the social relations of its author, the criminal him/herself or the scribe, with signatures by friends and notable people being added along its journey to show support and provide good character references for their claims. Once delivered to the Home Office via a prison or by post, these were received and read often by more than one person, evaluated and then acted upon.

The increase in petitions was related to rising levels of crime in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century. The pressures and social changes caused by industrialisation, enclosure of land and the end of the Napoleonic Wars meant that jobs were scarce, particularly in the countryside, and unemployment was high. In industrial cities, people suffered as the working conditions were poor exposing them to disease and high risks from industrial accidents. Despite these dangerous working conditions, they saw little improvement in their wages. Cities were perceived as dangerous and there was widespread popular fear that violent gangs of thieves and highwaymen roamed freely.

Petitions were a way for people to explain their actions and beg for mercy. They often did this on grounds that it was their first crime, mentioning their past respectability in society, whether they were influenced by bad company and to ask for sympathy for their young or old age.

Petitions could be submitted from anywhere in Britain and its overseas territories by men and women. Petitions were often multi-authored documents which could be given additional authority by having additional signatures from local supporters.

By the 1830s, social reform was an important issue on the public agenda. Petitions that gained signatures from sympathetic and powerful people interested in their cause, such as church minister, a local MP or magistrate was an important strategy as their position held greater influence. Additional petitions could also be written on behalf of the criminal by spouses, family and friends with no limit on how many times a person could petition.

The outcome was recorded and annotated on the petition. From the Home Office officials’ annotations, it is possible to see how they were investigated with request for prison behaviour reports, comments by the judge and references to precedents for similar cases. In the early nineteenth century, petitions were reviewed by judges which often acted as a re-trial. However, under the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, the system of recording petitions changed. Instead it became the norm for the outcome of petitions to be written directly on the petition with either a new sentence or ‘nil’, meaning no change.

Petitions are personal documents and although they are often emotional and moving accounts, they represent one version of the truth which may be an exaggeration and should be viewed with caution. However, they remain important sources for giving voices to people often forgotten in popular memory and can reveal their agency in negotiating with authorities.

[1] TNA, PC1/74, 1826.

[2] TNA, PC1/92, 1844.

Teachers' notes

This lesson contains several of sources with linked questions. You may want to split it so that students can work individually or use the sources in paired/group work.
All sources are transcribed and difficult language defined in square brackets.

General discussion points arising from these documents:

  • Different reasons for a making a petition
  • Types of judicial petition
  • The role of the individuals and the authorities in the petition process
  • Type of crimes and related punishments revealed in these documents
  • Do any of the documents reveal views on the purpose of punishment?
  • What was the purpose of transportation or prison according to these documents?
  • Do these documents reveal anything about the causes of crime in the 19th century?
  • What are the limitations of looking at this evidence to evaluate any understanding of crime and the judicial process?
  • Why does The National Archives hold these documents?

Finally, in the linked resources given in this lesson look at the lesson Queen Anne. This lesson contains an earlier very different type of non-judicial petition. Students could note similarities and differences with those shown here.


Header image: Privy Council in-letters relating to convicts and prisons, 1835, Catalogue ref: PC 1/83 (pt.1)

1. Petition on behalf of Catherine Gillis, 1845, Catalogue ref: HO18/149/40

2(a). Petitioning letter written on behalf of Robert Brown to the Home Secretary, 30th July 1838, Catalogue ref: HO 17/121/54

2(b). Letter from magistrate, William Ballantine, 2 August, 1838, Catalogue ref: HO 17/121/54

3. Personal petition written by the prisoner George Hey, 1 January, 1845, Catalogue ref: HO18/149/41



External links

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913 website containing 197,745 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court.

Tracing London Convicts in Britain & Australia, 1780-1925 website allows you to search individual convict life archives, explore and visualise data, and learn more about crime and criminal justice in the past.

Website covering the history of various Victorian Prisons, including Coldbath Fields mention in one of the petitions.

Connections to curriculum

As part of any scheme of work covering the development of crime and punishment in Britain from the medieval period right through to the 21st century for Key Stage 4

Edexcel GCSE history:

Crime and punishment in Britain, c1000–present: Nature and definition of criminal activity, law enforcement and punishment

OCR GCSE History B:

School History Project: Changes in Punishment including the growth of prisons, use and impact of transportation and prison reform

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 4, Key stage 5

Time period: Empire and Industry 1750-1850, Victorians 1850-1901

Curriculum topics: Political and social reform, Victorians

Suggested inquiry questions: What was a criminal petition and its purpose? What was the role of a petition in the judicial system? What do these documents reveal about the treatment of criminals in the nineteenth century?

Potential activities: Students design their own advice leaflet for treatment of prisoners from the perspective of prisoner reformer in Victorian times.

Related resources

19th century prison ships

What do these documents reveal about attitudes to crime and punishment?

A Victorian prison

Why were Victorian Prisons so tough?

Queen Anne

How can we find out about her?