How to look for records of... Prisoners and prison staff

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

Records of prisoners and prison staff are held in a number of different places, including The National Archives, prisons themselves and local archives. There is no national register of prisoners, so it is often best to start your search in local archives.

What do I need to know before I start?

To search for records of prisoners at The National Archives you will usually need to know the name of the prison where they were held, or the name of the county where the prison is or was located. If you only know the prisoner’s name you will be largely restricted to the documents published online. Bear in mind that prisoners were not always imprisoned near their home or where the offence was committed and that they were often moved between prisons during the course of their sentence.

Online records

Criminals, convicts and prisoners (1770-1935)

Search among the assorted records of criminals, convicts and prisoners on Findmypast.co.uk (£). Records include:

  • registers of convicts in prison hulks 1818-1831 (ADM6)
  • after-trial calendars of prisoners 1855-1931 (CRIM 9)
  • Home Office calendars of prisoners 1868-1929 (HO 140)
  • Prison Commission prison records 1880-1885 (PCOM 2)
  • registers of criminal petitions 1797-1853 (HO 19)
  • printed lists of prisoners tried at Newgate 1782-1853 (HO 77)

Prisons listed in census records (1841-1911)

Search census records (£) for England and Wales from 1841 to 1911 online. If you find a prison in the census, it will list the names of prisoners present at the time the census was taken.

Prison hulk registers and letter books (1802-1849)

Search by name for convicts held on prison hulks (HO 9) in England 1802-1849 on Ancestry.co.uk (£). The registers contain personal information on the prisoners and where and when they were convicted.

Prison hulks were ships moored near naval bases to house prisoners – often those awaiting transportation.

Licences of parole for female convicts (1853-1871, 1883-1887)

Search by name for licences of parole issued to female convicts (PCOM 4) on Ancestry.co.uk (£). Their contents vary but can include a variety of personal details, reports on behaviour while in prison and (from 1871) photographs.

Records available only at The National Archives in Kew

Searches for the records in this section begin in our catalogue. To access these records you will either need to visit us or, where you can identify a specific record reference, order a copy (£).

Prison registers and calendars of prisoners (1770-1971)

Although some registers and calendars of prisoners are available online at Findmypast (£), others are not. Search our catalogue by date or place, in HO 23, HO 24, HO 140 and PCOM 2 for registers and calendars of prisoners. These are arranged by prison or by county and individual prisoners’ names do not usually appear in our catalogue.

Most of these records are from the 19th century. Calendars in HO 140 extend until 1971 but only those before 1930 are open.

Often the best places to search for prison registers after 1878 are local county archives.

Date range (yyyy):

Date range (yyyy)

Quarterly returns of convicts in prisons and prison hulks (1802-1876)

Search our catalogue in HO 8, by name of prison or prison hulk and year, for records of prisoners held in these institutions. Search also T 38 for lists of crews and convicts on convict hulks.

Date range (yyyy):

Date range (yyyy)

Petitions for clemency (1819-1853)

Browse or search our catalogue in HO 17 (1819-1839) and HO 18 (1839-1853) for petitions for clemency. Petitions in HO 17 are described in some detail in our catalogue and a cataloguing project is adding descriptions to HO 18. Petitions were registered on receipt in a set of records now in HO 19.

The registers and most of the petitions are available and name searchable online via Findmypast (£).

The registers provide a reference which can help you search for the actual petition. Read section 5 of our guide to criminal transportation for further help.

You can also search for law officers’ reports relating to petitions by date in HO 48 and HO 49 (c1762-1871).

Prisoners tried at the Old Bailey or the Central Criminal Court (1815-1849)

Browse HO 16 for lists of prisoners arranged by date.

Court orders (1842-1871)

Consult PCOM 5 (which is indexed by PCOM 6) to find details of a prisoner’s movements from prison to prison, misconduct, physical description and next of kin.

Indexes of prison licences for men (1853-1887)

Consult the indexes of prison licences in PCOM 6 to locate male prison licences held in PCOM 3.

Prison licences, popularly known as ‘tickets of leave’, allowed convicts of good behaviour to be released before the completion of their sentences.

Registers of superannuation and retirement allowances for prison staff (1834-1925)

You may be able to find mentions of prison staff details (such as name, age, religion or details of service) in PMG 28.

Browse PMG 28 by date of retirement and then under ‘P’ for records of prison staff. The pensioners of the Convict Establishment and Convict Prisons are also generally entered in separate volumes.

Prison staff appointment books (1887-1898)

Browse HO 160 by date of appointment, transfer or dismissal of prison staff. These records are not complete and do not provide any additional personal information.

Records in other archives and organisations

Records held elsewhere

The National Archives’ catalogue has details of collections held by over 2,500 archives across the UK. Search our catalogue and refine your results using the filters.

Other resources

Books

Visit The National Archives’ bookshop for a range of publications on prisoners and prison staff.

Geoffrey Howse, A History of London’s Prisons (Wharncliffe, 2013)

Sarah Paterson, Tracing your Prisoner of War Ancestors (Pen & Sword, 2013)