There has been a huge interest in family history and research recently, and television shows like Who Do You Think You Are have attracted large audiences in the UK and across the Atlantic. We have also seen a growth in the digitisation of archive records and the massive expansion of online datasets by companies like Ancestry and FindMyPast and more recently, a surge in the use of genetic or DNA genealogy kits to discover more about our past.
Within this digital expansion, many records relating to crime, policing and punishment have been made available, and the public are keen to find out more about the cases involving their own ancestors. We use the term 'criminal ancestors' broadly to include criminals, prisoners, but also those who worked in the criminal justice system, those who were suspects, victims or witnesses to crime.
Crime history can offer a way into researching past lives that are not otherwise available. It can be the window into the lives of those from the working class or lower socio-economic groups who have left little evidence (beyond birth, marriage, death). Witness statements or prison records can provide a valuable insight into society and everyday life. Understanding the wider social context in which ancestors committed crime and the operation of the criminal justice system can help a more nuanced understanding of the past.