Victorian image of criminal ancestors

Our Criminal Ancestors

Engaging the public and the heritage sector through crime history and family ancestry

Project summary

The Challenge

Crime history can provide the social context in which our ancestors committed crime and give us a more nuanced understanding of the past.

The Approach

Network with the archives, museums and heritage sectors, and work with the public to encourage the use of archival records and new heritage resources.

The Outcome

The team created a research guide for the public, offered workshops, provided the 'Criminal Ancestors' website and provided new research material.

Lead academics

Funded by

Project partners

The Challenge

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.

Historical building
Were any of your ancestors transported to Australia as punishment? What was it like to serve a prison sentence in the past? Perhaps your ancestor was held in a reformatory school? Or you discovered them on a 'habitual criminals register'
Professor Helen Johnston

Professor Helen Johnston

Professor of Criminology, Department of Criminology and Sociology

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.

The Approach

Our aims:

  • to facilitate knowledge exchange between academics and the heritage sector to consider the preservation, presentation and dissemination of crime history
  • to encourage and facilitate the public to find, interpret and use archival records (digital and original form) to their 'criminal' ancestors
  • to create open access website to help the public researching criminal ancestors -
  • to create a sustainable public engagement tool for use in different regional settings with a variety of partners

The Criminal Ancestors project was set up initially and supported by two research grants from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The first created a network with archives, museums and the heritage sector and the second supported work directly with the public.

During the project, Professor Helen Johnston at the University of Hull, and Professor Heather Shore (Manchester Metropolitan University) provided simple, free guides to getting started with finding out about all of these questions. Working with Hull History Centre and East Riding Archives, the project team created a Source Guide to help members of the public research their own criminal past.

Our Criminal Ancestors workshop
Our Criminal Ancestors workshop

Engaging with archives, museums and the heritage sector and with the public

Through their shared interest in our criminal past, Helen and Heather successfully collaborated with archives, museums and the heritage sector, and with the public. They collaborated with the Hull History Centre, East Riding Archives, Ripon Museums Trust, Bradford Police Museum as well as leading events at Northallerton Archives, York Castle Museum and other regionally and nationally.

The Impact

The project features as a case study of good practice in The National Archives and History UK (2018) A Guide to Collaboration for Archives and Higher Education.

Working with archives and museums across the region and beyond, the project team has been facilitating workshops with the public. Through these face to face workshops and the Criminal Ancestors website the project team aims to provide knowledge and skills to those looking to explore their criminal ancestors. Helen and her colleagues provide free advice, guides and insights into the history of crime, policing and punishment as well as case studies and blogs to help with research.

Follow the Criminal Ancestors project at @ourcriminalpast.

The 'Our Criminal Past' webinar series, presented by lecturers from the Criminology Department presents historic and modern perspectives of Hull’s criminal history that are explored through four specific themes. 

All of the webinars are available to view here

'Our Criminal Past' webinar series 'Youth'

Criminal cases of the past

Helen’s research proved invaluable when investigating criminal cases of the past. She was interviewed on two episodes of the BBC series Murder, Mystery and my Family, an award-winning and popular series that reinvestigates a historic case which might have been a miscarriage of justice. Helen’s first appearance in April 2019 was with former colleague Dr Victoria Dawson, and investigated the case of Ethel Major, who was executed for murdering her husband, the only woman and the last person to be executed at Hull Prison. In December 2018, Helen was interviewed about the case of Louie Calvert.

Our Criminal Ancestors Resources

Our Criminal Ancestors led to the creation of a new Virtual Crime Walk, allowing users to explore crime and punishment in Hull and the East Riding. 

The What Was Here app also helps users to discover the East Riding like never before and to  view old photographs of places visited.