It is Volunteers’ Week, an annual celebration of the wonderful contribution made by millions of volunteers across the UK. The National Archives has worked with volunteers for over 20 years on a wide range of activities, from onsite cataloguing and conservation projects, to online collaborations. Our volunteers make an invaluable contribution and as the manager of one of our onsite volunteer projects, I would like to share with you some of the work that we do.
I manage a team of volunteers cataloguing early 19th century criminal petitions for mercy (record series HO 17, covering the period 1819-1839). These are predominately letters sent in to the Home Office by convicts, their family and friends begging for a reduction in sentence. There was no court of appeal at this time, so applying to the Crown for clemency (via the Home Office) was the only way to seek a reduction in sentence. The stakes were high – at the beginning of our period over 200 crimes were punishable by death and the more common sentence of transportation beyond the seas could mean a lifetime of separation from family and friends.
The letters give us a fascinating first-hand account of what it was like to be on the receiving end of 19th century justice. In seeking to explain why someone deserves mercy the petitions provide us with rare descriptions of working life, family relationships, riots, prisons, convict hulks and convict Australia from the people who were there. The prisoners’ crimes range from murder to vagrancy and the convicts come in all shapes and sizes, from agricultural labourers rioting against low wages, to clerks embezzling large amounts of money, to real life ‘Artful Dodgers’ picking pockets and stealing handkerchiefs.
These fascinating papers are a sadly underused resource, largely because until recently the only way to access them has been to browse through long lists of names in correspondence registers (series HO 19) 1 . Our volunteers read through the letters and papers in HO 17, capturing vital data including names of convicts and victims, place and date of trial, crime, sentence and grounds for clemency in detailed catalogue descriptions. The petitions vary in length from one page letters to large bundles of correspondence, character references and other papers. Many petitions are annotated with instructions for a response so we can frequently see the outcome. We have catalogued just over half the series so far and our work has revealed some fascinating stories of the ordinary people caught up in the justice system. Over the coming months I will share some of these stories to illustrate the rich potential of the criminal archive and to highlight the invaluable work of our volunteer cataloguers. Continue reading »