My blog series focuses on some of my favourite free Australasian family history research websites, and this month's focus is The Prosecution Project which investigates the history of the criminal trial in Australia. Through digitised copies of Supreme Court registers, digitised newspapers in Trove and other archival sources, the Project is analysing patterns of crime, prosecution and punishment over long periods of time in Australia.
Search the Database
Criminal case trials in most archival jurisdictions have a 65-year closed access period so the database is only available for crimes up to 1922. What is available also varies from state to state and may include original court registers, court calendars, trial briefs and police gazettes. The project is ongoing and is a mix of academic researchers and volunteers, often with a family history interest.
Basic search fields include:
- Court – state or territory (not the ACT)
- Options – name, year, offence, place or all.
There is provision for an advanced search. One limitation in the basic search is that you must select a court, and if you are not sure which state then you need to search all of them individually. Remember too that not everything is indexed and included yet.
I think to simply select a state and then search and this type of search brings back all entries for me to browse. Or you could limit this by offence, for example, and see only those convicted of forgery or stealing. It is interesting to read some of the more unusual types of offences such as:
- Failing to bury the dead body of an infant
- Going armed in public
- Obstructing a railway vehicle
- Stealing bicycles
Wilfully and unlawfully destroying a police uniform cap.
Database fields include:
- Trial ID number
- 1st offence for which committed
- Date of trial
- Verdict first offence
- Location of trial
- More info – link to further information if available. This is often a link to the newspaper report in Trove.
There are just over 30 research briefs currently on the website covering a range of topics which may be of interest. For example, Research Brief 30 is on ‘The Hanging Years’ which looks at executions in Tasmania from 1806 till the last person hanged in 1946. During this time there were 545 executions out of 1469 death sentences handed down by the Tasmanian courts. There are follow up references including articles and books.
Under the Research Resources page on the website there are histories of the various Australian courts and links to resources such as the State Archives and the Supreme Courts. These in turn lead to other resources relating to crime and punishment.
Another linked online resource is titled Criminal History Justice Online which has links to:
The last link is about Judge Willis and his time in Port Phillip (now Victoria) in 1841 and 1842. Judge Willis’ casebooks have been digitised and are available on the Royal Historical Society of Victoria website or use the links on the Resident Judge of Port Phillip website. Anyone with very early Melbourne connections should have a look for an insight into what Melbourne was like at that time.
Researchers could easily spend a few hours on each of these websites so have a look, especially if it is an area that may be of direct interest to your family history.
Not all ancestors broke the law but if you do have someone that appeared before the courts then there is a wealth of information about them in court and prison records. Maybe they were the victim of crime who can also be found in these types of records. It is worth a look but remember The Prosecution Project is ongoing and you may also find clues in Trove or State Archives websites. Good luck!