Tracing Your Prisoner Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians, Stephen Wade

Published: 26th January 2021

Tracing Your Prisoner Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians, Stephen Wade, Pen and Sword, 2020, 176p, £14-99. ISBN 9781526778529

This is part of a very helpful series that has been produced by Pen and Sword. In this volume Stephen Wade guides us into a potentially unfamiliar area of family and local history.

We are introduced to historical methods of imprisonment, and indeed to historical forms of punishment, with excellent local examples from Stephen’s own research to illustrate exactly what might be found.

Instinctively we might imagine that imprisonment would not have been likely to occur in our own families. This probability is turned on its head by the extremely interesting example of the Revd Samuel Wesley, John Wesley’s father, who was imprisoned in Lincoln Gaol in 1705 because of a mischievous allegation of indebtedness. The case is interesting in itself because Samuel Wesley’s diaries reveal the details of prison conditions at that time but also draws us into the political faction fights of the time which had led him to be a victim of a political manoeuvre. This illustrates just how many families might have been touched by the prison system.

Later chapters carefully reveal to us the range of possible offences which might lead to incarceration, along with an exploration of possible sources. In one sense this is all very straightforward but Stephen does provide us with a very clear explanation of what we are likely to find.

This volume guides us into recognising the breadth of what might be encompassed in such sources. Having identified previously that my great-great grandfather William Cater had been arrested in London in the 1870s, at the direction of the overseers of the poor, for neglecting his family, this book provides me with the necessary tools to explore what did happen to my distant relative, and to answer the question of whether or not he was actually a criminal or a victim of circumstances, much like Samuel Wesley.