My ancestor was a criminal, what happened to him?

Surrey sessions and assizes 1848–1880. Calendar of prisoners. Series QS3/4/. Surrey History Centre, Woking, Surrey, England. Tried at: Summer Assizes holden at Guildford

When examining the “Calendar of Prisoners tried at the Summer Assizes, holden at Guildford on Wednesday, the 19th day of July 1899″ William Weller, caught my interest. At the age of 28 he was convicted of stealing a bicycle and sentenced to four months imprisonment with hard labour. The entry provided details of four earlier offences all involved stealing items of what appeared to be minor nature: beef, a chopper, a handbell and a coat. All his previous offences had been tried in the PS.

William was described as a labourer and his offence had been committed in Dorking. Dorking is small rural market in rural Surrey. The parish of Dorking was and remains largely residential and agricultural. Agriculture in the later Victorian years was increasingly difficult to earn a living from due to mechanisation. Pay for agricultural labourers was generally poor but especially low in the south where there was little competition from the lure of the new, industrial areas of the Midlands, North West and West Yorkshire, where wages were higher. 

Having always had an interest in what people commit crime, this made me wonder what had led William to a life of petty crime in his 20’s. Was he typical of the petty criminal of the time? Was there anything in his early years which influenced his behaviour? How effective were his punishments in preventing a future life of crime? Did his life of crime continue into more serious criminal activity? Are there any comparisons between his life of petty crime to today?

Surrey History Centre (SHC) online catalogue and the National Archives (TNA) Discovery catalogue should identify records available for Dorking Petty Sessions, Reigate Petty Sessions and Guildford Assizes to be examined at the relevant archive. Surrey was part of the Home Circuit Assizes which in 1876 combined with the Norfolk Circuit creating the South Eastern Circuit, although Surrey remained unattached until 28 July 1893.

Wandsworth prison records are held at The London Metropolitan Archive (LMA) whose online catalogue should identify appropriate prison records to be examined.

Census returns, civil registration records of birth, marriages and deaths, parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials amongst other records which may be available online will be used to trace his earlier, later and family life and circumstances, using commercial and government websites as well as any other records identified and held at and SHC using their online catalogue.


Local newspapers reports can provide details of crimes being tried and are therefore a good starting point for research Three local newspaper reports describing misdemeanours of William Weller were found using the British Newspaper Archives website:

Alcohol in Victorian Britain

Two of the newspaper reports suggest William’s behaviour was caused or affected by alcohol, causing delirium and his admission to Brookwood Asylum in 1898. Whilst William was not arrested for drunkenness, there is suggested a distinct connection between alcohol and his offending.

Victorian Britain saw an emergence of stronger ales and spirits, in particular gin, and a boom in public houses, with 30,000 new beer houses opening in 1831 without the need for licences. Drunkenness was more often associated with the poorer working classes, who, by the 1870’s spent up to a quarter of their income on alcohol.

The Old Brewery, Newdigate, Surrey c. 1910, Courtesy of John Callcut, Chairman of the Newdigate Local History Society

Dorking Petty Sessions

Unfortunately, the Dorking Petty Sessions register for periods 1893,1895 and 1899 held at Surrey History Centre (SHC) are “unfit for production”. Staff at SHC confirmed the register for 1893 is a book in extremely poor condition, being described as “almost dust” so no further information is available regarding this offence. However, staff at SHC were able to obtain details of his 1895 conviction from the register which differ to the Calendar of Prisoners, the register stating his offence was “stealing a Bill Hook at [an unreadable location], Newdigate”. The complainant was Martin Weller.

A Bill Hook

Reigate Petty Sessions

His convictions in 1894 and 1985 were not found in local newspapers. Reigate Petty Sessions registers are available at Surrey History Centre (SHC) but unfortunately do not include any records for 1894, covering January to May 1893 and January to February 1898. All other registers covered the 20th century.

No.DateName of Informant or ClaimantName of defendant, and age if under 16Nature of Offence or Matter of ComplaintMinute of AdjudicationJustices Adjudicating
1898 Jan 111898 Jan 11James BriceWilliam WellerDrunk & disorderly on the highway at Horley on 4th Dec 1897Fined 5/- Costs 5/-E W Brockhurst, Fred Pawler, Henry Greenhill and Wentworth G Cauley
REIGATE PETTY SESSIONS REGISTER Surrey History Centre; Woking, Surrey, England; Reference 2003/4/1; Page 6

I did examine the register to see what type of information may have been available and in doing so, I found a William Weller convicted on 11 January 1898 of being drunk & disorderly on the highway at Horley on 4th Dec 1897. There are no further details to identify him, and this conviction does not appear in his entry in the Calendar of Prisoners. It is therefore unlikely this is the same William.

Assize records

Assize records are held at TNA and include Indictment Files, Crown Minute Books (Agenda Books), Depositions and Miscellaneous Books. The Indictment files for 1892 to 1920 and Depositions for 1890 to 1912 are few and held nothing for William. The miscellaneous books included a precedent book of documents used in the Assizes, and four detailing offences and sentences covering the 18th century.

William was found in the Crown Minute Book for the Surrey Assizes Summer 1899, held over Wednesday 19th and Thursday 20th July, with a Grand jury of 22 and a Petty Jury of 12. The Grand jury’s role “was to accuse anyone who might be guilty of an offence and to protect others against unfounded prosecution (such as an accusation made out of malice). The grand jury would decide if there was sufficient evidence in a case to put the defendant on trial”; the Petty Jury’s role was to hear “the evidence in a trial and decided on the innocence or guilt of a defendant. After listening to the witnesses and lawyers (if present), the jury would retire, or huddle, and reach its verdict”.

The entry adds no further information.

  4Puts Guilty. 4 cal month William WellerFeloniously stealing a bicycle of the good of Frederick Halliday at Dorking on 4th July 1899 2nd Court receiving

“Puts guilty” suggests when the charge was put to him, he pleaded guilty. “2nd court receiving” suggests he first appeared before the Petty Sessions and his case transferred, possibly due to his previous convictions and the value of the bicycle, to the next available higher court. “Many justices may have, adopted a common sense approach, and sent thieves and other minor offenders for trial at whichever came first” The Assize court was held only 16 days after the offence took place.

Wandsworth Prison Records

The Prison was opened in November 1851. Originally built to house 700 prisoners in separate cells each with their own toilet, however conditions had deteriorated from the 1870’s with toilets removed from the cells to increase capacity and the practice of ‘slopping out’ being introduced, which remained in force until 1996.

Prison life in Victorian times was quite different to today – no early release for good behaviour, no education or rehabilitation programs; hard labour was just that! Some prisoners worked in quarries, at the docks or building roads. Other prisoners ‘worked’ on devices such as the treadmill/wheel, “the prisoner simply walked the wheel…. the treadmill provided flour to make money for the gaol… in later times, there was no product, and the treadmill was walked just for punishment”; or the Crank, “a large handle, in their cell, that a prisoner would have to turn, thousands of times a day. This could be tightened by the warders, making it harder to turn, which resulted in their nickname of ‘screws’”.

Wandsworth prison records are held at LMA although the vast majority cover the 20th century and/or those condemned and executed. For the 1890’s there are Nominal registers of admissions. These A3 size hardback books in good condition are laid out in columns as per the transcription. The registers covering his incarceration in April 1894 were “unfit for production and handling” however it is fair to assume that record would be like those examined.

     Name (surname, Christian Name)Date and place of committalAssizes, session date and placeOffenceSentenceEducationAge, Height, colour of hairTrade/ occupationReligion/ Birth placeNo. of convictions and reference to last entryDate of discharge and remarksArchive ref and page no.
10700Weller Wm23 Mar 1895 Dorking Stealing a bill-hook of 2/-1 C M HLImp23 5.5 D.BrwLabC E Dorking122 Apr 95ACC/3444/PR/01/069 Page 76 Nominal register
10537Weller William7.1.99 Dorking Stealing Coat14 days HL 28 5.6LabC of Dorking220.1.99ACC/3444/PR/01/088 Page 198 Nominal register
17502Weller Wm Surrey Assizes 19/20.7.99Larceny4 C mos HLImp28 5.5LabCE Dorking318.11.99ACC/3444/PR/01/091 Page 240 Nominal register

They do not add much to the information already found. They do confirm that his conviction in March 1895 was for stealing a bill-hook to the value of 2/-, agreeing with the entry in the Dorking Petty Session records. It may be a simple error in the calendar of prisoners, incorrectly noting the offences committed in 1894 and 1895. There is no way to clarify this given the Reigate Petty sessions records are lacking for 1894, the prison records are unfit for production and no newspaper report could be found.

The prison register describes William as 5ft 5in or 5ft 6in tall with dark brown hair. NO other records provide such a description.

A dietary sheet found amongst the prison records, provides details of the different diets for the seven different classes of prisoners based on length of sentence and whether sentenced to hard Labour (HL).

Class 1: not exceeding 7 days.

Class 2: 7 days but not 21 days.

Class 3: HL for a term exceeding 21 days but not more than 6 weeks; those not employed in HL exceeding 21 days but not more than 4 months.

Class 4: HL exceeding 6 weeks but not more than 4 months; not HL exceeding 4 months.

Class 5: HL exceeding 4 months.

Class 6: Sentenced to solitary confinement.

Class 7: Prisoners under punishment for prison offences not exceeding 3 days; Prisoners in close confinement for prison offences under the 42nd section of the Gaol Act.


The diet sheet also included the ingredients for soup (per pint): 3 oz cooked meat without bone, 3 oz potatoes, 1 oz barley, rice or oatmeal, 1 oz onions or leaks, with pepper and salt; and gruel (per pint) 2 oz oatmeal per pint to be sweetened on alternate days with ¾ oz of molasses or sugar and seasoned with salt. “In seasons when the potato crop has failed, 4 oz split peas made into pudding ma occasionally be substituted, but the change must not be made more than twice a week”.


William served three periods of 1 calendar month HL – a Class 3 prisoner with a diet of:

Breakfast:             daily – 1 pint of oat gruel; 6 oz of bread

Dinner:                 Sun/Thur – 1 pint soup, 8 oz bread

Tues/Sat – 3 oz of cooked meat without bone, 8 oz bread, 1/2 lb potatoes

Mon/Wed/ Fri – 8 oz bread, 1lb potatoes

Supper:                daily – same as breakfast

His fourth term in prison was 4 calendar months HL – a Class 4 prisoner with a diet of:

Breakfast:             daily – 1 pint of oat gruel; 8 oz of bread

Dinner:                 Sun/Tues/Thur/Sat – 3 oz cooked meat without bone, ½ lb potatoes, 8 oz bread

Mon/Wed/Fri dinner – 1 pint soup, 8 oz bread

Supper:                  daily – same as breakfast

Brookwood Asylum

The newspaper report dated Saturday, January 14, 1899 states William had been certified insane and sent to Brookwood Asylum whilst on remand. Brookwood opened on 17 June 1867 on the outskirts of the village of Knaphill, four miles west of Woking, Surrey and held up to 650 pauper ‘lunatics’. “Brookwood was the County Asylum chiefly serving west Surrey”.

Brookwood Asylum photos courtesy of Surrey Live website
Brookwood Asylum photos courtesy of Surrey Live website

Their registers of admission are available online. There were two entries for William: 6th November 1897 discharged 28 February 1898 and 30 June 1898 discharged 27 December 1898. Both admissions describe excessive drinking. The newspaper report from July 1899 also states William was “in drink at the time”.

When first admitted, he was also suffering from Pulmonary Congestion for which his symptoms could have ranged from fluid on the lungs or milder chest infection.

Brookwood records held at SHC were examined to find more details about his admission and treatment, including Registers of Admissions; Alphabetical Admission Register; Removal, discharge and death Register; Record of Discharges; Medical Superintendents Private Record of Patients Admitted; Male Case Book No. 18.

Date of AdmissionDate of Reception OrderDate of Continuation of Reception OrderChristian and SurnameAgeCondition as to MarriageCondition of Life and Pervious occupationsPrevious Place of AbodeUnion. County or Borough to which chargeableBy whose authority sentDate of medical certificate and by whom signedForm of Mental DisorderSupposed cause of InsanityBodily Condition and Name of DiseaseDuration of Existing AttackDate of Removal, Discharge or DeathRemoved, discharged or deadObservations
1897 Nov 6Nov 6 1897 William Weller26SingleLabourer Ch of EngDorking (1 week) previous temporary residence Epsom, Newdigate, LeatherheadDorkingH.L Steere, J.PH. Chaldecott 6 Nov 1897ManiaSupposed excessing drinkingPulmonary Congestion (put to bed)3 days28 Feb 1898Recovered 
1898 June 30June 30 1898 William Weller27SingleNo Occupation Ch of EngNewdigateDorkingJ.C. Deverell JPH.J.W. Blakeney 29 June 1898DementiaProbably excessive drinkingFairly good3 days27 Dec 1898Recovered 
Surrey History Centre; Woking, Surrey, England; Mental Health Admissions; Facility: Brookwood Asylum; Facility City: Woking; Year Range: 1897-1899; Register Number: 5; Admission Number: 8747-9242; Reference Number: 3043/5/1/1/11;,

These records suggest a troubled young man with a history of excessive drinking causing quite severe mental health problems with episodes of hallucinations, tremors, confusion, sleeplessness, restlessness, memory loss. The case notes dated on 31 June 1898 state he had stolen a coat which he sold for a drink and that William had early signs of pneumonia later described as bronchitis.

William’s lack of presence in records such as the Patients Money Account ledger and Return of Patients Property book suggest a poor financial position. It does beg the question how did he pay the fine and costs he was sentenced for his first convictions?

His notes state he “usually employed with the brick layers” but he was not employed when admitted the second time. On both occasions he was discharged to “RO” (Receiving Officer). When first discharged he was provided with clothing and a monetary allowance of 10/.  There is no record for any criminal charges following his arrest on 1 November 1897.

During his time in Brookwood, there are no record of him engaging in any activities available or gained any skills to help him gain employment on discharge. Records available of activities/employment within the asylum include the Mat makers/Basket makers shop employment book and the Stewards Reports which detailed those engaged in labouring work. It would be nice to think William attended weekly entertainments including a variety of dancing and singing, occasional theatrical performances and artistes. The New Years Eve 1898 celebration included “The Brookwood Snowflakes”.

The Weller Family and Newdigate

William lived in Newdigate in 1893. The Newdigate guide gives the population in 1851, according to the census return, as 605 “with 212 under the age of 14 and 23 over the age of 70”. Seven family names – Beedle, Burberry, Gad, Horley, King, Taylor and Weller – accounted for one third of the total population, the last name belonging to no less than 43 inhabitants” and was a longstanding family of the village, which can still be found there today.

Newdigate is a rural village about six miles south east of Dorking and 18 mins south west of Reigate. The main employment historically was agriculture which would have been hard work because the land is thick clay “with 21 farmers employing 138 men as agricultural labourers or farm servants”. Many were employed in other occupations which enabled Newdigate to be a self-sufficient village, such as “gamekeepers, wood reevers gardeners, blacksmiths, grooms, wheelwrights, swayers, rat-catchers, bailiffs, thatchers, cattle doctors….bricklayers, tailors, shoemakers, grocers, dressmakers, carpenters, innkeepers, nurses, teachers,…a fellmonger, a charwoman, a general dealer, a confectioner, a brick maker, a rector, a letter carrier, a laundress and a brewer”. In 1923 a brick and tile works opened which is now a nature reserve owned by Surrey Wildlife Trust, however brick making had been taking place in the nearby village of Beare Green since 1830.

The men of the Weller family in 1851, “were mostly agricultural workers living in and around workhouse green”.

By the 1890’s whilst larger houses were starting to be built as a new Victorian middle-class wealth began to inhabit the area, “there was still much poverty and many of the cottages were overcrowded and insanitary. There was a place for everyone, and everyone knew his/her place. The men worked hard with long hours and low pay and the poor doffed their caps or curtsied to the rector and the wealthy”.

William’s early family life

The census returns reveal William was the youngest of eight children to George and Mary Weller.  

Three things are noted. Firstly, William was born after the 1871 census; secondly, he lost his father, George when he was young (between the 1871 and 1881 census); and thirdly, his mother, Mary, became an Annuitant suggesting George had invested during his life perhaps in a local Friendly Society. Searching the SHC online catalogue there were several Friendly Society’s in Surrey but nothing specific to Newdigate.

A search of parish registers for Surrey, found William’s baptism record at St Peters Church, Newdigate on 25 June 1871, with a date of birth as 28 May 1871.

Searching GRO birth indexes in 1871 found three possible entries, two identified the mother’s maiden name. A search for his parent’s marriage record was conducted to find the correct mother’s maiden name for William’s mother. A search on Ancestry identified two possible entries for a George Weller and Mary, one in Sussex the other in Newdigate, Surrey. The family lived in Newdigate, the census returns gave George’s birthplace as Newdigate and Mary’s as Charlwood (a neighbouring village). Checking the bride’s maiden names against the two birth entries from GRO, identified the correct marriage and correct birth for William. His birth certificate gives his date of birth as 27th May 1871.

A search in the GRO birth index for his siblings was undertaken as a further check to confirm the parentage revealing George and Mary had nine children, in 1856 they had a daughter Jane who sadly died in 1858 age 1.

Searching online for his father’s death found he died aged 50 on 24th December 1877 of “Blood poisoning from absorption of fluids in Pig Killing 4 days”. His death being employment related in winter suggests George was a permanent employee of a local livestock farm having security of income, not reliant on seasonal employment.

It is impossible to say what impact losing his father so young (6 years old) had on William, but this could be a factor in his later behaviour. By the time George died, the three eldest children, George, Mary and Mark, were no longer living at home having already married. A search of the GRO marriage records, parish marriage registers and census returns finds all William’s siblings went on to marry and have quite large families themselves, except Martin, who may be the person who accused William of stealing his Bill-hook in 1895. The census returns suggest William attended the local endowed school, originally built in 1660 by George Steere, the then Rector of Newdigate.

By 1838 it had become dilapidated and was rebuilt. By the time William was born it was compulsory to attend school until the age of 10 years old, the headmaster was Henry Hackwood who “had been there since the new building was first opened in 1872 …. His pupils … came mostly from the surrounding cottages and farms, and had little expectation beyond following their parents onto the fields or into service in one of the larger houses”.

The Calendar of Prisoners and the prison records describe William’s education as “Imp” meaning semi-literate. Unfortunately, whilst there are records associated with the school for the 1870/80’s held at SHC there are no registers or other records concerning attendance of children.

William in the 1890’s (enclosure 6)

A search of the 1891 census for a William Weller born in 1871 (+/- 1 year) living in Newdigate, found one result. William was age 19, an agricultural labourer living at Kingsland, to the north west of the village being a row of four old timber-framed cottages (more recently divided into two dwellings) with his mother (a widow “living on her own means”), a brother, a niece, and a lodger. This suggests his mother was living off income other than from employment, such as investments.

Kingsland date unknown courtesy of The Newdigate Guide
Kingsland.  Photograph © 1910 courtesy of The Newdigate Local History Society

A wider search of this census for Newdigate provides details of his accomplices, victims and witnesses.

1893 Offence (by reference to the 1891 census)

His accomplice, David Hall, lived at Parkgate, a small hamlet to the northeast of Newdigate, in 1891, David was 23 years old and a Basket weaver. He was married with a young son and at the time of the census his younger brother, aged 15, was staying with them.

The shop, Alfred Dean was described as a grocer, draper and baker. The Dean family were “the best remembered shopkeepers … ran the stores from the 1890’s until the second world war”; the shop and house being called Wirmwood. They sold “products as diverse as bacon, tin kettles, butter and clothes, and anyone tall ran the risk of knocking his head on the boots that hung from the ceiling”.

Courtesy of The Newdigate Guide

The only “Mr Martin” was Frederick Martin, a neighbour of William, also living at Kingsland. It is not clear where “Mr Martin’s orchard” was located. The population had grown to 684 in the 1891 census and it is likely William was known to Mr Dean and Mr Martin.

The witness, “a man named Lucas” was possibly Harvey S Lucas aged 18, an agricultural labourer living with his mother (a widow) and younger siblings at Kingsland. Harvey is stated as having been born in Newdigate and it is likely William and Harvey had grown up together, hence this Mr Lucas would have easily been able to identify William. There were however several Mr Lucas’s living in Newdigate at the time.

1898 offence (court hearing January 1899 – by reference to the 1901 census)

Albert Monk from whose shed William stole a coat also lived at Kingsland, being a self-employed coal merchant and Fly Proprietor, again someone who William likely knew. Henry Streeter was a young agricultural working living at Parkgate with his parents and siblings and may have been known to William through employment or simply drinking in the pub. The Six Bells Inn, which has existed for as long as records exist, derives its name from the number of bells in the parish church tower, “prior to 1803 when the church had only five bells, the pub was also known as The Five Bells”.

Courtesy of The Newdigate Guide

William may have had an uncle living in Reigate, but no research had been carried out into the wider family.

1899 Offence (by reference to the 1901 census)

Frederick Halliday, if which there was only one living in Dorking, was a retired civil servant in British India, age 65 living at Tower Hill, Dorking with his wife and four servants. Tower Hill was an area of housing development in the 1850’s to 1870’s when the “National Freehold Land Society was responsible for housing developments in …. around Tower Hill”, with detached houses for the wealthier. William would certainly have been out of place in the area.

Life after prison

In the 1901 census, William, age 29 and a general labourer, was living back with his mother and brother Martin.

William then disappears from census records. In 1911 his mother and brother Martin are still living together but no William and no other entries could be found for him. (see enclosure 9). Had he died? A search of the death indexes find he died at Dorking Union Workhouse on 6th October 1901 age 31 years. The cause of death is given as Phthisis which is better known as Pulmonary Tuberculosis or TB, a common cause of illness and death in Victorian England, particularly “associated with persons from the lower socio-economic groups because they were more likely to live in crowded conditions which favoured its spread”. There is no evidence any other family members suffered from TB and it is likely his lifestyle choices and incarceration lead to his illness and death.

William appears to have been a very troubled young man. He had no specific skills which could enhance his life chances and at a young age fell to the perils of drink and a life of petty crime to fund that addiction. How William’s life took such a different turn to those of his siblings may never be known, but his father dying when he was so young may have been a contributing factor as would have been his apparent lack of skill, the difficulties associated with a predominantly agricultural labour force and his penchant for alcohol! Further research into the life of his parents, siblings and wider family may provide further insight.

Continuing the theme of criminal ancestors, my next blog will look at how to trace your ancestors who wer transported to Australia.

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