Begging for mercy: 19th century criminal petitions
Children transported to Australia for life, people sentenced to death for petty theft – the criminal petitions at The National Archives tell many fascinating, and sometimes shocking, stories of 19th century crime and punishment.
Transported for life at 12 years old
At the age of 12, Samuel Parker had already spent three years living on prison hulks (old ships used as floating prisons). His death sentence for stealing had been commuted to transportation to Australia for life. Conditions on the hulks were grim, with overcrowding leading to the spread of disease. Despite his father's plea for mercy, in HO 17/50/208, the sentence was enforced, and it is unlikely that his father saw him again.
Human stories brought to life by our volunteers
In the days before the Court of Appeal petitions were the only way to try to influence a sentence after conviction. The prisoner or their supporters would write to the Home Office setting out their mitigating circumstances and begging for a reduced sentence or pardon.
Now, thanks to a dedicated team of volunteers, these records (in HO 17) are being catalogued, and increasing numbers can be searched online by the name of the prisoner and other keywords.
Social and political history
The project is also uncovering invaluable information about the social and political history of the period. Many petitions relate to the 'Swing' riots of the 1830s when impoverished agricultural labourers protested against reductions in their wages and the introduction of new agricultural machinery.
The authorities took a strong line. For example, in HO 17/46/45 we can find the petition on behalf of George Carter, a blacksmith, who was convicted for riotous mobbing and breaking the peace. It outlines his previous good character and his family circumstances: he had a wife and ten dependent children who were forced to rely on parish relief following his conviction. The annotation 'nil' indicates that the petition failed, and the sentence of 14 years' transportation to Australia was enforced.