Monday 29 October 2012

Discovering my Convict Ancestor in Old Bailey and Prisoner records


All I really knew about my ggg grandfather, Charles Clifford, was that he was a saddler, who lived in the Old Kent Road, and that he had four children (Charles, Edward, James and Charlotte).  Much of this I had learnt from distant cousins whom I met through the Lost Cousins family history website, after tracing my own family back to our mutual ancestor, his son, Edward Clifford, my gg grandfather, whom I wrote about in an earlier post.  Subsequent research led to finding Charles' wife Ann (neé Chalkwright or Chalkred), whom he married in 1791 at Christ Church Newgate Street (also known as Christ Church Greyfriars), Middlesex and the baptisms of their four children between 1793 and 1805 in the Parish of St George the Martyr.

The same cousins also told me about a family story that "Charles Clifford was a caterer in the King's Bench prison" but I didn't really understand what this meant at the time, or indeed where the information could have come from.  I knew that the King's Bench prison was one of the Debtor's prison, but I didn't understand why a saddler would be working as a caterer.

Finding Charles in the Death Duty Records at TNA 

I was pretty sure that Charles died before 1841 as he was nowhere to be found in the 1841 census, and I found the death of his widow, Ann, on 21 January 1841 in St George's Workhouse, Southwark.  I managed to find Charles Clifford's death confirmed in the Death Duty records at the UK National Archives.  The death duty record was dated August 1841 and gave a date of death of 21 April 1840.  I knew this was the correct entry because the death duty record mentioned the next of kin as his daughter Charlotte Rafter (neé Clifford), with the address tying up with where she and her family were living on the 1841 census.

I then searched the GRO Death indices for a relevant entry for a Charles Clifford who died April-June 1840.  There was only one suitable entry for that quarter, a John Charles Clifford, whose death was recorded in Greenwich.  Thinking that this didn't sound very plausible, with a different first name and dying in Greenwich (none of my Clifford family had lived in that part of London), I let it go.  After all, I now had Charles' date of death from the death duty register - and was enough evidence for me.  How short-sighted a decision that turned out to be.

Death Certificate 

A few years passed, but earlier this year, I decided to splash out on  "killing off" some of my own ancestors.  After all, this is a practice that I teach all my clients, as I have always believed it to be of great importance in helping to complete the family history story, and avoiding mistaken identities.  So I sent off for a few GRO death certificates and decided to include John Charles Clifford for luck.

When it arrived, at first I thought it was yet another "wasted" certificate, but when I looked into a bit more closely, I realised it that was indeed my ancestor, Charles Clifford.  Not only did I now have his actual death confirmed, but the certificate told me that Charles was a convict who died on the "Unité prison hospital ship". I was suddenly faced with a criminal in my past who died on a prison hulk!
The "Defence" hulk and the "Unité" convict hospital ship, off Woolwich

Prison Hulk Records on Ancestry 

Armed with the information that Charles Clifford was also known as John Charles Clifford, I then searched for him in the recently added UK Prison Hulk Registers and Record books, 1802-1849, on Ancestry.  Here I found a "James Chas Clifford", on board the hulk ship Ganymede in June 1839, the year before he died.  This looked promising as the record showed that he was a 72 year old harness maker with a wife and four children, all of which sounded too close to my own "Charles Clifford", to be a coincidence.  The prison hulk record showed that this James Charles Clifford had been convicted at the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court (not a minor crime then!), that his crime was perjury, and that he was convicted on 8 April 1839 and sentenced to one month and 7 years.  I also found Charles James Clifford in the England & Wales Criminal Registers, 1791-1892, also on Ancestry, confirming both the crime and the sentence. But what had Charles actually done to be found guilty of Perjury? I knew he had been in the King's Bench, which was the debtors' prison, but this crime was now sounding much more serious!

Old Bailey Records Online 

I turned to the Old Bailey records to find out more.  Here I found the full description of the Court Case relating to James Charles Clifford.  It seems that he was accused of deception during a previous court case, referred to as Clifford vs Parker.  This involved a dispute between James Charles Clifford and a Lady Fanny Parker regarding money bills paid to him for employment as her cook, while they were both in the Kings Bench prison.  It sounded as if James Charles Clifford lied about the amount of money that had been due from Lady Fanny Parker, in order to extract more money from her.

I was still suffering from disbelief that this was indeed my own ggg grandfather, father of my gg grandfather, Edward Clifford, the Mathematician, when I came across the name John Rafter, who was also implicated in this web of deception (with another previous case, Rafter vs Parker, referred to).  John Rafter was Charles Clifford's son-in-law, who had married his daughter, Charlotte, in 1824, and whose descendants I had already traced.  Although the plot was thickening, I knew this had to be my ancestor.

James Charles was found guilty of Perjury by the jury, and was sentenced to one month in Newgate prison and 7 years' transportation.  In fact he was never transported, as he died on board the Unité prison hulk ship two years after he was sentenced.

Criminal Petitions at TNA 

I thought there was a chance that Charles' transportation sentence might have been commuted down to a prison sentence, by a lenient judge, following a petition from his family. I had already come across cases of death commuted to transportation. So last week, on a visit to the National Archives, I decided to carry out some further research into their records for Criminal Transportees.  Here I found James Charles Clifford listed in the Indexes to Criminal Petitions for 1838 - 9  (HO19/8), from which I was able to identify the location of the actual petition (s) (HO17/91).  

Petition for clemency by James Charles Clifford
Here I found just one sheet of paper (unlike some of the other petition files which were large bundles).  It was a petition written by the prisoner himself, asking for clemency given his age (72 years) and declining health.  He asks for his sentence of "transportation" to be commuted to "imprisonment in the penitentiary or such other manner".  It was signed my ancestor, J C Clifford, but the document refers to his name as James Charles Clifford.  So I now I also know that this must be his correct name and the death certificate, stating his name as John Charles Clifford, is incorrect, possibly because he had always known as Charles, or J Charles, Clifford.

Somewhat surprisingly there were no petitions from his wife or any of his four children.  I do wonder why, but I will probably never know.

What next?

On the death certificate for John Charles Clifford, the cause of death was given as natural causes and the informant is the Coroner for Greenwich, Kent.  This suggests that there was possibly an inquest, and if I could find a surviving record of the inquest (not all survive), this may lead to further information about his family.  But the combination of the death certificate and the prison records have already given me new information to go on, as I now have a more precise name for Charles Clifford, i.e. James Charles Clifford. I also have a better idea of his date of birth, as in 1838 he claims to be 72 years old.  He was therefore likely to have been born c. 1766.  Of course, I still have no better idea of where he was born, but I do know from the Clifford Association, of which I am a member, that there were a large number of Clifford's who originated in the area of south east London and Kent.  I shall carry on looking for clues.
However, the lesson of this story is that it always pays to send off for death certificates, even if you think you know the date of death from other records.  There is often more to learn.

Rosemary Morgan
London Roots Research


  1. Thanks for this interesting and instructive post. You have reminded me that there is one certificate I have not yet bought!

    1. Thanks Judy. I've had such positive feedback, mostly on twitter, but also elsewhere. It seems that many genealogists are sad to see fewer people ordering certificates. Perhaps if I blog enough about it, they might be encouraged to buy some more.

  2. I used to resist ordering death certificates, because I believed there was a higher probability of misinformation seeing as the person in question was in no position to make a correction! What I've found is that the biggest surprise is often the informant. The person who reported my g-g-g-grandmother's death, for example, was her sister. I didn't know she had a sister, and this information led me to the christening records of her four other sisters!

    1. Thank you Persephone for your interesting comment. I must admit that I have found several instances of mistakes in death certificates, especially in Scotland and Australia, where they ask for the names of the deceased parents including maiden names, and informants often seem to get that wrong. But I do believe that the potential benefits outweigh the pitfalls, as your example has shown, and the key is to bear in mind where the information comes from (i.e. the informant).

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