Some recent research has involved me searching the records of the Edinburgh Bridewell, a jail that once stood on Calton Hill in Central Edinburgh.
The information typically given in the records for each prisoner includes: date of commitment, name, age, crime, sentence and details of previous commitment.
What particularly struck me when searching these records was the number of women included and, at least for the period I was looking at, it appears that over half of the prisoners in the Bridewell were female.
The large number of women included in these records, together with the fact that, as in many Scottish records, women are recorded under both married and maiden surnames (although in some cases aliases were used), means that they are a surprisingly rich source for tracing female ancestors. And the fact that the date of a person’s previous commitment is given, means that once you have located one entry, it is quite straightforward to trace previous offences.
The majority of those committed to the Bridewell were guilty of petty crimes, including theft, drunkenness, vagrancy, and begging. The following is a selection of entries from the period 1814-1815:
Edinburgh Bridewell: Register of Warrants against Prisoners, Committed by the Court of Police 1814-1817
National Records of Scotland ref. HH21/6/3
1814 Augt. 15
Margt. McDonald or Simpson, 21, Breaking the Windows in Bridewell - 10 Days confinement & thereafter till she pay 5/- damages but not to exceed 60 Days
1814 Sept 13
Janet Thomson alias Helen Black, 44, Drunk & giving false & fictitious names - 30 days confinement
1814 Sept 30
Elizth. Fraser alias Johnston alias Sally Falconer[?], 28, Bringing in spirits to prisoners in P[olice] Office going to Bridewell - 30 Days Confinement
1815 Jany 31
Ann Stevens or Stevenson, 25, Rioting & fighting
1815 Augt 3
Janet Begg, 27, Pawning wearing apparel entrusted to her to mangle - 59 days on B[read] & W[ater]
1815 Augt 10
Betty Dewar or Campbell, 21, Vagrant, drunk & insisting on the Watchmen to conduct her home - 59 days b[read] & w[ater]
1815 Aug 4
Christian Bryce, 37, Drunk in a Stair - 59 days B[read] & W[ater]
Drunkenness was recorded as a crime more frequently for women than for men, suggesting that female drunkenness was particularly frowned upon.
Many Scottish convicts sent to Australia had committed previous crimes, so the records of the Edinburgh Bridewell and other similar institutions are also a valuable source for those tracing convict ancestors.
The records of the Edinburgh Bridewell are held at the National Records of Scotland (formerly National Archives of Scotland) in reference HH21/6/1-15 and cover the period 1798-1840. Details of the surviving records of other prisons in Edinburgh and throughout Scotland are given at http://www.nas.gov.uk/guides/crime.asp#criminals