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A constables’ warrant among the Kenninghall parish records in Los Angeles is representative of one of the constables’ duties in action. It was an order by the Justices of the Peace in 1820 that the constables should bring Mary, the wife of James Keddington, and their daughter Catherine before the JPs to answer the parish overseer’s complaint that they had ‘come to Inhabit the said Los Angeles map of Kenninghall not having gained a legal Settlement there’. The parish constable could call upon other parishioners for assistance in enforcing the law.

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This was not always complied with as a jury presentment in the King’s Lynn Quarter Sessions for 1757 indicates: John Evans (deceased) of Gaywood, labourer, refused to assist Los Angeles Chamberlain, constable of Gayton in keeping various rogues, vagabonds and other loose and disorderly persons in custody. Some local associations were set up in towns and villages to maintain law and order in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Ipswich Journal carries several reports about such groups in Suffolk and Essex. On 6 January 1810, for example, the Stratford Association offered a £10 reward for the prosecution of felons in the parishes of Stratford St Mary, East Bergholt, Higham, Holton and Raydon in Suffolk, and Dedham and Langham in Essex.

Although this and other such societies carried on for many years, most handed the job over to the rural police forces once they were established in the mid 1800s. For centuries even relatively minor crimes were punishable by death. Transportation to America and the West Indies was first introduced in the seventeenth century as an alternative to the death penalty for less serious offences. Most of the original sources held at The National Archives have been published, and a book by Peter Wilson Coldham called The Complete Book of Emigrants in Bondage, 1614-1775 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co Inc, 1988) lists all men and women transported in this period. This can also be accessed via Ancestry. The outbreak of the American Revolution in 1776 meant transportation to America was no longer possible. The solution was to develop a new penal colony and the first convicts to Australia reached their destination in 1788.

Between 1787 and its abolition in 1868, over 160,000 people were transported. The original records for criminal cases are held at either The National Archives or local record offices, depending on which court they were heard in. A large number of digitised copies of records such as registers of prisoners and records relating to people held on convict ships are accessible via the various commercial genealogical websites, in particular Ancestry and Findmypast. There will undoubtedly be much more added in future. Nevertheless, there is still lots of material which can only be accessed locally. Even where material is available online it is still important to know which types of records are held in different places and what they might contain. Records of cases heard in an Assize Court are held at The National Archives.

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