Prior to the 1877 nationalisation of prisons in England and Wales, local prisons kept their own registers and as a result they vary between county and indeed between individual gaol. The number and time-span of registers available also varies from place to place as well as the number of registers that have been digitised. Normally, local prison registers are kept by the corresponding local records centre and are not indexed so you would need to have a very good idea of when your ancestor was convicted before you start searching.
In the case of Dorset, each volume is then sub-divided into type of conviction so again a knowledge of the type of crime committed would be useful. One of the main advantages of digitisation is that on the whole, prison registers are indexed and therefore searchable by name and by date.
Information given in prison registers from the 1850s onwards include the offender’s name and age, the crime they were accused of, place of offence, where and when they were tried, sentence, religion and degree of education.
Earlier registers will also give a description of the prisoner. The information given by the prison registers on their own is useful but limited. There are no details of the offence itself and if the prisoner has a common name, they are lacking identifiers such as occupation and place of residence that will confirm that you have the right person. The next stage in the research process will be the description of prisoners book which will be the subject of my next blog.
Ancestry has a wide range of criminal records but sometimes this just involves a name, date, offence and sentence. Findmypast also has a wide range including Home Office calendars of prisoners 1868-1929, after-trial calendars of prisoners 1855-1931 and Irish prison registers. Several indexes of prisoners at individual gaols are available at Black sheep ancestry