Using Description of Prisoners Books

For the greater part of the 19th century it was in some cases impossible to identify new prisoners with any certainty just from the prison registers[i] but one of the measures used was the Description of Prisoners book. Prison staff took physical descriptions for each prisoner as they arrived at the gaol and recorded them in books that are arranged in alphabetcial order by surname.

The 1902 Convict Prison Standing Orders gave detailed instructions on how to measure convicts and how to record their physical condition and items such as tattoos, birthmarks and moles.[ii]

The Description of Prisoners Books for Dorset available online through Ancestry range from 1858 – 1879 and are fascinating reading.   When the entries were completed they included stature, complexion, hair, eyes, remarks (i.e. tattoos etc.) and number of children. These details, especially occupation and parish can help to confirm the identity of the prisoner listed in the prison registers.  Later books also included photographs of teh offender.


A page from a Dorset Description of Prisoners book courtesy of


Unfortunately, for some reason, in the Dorset books women are listed but the columns are left blank. Also, if a man was convicted more than once during this period his details would only be entered on the first conviction but usually this is indicted in subsequent entries.

Findmypast and Ancestry hold some books but the majority are to be found in local archives.  There is also a good range of Australian books available.

[i] Priestley, Phillip. (1985) Victorian Prison Lives. London: Methuen. P. 121.


[ii] Ibid. P. 12.