Crime across time: Mapping longitudinal changes in criminal justice

Research Brief 20


One of the benefits of the Prosecution Project’s large-scale digitisation of court records is that it not only allows researchers to trace individuals, but to map changes in the criminal justice process over a long period of time. Mapping these longitudinal changes is not only of potential value to scholars of legal history, but to those interested in placing their ancestors’ experiences with the court system in a wider context.

This was recently confirmed in an email from one of our data entry volunteers. Enid Cullen, like many of our volunteers, is an avid genealogist. According to Enid, ‘Family History is a disease and a never-ending conundrum. Every answer you get asks 2 more questions.’

One of these conundrums was tracing the elusive story of James Pont, her convict ancestor.

Pont, the eighth child of Richard Pont and Mary Ashenden, was baptised on 18 January 1789 at Hollington in Sussex, England.

On 5 August 1822, Pont was tried at the Sussex Assizes before Sir Richard Richards and Sir James Allan Park. Pont was described in court records as a labourer. Along with four other labourers – Joseph Blackwood, John Sellings, John Wheham and William Elliott – Pont was charged with breaking and entering the dwelling of William Kenward.

Having entered Kenward’s premises at about 1am, Pont and his confederates managed to steal a number of clothing items: 23 waistcoats to the value of £6; 9 pairs of breeches to the value of £5; 9 jackets to the value of 50/-; 5 shirts to the value of 15/-; 2 pairs of trousers to the value of 5/-; 2 pairs of drawers to the value of 4/-. The number of clothing items taken indicates Kenward may have been a merchant, the dwelling likely his work-place, or combined work-place and home.

The jury decided that Pont was not guilty of burglary, but was guilty of stealing goods from a dwelling house.

He was sentenced to death by hanging, but this was later commuted to transportation for life. His co-accused were also transported for life. Pont sailed on the Ocean, arriving in Sydney Cove on 2 September 1823.


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Enid emailed the Prosecution Project team about her ancestor after entering a record that mirrored her ancestor’s case. In 1898 at Charters Towers, a prisoner was found guilty of stealing a waist-coat. Unlike James Pont, he was not sentenced to death, but rather to 3 years penal servitude. By contemporary standards though, this still seems a harsh penalty for the theft of a single clothing item. It left Enid wondering what might have become of James Pont if he had gone through the modern justice system.

Data from the Prosecution Project helps to provide a sense of how James Pont may have fared if he had been tried in a later period in Australia.

As of early January 2016, we now have 52,495 trials in the database from four jurisdictions that provide good enough samples to examine sentencing outcomes.

Property crime was the most common form of offending across the period, accounting for around 61 per cent of defendants tried. Burglary (627 defendants) and breaking and entering (6,040 defendants) was the head charge against almost 14 per cent of the 52,495 individuals tried. In contrast, the lesser offence for which Pont was ultimately convicted – stealing in a dwelling – was responsible for only 1,146 or 2.3 per cent of all defendants tried.

As in James Pont’s case, around a quarter of these 52,495 defendants were tried alongside other co-accused. This proportion remained fairly consistent from the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, before rising in the 1960s to about 33 per cent of defendants.

The database also reveals that co-offending was significantly more common in relation to property crimes than offences against the person. Those charged, like Pont, with burglary or breaking and entering were co-defendants in approximately 45 per cent of cases.

Those charged with property crimes were more likely to be acquitted in the nineteenth than the twentieth century.

While approximately 18 per cent of defendants tried for burglary or breaking and entering were acquitted in the 1860s, this had fallen to a mere 3 per cent by the 1960s.

By the mid nineteenth century, sentencing law reforms meant that punishments were already far less harsh than they had been when Pont was convicted in the 1820s. Just under 4 per cent of defendants in the Prosecution Project cases sample had a sentence of death recorded against them. This included many whose sentence was later commuted. Only 25 of the 1,091 defendants given death sentences received them in relation to property offences, including 5 who received death sentences for burglary.

Approximately 58 per cent of defendants convicted of breaking and entering offences received prison terms of 3 years or under, as did 77 per cent of those convicted of stealing in a dwelling. By the mid twentieth century, more than a third of those convicted of either offence would be given a suspended sentence or probation.

The sentencing, likelihood of conviction and type of charges laid against men like James Pont were thus all determined by historical context. So when he received 3 years for stealing a waist-coat in 1898 that Charters Towers defendant was getting what most offenders by that time might expect.

Enid has been unable to trace much further information about Pont after his arrival in the colonies. She has unearthed just one tantalising reference to his experiences. On 20 October 1825 an article appeared in The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser announcing that James Pont, along with another man, John Britter, had been charged with going on board the vessel Shoalhaven with intent to escape from the Colony. For this crime they were both sentenced to a penal settlement for 3 years labour.


Author: Enid Cullen, volunteer and Dr Alana Piper, Postdoctoral Research Fellow

To cite this research brief: Enid Cullen and Alana Piper, ‘Crime across time: Mapping longitudinal changes in criminal justice’, The Prosecution Project, Research Brief 20, (2 February 2016, viewed 19 July 2016).