The Rise of the Mugshot

One of the most popular assets of the West Midlands Police Museum has to be its vast collection of police mugshots. Ranging from the 1850s (the earliest in the country) to the early 1930s, they paint a fascinating picture of changes in criminality, sentencing and fashion!

The collection starts with an early photographic technology - the collodion positive. Often confused with daguerreotypes, but dating slightly later, the 30 photographs of this type span the 1850s and 1860s. The collodion positive was made by taking a clean glass plate, coating it with iodised collodion and dipping it in silver nitrate. The plate was exposed in the camera whilst still wet for up to 60 seconds and then developed. The final result is a negative, but the dark areas appeared bright due to the bleach from the nitric acid. Lighter areas appeared dark when viewed against a black background*.

Unfortunately some of them contain no details of who the prisoner is, nor the crime they were charged with. Some however, with a tantalising morsel of information, offer a glimpse into an age long forgotten. Take one of the earliest records in the collection - Isaac Ellery (below left), who received seven years transportation for theft of gig (a small carriage) cushions and uttering a counterfeit coin in 1853 and was back before the courts in 1860, which makes it likely that his transportation sentence was commuted to imprisonment in the UK. Catherine Corcoran's innocent face (above) gives a hint as to her youth - at only 10 years of age she was convicted of stealing money from children and sent to prison and then a reformatory for five years. William Lord (below centre) was convicted of fraud in 1862 and William Smith (below right) murdered his wife in 1866.

These images are part of a set of the earliest police mugshots in the country - Birmingham was apparently the first British police force to start taking prisoner mugshots in the 1850s. When the largest custody facility in the town was at the Moor Street Public Office, prisoners were marched to a newly opened photography studio on Moor Street, probably pushed past the paying customers (who were possibly spending their life savings on the only family portrait they were ever going to have) and placed in front of the camera. Seated or standing, often with fancy attire including top hats and bonnets, there is little to distinguish these images from a family portrait of the era. Sometimes the only telltale clue is a little glint of a silver bracelet (read: handcuff) in the corner of the image...

These images will form part of a display on police photography at the Lock-up once it undergoes renovations as part of a successful Heritage Lottery bid to convert it into the new West Midlands Police Museum. We hope to start the works later this year and anticipate completion late 2021/early 2022.

Follow our Twitter account @WMPHistory or Facebook page The Lock-up for more stories from the archive and our popular feature #MugshotMondays