First convictions in the UK based on fingerprint evidence.

The first conviction in the UK based on fingerprint evidence

A little History

Fingerprints were used as signatures in ancient Babylon in the second millennium BC. King Hammurabi (1955-1913 BC) used finger seals on contracts, and law officers of the day were authorized to secure the fingerprints of arrested persons.

In AD 650, nearly 600 years before Marco Polo visited “Cathay,” Chinese historian Kia Kung-Yen wrote of fingerprints used in an older method of preparing contracts. The law book of Yung-Hwui of the same period listed that the husband in a divorce decree had to sign the document with his fingerprint.

In AD 1100, Chinese novelist Shi-Naingan wrote in his book, The Story of the River Bank, “He compelled them to ink their fingers to record their fingerprints.”

The English first began using fingerprints on July 28, 1858, when on a whim Sir William Herschel, Chief Magistrate of the Hooghly district in Jungipoor, India, had Rajyadhar Konai, a local businessman, impress his hand print on a contract. Herschel made a habit of requiring prints on every contract made with the locals. He later established a fingerprint register.

Harry Jackson

The case of Harry Jackson is renowned as being the first criminal trial in the United Kingdom in which an individual was convicted based on fingerprint evidence.

On 27th June 1902, a number of billiard balls were stolen from a house in Denmark Hill, South London during a burglary. During the investigation of the scene, a police officer discovered fingerprints on a recently-painted windowsill. With suspicions that the burglar had entered the premises through this window, the Fingerprint Branch of Scotland Yard was contacted.

Detective Sergeant Collins attended the scene and photographed the fingerprints, particularly a clear left thumbprint. After ensuring the prints had not been left by anyone in the household nor any member of law enforcement who had visited the scene, he returned to Scotland Yard to identify the owner of the print. The laborious task of sifting through the fingerprints of known criminals was conducted until a similar print was found. The scene prints were compared and it was concluded that they were a match.

The fingerprint belonged to 41-year-old Harry Jackson. Jackson, who worked as a labourer, had previously served time in prison for burglary, further supporting the case against him. Jackson was arrested and, at that time, was in possession of stolen goods from a different burglary. The Assistant Crime Commissioner at the time was Edward Henry, the man who had produced the Henry System of Fingerprint Classification and founded the Fingerprint Bureau. Unfortunately fingerprinting in forensic science was a relatively new concept and had never been successfully used as evidence in courts. Prosecutor Richard Muir was brought in to help. DS Collins acted as an expert witness, providing information on fingerprinting and presenting the court with enlarged images of the crime scene thumbprint and the suspect’s thumb print, detailing the similarities between the two. After much deliberation the prosecution managed to successfully convince the jury of the reliability of fingerprint evidence.

In September 1902, Harry Jackson was found guilty and sentenced in the Central Criminal Court to seven years imprisonment.

Black, S. Thompson, T. 2007. Forensic Human Identification: An Introduction. Florida: CRC Press.

Despite the advances in forensic technology, fingerprints have remained the bread and butter of crime fighting for more than 100 years.


The first British murderers to be convicted using fingerprint evidence

Fingerprints were used to help convict brothers Alfred and Albert Stratton of bludgeoning Thomas Farrow, 71, to death during a break-in at his paint suppliers in Deptford, South East London, in February 1905.

Thomas and Ann Farrow, shopkeepers in South London, were discovered by there neighbours bludgeoned to death in their home. Ann was actually still breathing but sadly died four days later without ever having regained consciousness.

A cash box with receipts was found empty, leading the police to believe that the motive was robbery. There was one print on the box which the police could find no match for. Fortunately, a local milkman reported seeing two young men in the vicinity of the Farrow house on the day of the murders, who were quickly identified as, petty criminals, Alfred and Albert Stratton. The police quickly began interviewing the brothers friends and associates.

Alfred’s girlfriend told police that he had given away his coat on the day of the murders and changed the colour of his shoes the following week and authorities caught up with the brothers and fingerprinted them. 

The Fingerprint on a cash box matched that of Albert, being held at Scotland Yard’s developing new bureau in the capital.

Although the fingerprint, or more correctly thumbprint was the only solid evidence the prosecution  had to offer, it was enough to have the brothers convicted and hanged on May 23, 1905.



Black, S. Thompson, T. 2007. Forensic Human Identification: An Introduction. Florida: CRC Press.






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