Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: September 2017

Tracing convicts with the Digital Panopticon

The DP homepage

A few days ago, I was in the grand surroundings of Liverpool’s St George’s Hall to be at the official launch of the Digital Panopticon. This huge project has been undertaken by researchers at the universities of Liverpool, Sheffield, Oxford, Sussex and Tasmania over the past couple of years.

The team has gathered together over four million records, aimed at letting users of its free website find out how punishment affected the lives of 90,000 individuals who were convicted of offences at the Old Bailey between 1780 and 1925. These include people who were transported to Australia.

St George’s Hall – former home of crown and civil courts, and so an appropriate venue for the DP launch and conference

The website is invaluable for crime, social, and family historians – it contains a huge amount of information about individuals, which can include not only their basic details and criminal record, but also their eye and hair colour.

In many cases, a ‘life archive’ has been assembled that enables users to see how an individual’s criminal career progressed, and what happened to them. This takes in data from other sites, such as Ancestry, Findmypast and The National Archives, as well as from Australian record collections.

At a more general level, researchers have found out that British convicts who were transported to Australia tended to refrain from offending once they had married and become parents; and that children born to transported convicts tended to be healthier and taller than those born to convicts in British prisons.

The website includes a ‘life of the week’, where an individual case study is looked at. One example is Mary Ann Hall, who was born around 1840. Like many other female offenders who can be found in the Digital Panopticon, she was first mentioned in terms of offending in her late 20s, but came before the courts on several occasions for both thefts and assaults. Her varied jobs, physical state (including syphilitic welts!) and relationships with family members can all be ascertained – as well as her criminal record and the places where she was incarcerated.

I can see this website being a much-used resource for many historians and researchers, and look forward to seeing what research comes out of it. Its launch came during the three-day Digital Panopticon conference this week, where several of the DP team gave papers looking at various aspects of crime and punishment, and it was clear just how much fascinating research is being done into this area.

Professor Robert Shoemaker officially launching the Digital Panopticon at St George’s Hall

Some is looking at ‘big data’ – such as Richard Ward‘s paper on the misrecording of prisoner ages, where several sources were compared to see just how accurate (or otherwise) ages were in written records, and Sharon Howard‘s analysis of the speech of defendants at the Old Bailey (where it seems that the less you said, the better your chances were – unless, conversely, you were articulate and spoke A LOT).

Others, however, are focusing on micro-histories from which we can gain an understanding of law and order at a particular time, and how it impacted on certain individuals. Several are looking at juvenile crime, and I’m following this research with interest.

The study of the history of crime is clearly thriving, and both the packed conference and the launch of the Digital Panopticon website are evidence of this. It will be interesting to see what research now follows from users of the site, now it has been launched. Watch this space!

 

Dr Lucy Williams, from the Digital Panopticon team, has written a great feature on the Digital Panopticon – an intro to the website, what it contains and how to use it – for Your Family History, the magazine I edit . This will be in the October issue, published on 26 September.

 

 

 

Crime sites open for Heritage Days

The Bramhall stocks in Cheshire – image from the Stockport Image Archive, taken from Wikipedia

This weekend sees the annual Heritage Open Days take place across Britain, and it’s a great opportunity for everyone who’s interested in the history of crime to access sites relevant to our history of crime and punishment.

The Illingworth stocks – photo by Alexander P Kapp, from Geograph

For example, if you’re near Illingworth in Yorkshire, you can visit the town’s Regency-era gaol and 17th century double (two-seater) stocks (see here for details), and find out more about plans to restore the gaol, together with stories of those who were once held in the gaol.

The gaol is open on both Saturday and Sunday, with tours taking place every 20 minutes (and see here for more details of how one group is trying to preserve both the gaol and stocks).

Unfortunately, unless you’re very quick, you’ll be too late for this afternoon’s walk round Leeds, to find out about the Victorian police constable’s beat (why wasn’t this on at the weekend?!).

Warrington police station, by Richard Vince, on Geograph

However, you can visit the Museum of Policing in Cheshire – located in Warrington – where you can look at the Victorian cells at Warrington Police Station, and find out about the history of policing in Cheshire since 1883. This is open on Saturday, from 10am until 4pm.

Throughout the weekend, there are walks taking place in Hexham, Northumberland, focusing on the town’s House of Correction, with its separate exercise yards and accommodation for each gender.

In Oxfordshire, you can visit the County Police Station in Abingdon, which was built in the 1850s, and see the original police cells. The station is only open on Saturday, from 10.30 until 4pm.

There are undoubtedly lots of other sites to visit; have a search on the Heritage Open Days website, or search local listings, to find out more.

A journey round HMP Shepton Mallet

A bit of publicity on the local news always helps, and it was an item on the television about a ghost being spotted by staff at a former Somerset prison that got me in the car to go and visit it. Now, I have to say upfront that I don’t believe in ghosts in any way, shape or form (I annoy anyone I watch Most Haunted with by hooting with laughter for much of it), but it was the mention that the prison was open to visitors for a limited time before being redeveloped that made me drop my work and travel down to the south-west.

HMP Shepton Mallet, located near the centre of the Somerset town, closed in 2013 after a four-century history, and is due to be developed into flats (the BBC has covered consultations into its future). However, until works begin next year, the prison is being opened on a regular basis for public tours. These are run by Jailhouse Tours, which bills itself as providing the ‘most immersive tours’ of recently closed jails (it also runs similar tours of Shrewsbury and Gloucester prisons).

Don’t be concerned about the word ‘immersive’, however. Although the company offers a fully-guided two hour trip round the prison, accompanied by a former prison officer, you can also wander round on your own, if you prefer – and in this case, ‘immersive’ simply means wandering round wherever you want, in a prison where few concessions have been made for the dark tourist, which is, in my opinion, a good thing.

Those former prisons that have been permanently opened up to visitors inevitably shape, curate and present a certain narrative, with various levels of success. For every Kilmainham Gaol – where, although there are exhibitions and guides, you still get a clear sense of the bleakness and tedium of life inside – there is a Littledean Jail (porn and titillation in a former House of Correction). But here, you see a prison in varying levels of decay, abandoned and left as it was, with different stages of its history exposed.

There is damp and mould; peeling walls and smells emanating from the urinals and showers. You can crawl into a 17th century cell – rediscovered years after being boarded up – or visit the 20th century gymnasium. You see the changing nature of criminal justice, the inhumanity of aspects of prison life, and sense how horrific it must have been to be in the exercise yard, in the fresh air, yet surrounded by the high walls and barred windows of the prison on all sides.

It’s not cheap to visit; and if you want everything explained to you via flashy interpretation boards, don’t go (here, things to look at are pointed out on laminated sheets of A4 stuck on doors, due to the temporary nature of the tour). But the staff are both welcoming and genuinely interested in the site, and there’s free tea and coffee in the old visiting rooms… and, more importantly, it’s a rare opportunity to see so many centuries of criminal history before the developers take over.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

 

Thieving at the theatre doors

London’s Adelphi Theatre in 1840

In his memoirs, the famous, Glasgow-born detective Allan Pinkerton noted that in his adopted America in the 19th  century, there were very few thieves who worked ‘in all fashions and in all places’ – instead, they tended to specialise, focusing in on a particular type of theft, or a preferred location.

He noted that one class of thieves were mainly juveniles, and known as ‘theatre thieves’. They would hang around outside the doors of theatres, and pickpocket theatre-goers – undetectable in the ‘ingoing and outgoing rush’.

Allan Pinkerton, photograph from the Library of Congress

These young pickpockets knew that the risks were relatively small; if their victims noticed their losses, they would be reluctant to report them to the police, because they might have to appear as witnesses in subsequent trials, and this was not something they wanted to do. In addition, the generally young age of theatre thieves meant that their punishment, if caught and convicted, might be more lenient than that meted out to older thieves.

Although Pinkerton had been referring to the situation in the US, the congregation of pickpockets outside theatres was common on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1892, the Illustrated Police News commented on the ‘gangs’ of pickpockets who hung around the theatres on the Strand, particularly at the time when shows were ending, and audiences would be coming out of the theatre doors – usually between 11pm and midnight.

They took advantage of the crowds, and of the weather, for when it was raining, cabs could take some time to reach the theatres to take theatregoers home, and they would be forced to huddle outside the theatres. They tended to work in groups, surrounding individuals and ‘hustling’ them until a watch, chain or purse had been snatched from a pocket.

Men were particularly at risk if they were escorting a female relative or friend along the road towards a cab; thieves would assume that his attention was distracted by looking after his companion, and mark him as a ‘fit victim’.

The police were constantly on the alert for these offenders, but they were reactive rather than proactive, and this caused complaint; it was suggested that they should monitor the local area prior to the shows ending, and ‘warn off obviously suspicious characters’ who were hanging around the exit doors.

A depiction of the Strand in the 19th century

The prevalence of these characters, standing around on the Strand, was described not only as a scandal, but also ‘a disgrace to London, a danger to residents and visitors, and a matter of wonder to the foreigner from every other civilised capital in Europe.’

However, the thieves were not to be deterred by the police, because theatre-goers were seen as easy targets. They were dressed up; they had money; they were easily distracted not only by the performance but by the company they were with – friends, relatives or partners who they were either deep in conversation with during intervals or on leaving the theatres, or busy escorting home on foot or to a cab. They weren’t looking out for the thieves, and the thieves knew it.

Plays about thieves might be popular in both the metropolis and the provinces – but the reality wasn’t as entertaining…

Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that newspapers continued to report cases of theft relating to theatre audiences, such as when 23-year-old bookbinder William Brown, a ‘notorious’ West End theatre thief, was sentenced to two years’ hard labour in 1906, and even in 1930, theatre-goers were still being singled out by pickpockets.

One ‘new ruse’ reported that year involved thieves dressing up in evening clothes and attending the theatre during intervals. They would follow an audience member to the cloakroom, where they would squirt flour and water onto his coat, and then call his attention to the mark left.

The victim would take off his coat, find a clothes brush and try to clean off the mark – it would only be when he put on his coat again that he would find his wallet missing from it. Several identical thefts were reported to Scotland Yard, and it was said that pickpockets were making ‘good hauls’ from the theatres every night.

Therefore, throughout the 19th century and beyond, the theatre was a place of entertainment – but also of criminal activity. The targeting of theatre-goers by thieves was just one example.

You can read more about crimes relating to the theatre – as well as about the professional and private lives of Victorian entertainment professionals – in my new book, Life On The Victorian Stage, which is out now, published by Pen & Sword.

It is available from the publisher’s website, Amazon, and all good booksellers.

 

© 2017 Criminal Historian

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑