I’m not sure what you call a group of crime historians meeting together. My first suggestion on Twitter was this:

Edinburgh University's Old College, location for this year's BCHS

Edinburgh University’s Old College, location for this year’s BCHS

Although Helen Rogers then suggested ‘a trouble’ (also good); but despite us not being remotely witch-like, I’ve finally gone with ‘coven’ – a word meaning a meeting that was first recorded in writing in 16th century Scotland. And this Scots link is particularly relevant.

For last weekend saw the fifth British Crime Historians Symposium (BCHS) take place in the rather grand surroundings of the Old College of the University of Edinburgh.

BCHS is an event that takes place every two years, where crime historians can gather to discuss their latest research, to debate history and crime, and to just generally socialise with others with similar interests!

We’re all a grim lot, I suppose, being interested in crime and deviance over a wide timespan and geographical scope. Yet BCHS has always shown how friendly crime historians are – from my experience, it’s one of the most enjoyable conferences to attend, with a really good atmosphere.

Generally, crime historians are very supportive to others, and therefore the questions after individual papers and panels tend to be more interesting and less combative (or insecure, depending on how you read it) than at some other conferences.

The Digital Panopticon homepage - BCHS attendees got to play with its data

The Digital Panopticon homepage – BCHS attendees got to play with its data

It must be good, for this is the third BCHS event I’ve attended; at my first, in Milton Keynes in 2012, I was on a panel with the ace Lucy Williams. Both of us were doing our PhDs at the time; of course, we’ve both finished now, and she is now working on the Digital Panopticon project – a truly collaborative project between several universities – which was represented by several members of the team this year, presenting various aspects of the research they’ve conducted, as well as detailing what the project is up to.

We were also able to take part in a workshop with access to the Digital Panopticon beta website, and it was good to be able to see what the project will eventually be able to offer not just crime historians, but anyone trying to research their family history, too.

What was particularly enjoyable this year was the increasing number of historians and papers looking at visual evidence – from newspaper illustrations to crime scene photographs, the visual can give us evidence about people’s lives just as well as text can. One of the most interesting panels for me was on photography, science and medicine.

Alexa Neale presenting her paper on crime scene photography

Alexa Neale presenting her paper on crime scene photography

Alexa Neale‘s paper on the evidence left by mid-20th century crime scene photographs was fascinating; not only because such photographs document lifestyles in west London slums – areas that are now far beyond gentrification to being locations where only the riches members of society can live. But they also show the minutiae of people’s lives, as well as marking the location where they died.

Alexa’s paper was followed by Amy Bell‘s on the crime scene photography of illegal abortion sites. Again looking at London in the mid-20th century, prior to the legalisation of abortion, and again utilising photographs really well in her presentation, these looked at the juxtaposition of domestic scenes with the medical paraphernalia of abortion tables, rubber sheets and buckets.

Perhaps the most striking image, though, was of the grim flat where one woman was given an illegal abortion by her friends – a dirty, grimy, cluttered space where, in the tiny kitchen, a cereal packet advertising a competition to win a new home was left on a surface. Again, the juxtaposition of this woman’s life with the promise of a new one – set against her own, awful, death – was moving.

Finally, we moved back to the 19th century, and Kelly Ann Couzens‘ paper on a rape case that came before the Scottish courts. This again focused on people from the lowest rung of society – those living in tiny, multiple-occupancy flats where there was precious little privacy, and where victims of crime faced difficulties in getting those in positions of authority to believe them.

Entrance to the Old College's Playfair Library

Entrance to the Old College’s Playfair Library

But this was just one great panel of many; from murder narratives (Clare Sandford-Couch and Helen Rutherford) to juvenile sex offenders (Yorick Smaal), transportation to policing (Clive Emsley, Chris Williams, Haia Shpayer-Makov), baby farming (Jim Hinks) to corruption in horse racing (Vivien Miller), it was all here, with participants attending from all over the world, from Scotland to Australia.

Julia Laite deserves special mention for her excellent plenary paper, which looked at the difficulties (or frustrations) in trying to construct a micro-history that has transatlantic elements – from dealing with archives in different countries (and the attendant language issues), to working out why a picture of an Australian town features a camel strutting down the high street! There were several heads nodding, as other historians clearly related to Julia’s experiences.

And that’s why we all come together for BCHS. It’s an opportunity to talk to others, to hear about their experiences, and to relate to them – we’re part of a community of historians who are all undertaking our own research yet are fascinated by, and supportive, of others’.

It was great to hear from some new and fairly new research students undertaking some really interesting work – and by the time of BCHS6 in 2018 (due to be held at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk), who knows what else they will have to tell us?

These tweets really sum up the weekend for me…