Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Category: conference

BCHS5 review: A Coven of Crime Historians

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…

Criminally interesting: the British Crime Historians Symposium 2014

Liverpool's St George's Hall - former location of the Assizes

Liverpool’s St George’s Hall – former location of the Assizes

On 26 and 27 September, criminal historians from across the UK – and indeed from around the world – gathered at the University of Liverpool’s Foresight Centre for the 2014 British Crime Historians Symposium.

It was an incredibly enjoyable and friendly conference, with several people commenting on how quickly the time went, listening to a wide variety of papers and talking to people working in diverse areas of criminal history.

The only downside, as usual, was choosing which panel to go and listen to; often, several equally interesting panels took place at a time.

The Digital Panopticon team were there, talking about data visualisation and other aspects of this project, which aims to study the impact of punishments on the lives of thousands of people sentenced at the Old Bailey in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Meanwhile, legal historian Richard Ireland gave a hugely entertaining paper about Welsh criminal justice which was later also looked at by Rachel Jones, who studied how Welsh magistrates’ local knowledge was used in their decision making.

Interesting things learned here included the fact that although English was the official language of the Welsh courts until 1942, matters were sometimes subverted by evidence being given in Welsh, without translation, or even by magistrates conducting affairs in Welsh themselves, leading to some rather brief reports in the press – the English-speaking reporters being unable to say what had happened in court. Magistrates might also be related to prosecution or defence lawyers, leading to some rather biased – but also strangely intimate – court cases.

In another panel, I was particularly interested in Louise Falcini‘s paper on the impressment of naked male bathers in London in the late 18th century and Guy Woolnough‘s on rural policing in Victorian Cumbria, which linked the Temperance movement and Methodism in the area to the nature of arrests by the local police.

On Saturday, I listened to a fascinating panel about a project, After Care, that sets out to document the life histories of children who were sent to reformatories in the late 19th century. Pam Cox, Heather Shore and Zoe Alker spoke about the challenges of the project, which is trying to find out what happened to these children – did they go on to lead successful lives, and how do we measure success?

I then took part in a panel with Cardiff University’s Cath Horler-Underwood about women’s involvement in crime in the eighteenth century – I spoke about the representation of female defendants in property offence cases heard by rural magistrates, and Cath about women’s involvement in coin uttering cases – which included some great detail about women who hid coins in their underclothes, which had to be ‘retrieved’ by searchers.

Here’s my Storify of the conference (my tweets were sadly limited as I couldn’t get onto the wifi – despite much trying). If you weren’t there, you missed out on a criminally interesting, entertaining, yet informative, conference that proved that criminal history is where it’s at!




The "Golden Age" of Sedition: #ESSHC2014

From "True reform of parliament" by James Gillray

From “True reform of parliament” by James Gillray


“Sedition: conduct or language inciting to rebellion against the constituted authority in a state” – Oxford English Dictionary

Last week, I was in Vienna at the biannual European Social Science History Conference (ESSHC) – known by the hashtag #ESSHC2014 on Twitter.

One of the most interesting papers I attended was one by Peter Rushton on The Rise and Fall of Seditious Words in England, 1550-1750. I have found his articles on the magistracy – written with Gwenda Morgan – incredibly interesting (and very useful within the context of my own PhD on the rural magistracy), and his paper was equally so.

The paper looked not just at what was sedition, but at how it was dealt with at a local level, looking particularly at magistrates in northern England as, according to Rushton, “magistrates WERE the local government” in Early Modern England.

Sedition arose from a belief that the reputation of rulers had to be preserved, and as part of the criminal law, the Star Chamber could punish all forms of attack on a king or his ministers, whether written, spoken, sung, or drawn (such as in a political cartoon).

Truth was no defence; if a statement was seen as dangerous to the social and political order, then it was deemed to be seditious, whether based on truth or not. It was even possible to prosecute for sedition if the victim of it were dead – such as if the defendant had insulted the king’s parentage (see Burn, Vol 3, 250, where he states ‘the offence is the same, whether the person libelled be alive or dead’).

By a local extension of the law, Rushton argued, it could also be sedition to insult a provincial Justice of the Peace, as subordinates of the monarch were protected. Richard Burn discussed this in his handbook for magistrates, The Justice of the Peace, differentiating between libel and genuine discussion:

“Although it is an aggravated misdemeanour to publish an invective against judges and juries with a view to bring into suspicion and contempt the administration of justice in the country, still it is lawful with candour and decency to discuss the merits of the verdict of the jury or the decisions of a judge.” (The Justice of the Peace, Vol 3, 250)

But could magistrates be the victims of sedition? Or were they instead slandered? And what was the different between slander and sedition?

Rushton noted that “all seditious speech was scandalous, but not all scandalous speech was seditious”. He detailed the language used in various cases, but said it was hard to work out from the words used or who the victim was, just what was sedition and what wasn’t.

The prosecution of sedition was, though, less about the exact words used, and more to do with how wide an audience heard the allegations, or whether disorder could result from that particular use of words. Despite there being evidence of allegations made against magistrates – such as a 1650s example given by Rushton, “The justices you run to are tyrants” – many acts of defiance of local orders issued by JPs were not defined as seditious.

In fact, defamatory words uttered against local magistrates and mayors were not treated as sedition, even if they reflected badly on them, so Rushton believes that there was a tolerance of some words and acts. There is little evidence of sedition proceedings brought by magistrates – because they were attempting to defend the dignity of the magistracy rather than the state, Rushton argued, they may have treated cases as insults instead of sedition.

They were vulnerable to personal attacks, but the personal should be stressed; magistrates tended to face down the insults rather than making it a bigger deal by prosecuting, thus preserving their dignity.

In addition, in terms of the audience hearing a seditious comment, witnesses were often the people who brought a sedition case. Yet few would hear the words uttered about a magistrate in his justicing room, so unless he was willing to bring the case, thus publicising the comments, he might have decided to keep quiet about it.

Burn failed to differentiate between libel and sedition in his guidance, his main advice being:

“Libels on persons employed in a public capacity receive an aggravation as they tend to scandalise the government by reflecting on those who are entrusted with the administration of public affairs; for they not only endanger the public peace…by stirring up the parties immediately concerned to acts of revenge, but also have a direct tendency to breed in the people a dislike of their governors, and incline them to faction and sedition.” (The Justice of the Peace, Vol 3, 249)

In this statement, it can be seen that there was a blurred line between libel and sedition, but that sedition could be seen as a more active, political form of libel that risked disrupting an orderly society.

Rushton argued that, in the later part of this period, the rise of print culture replaced anxiety about the spoken word. There was more of a fear of rumour being spread by news sheets, via coffee-houses, from London and out into the provinces. Official priorities therefore were redirected from the spoken word to the dangers of print and the written word, with printers and writers being prosecuted.

Rushton concluded by saying that the focus on the written word, and on printing, has meant that speech has been neglected. Likewise, the “local” needs examining – what was happening away from the London-based print prosecutions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries?

The century between 1650 and 1750 was, Rushton said, a “golden” age of seditious speech – and as such, I believe it was also a fascinating age.




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