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.
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.
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.