Author Archives: Bob Shoemaker

Gendered Justice? The Fate of Convicted Murderers at the Old Bailey, 1780-1880

A guest post by Emma Barrett, University of Sheffield.

On what basis were people sentenced to death in late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century England? Between 1780 and 1880, 253 defendants were convicted of murder and sentenced to death at the Old Bailey, but only 28% were executed; instead, many were imprisoned, transported or pardoned. My initial research hypothesis focused on gender as the most plausible explanation for varied outcomes in the fate of defendants, but extensive investigation revealed a more complex interplay of factors that might account for escaping the hangman’s noose.

It has been contended by historians such as Simon Devereaux and Dana Rabin that gender differences and experiences influenced the outcome of sentencing in criminal trials. The historiographical debate highlights that women who committed crimes broadly fell between two opposites: for misdemeanours, they were treated more leniently in the justice system; however, for serious crimes such as murder, women were treated more harshly as they were deemed ‘doubly deviant’ based on social expectations of women’s maternal role, nurturing children and demonstrating purity and good character. In comparison, men were meant to be men: controlling the household, drinking and fighting were accepted traits of masculinity. However, it is clear from my own investigation that gender cannot be used as the only factor in determining different outcomes in murder cases; indeed, for the period 1780-1837 the data indicates similar outcomes in sentencing for both men and women.

Circumstances after 1838 were affected by evolving views on the death penalty: far fewer offences were subject to death as part of a more general reluctance to employ capital punishment, and here gender did become a more influential factor. This is demonstrated in figure three on the Digital Panopticon’s Penal Outcomes webpage and reinforced by my own research within the Digital Panopticon: 75% of women compared to just 19% of men were imprisoned instead of facing the death penalty. Gender, therefore, as Devereaux and Rabin have argued, did eventually become a consideration in sentencing outcomes during the nineteenth century, but for the years 1780-1837, other factors were more important in influencing the minds of judges and juries.

Gender and Penal Outcome

One such factor was the motive of the accused in murder cases. In simple terms, motive in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was judged solely on whether a weapon of some description was involved in the murder. Picking up a knife, gun, or brick, whether premeditated or not, was deemed to signify intent to kill. In contrast, beating a victim to death with your bare hands was an spontaneous crime. This can be seen in the case of Michael Crawley. At the age of 62, Michael had a quarrel with his wife Mary and attacked her with a ‘chopper’, inflicting twenty wounds on her head and face and causing death from her injuries on the following day. While in custody his son visited and asked ‘Father, why did you not hit her with your fist, and not take that weapon to her?’ Michael was sentenced to death and was executed for his crime according to execution records for the county of Essex. This is one of the cases that reveals how the justice system was understood within society; in the absence of a weapon, death sentences were less common as there were doubts about the intent to murder the victim.

There were some exceptions to this general trend. Michael Carney killed his wife Ann over a dispute. No weapon was used but the prosecution focused on premeditated thought and threats made that were classed as malicious intent. Their daughters and neighbours testified that Carney had repeatedly threatened and beaten his wife and also threatened his children with the same fate. A neighbour, Philip Dyer, testified that ‘I have heard him beat his wife and threatened to murder her, several times’. Carney was executed for the murder of his wife.
The difference between intent and opportunity in crimes was still only one of the variables that led to different outcomes in murder cases. Of the executions carried out in this hundred-year period, 35% of the cases could be deemed to have involved intent due to the use of a weapon, but 15% of defendants in cases where the crime can be judged as opportunistic were still executed. To understand these figures further, the nature of the trial itself must also be considered.

Trial proceedings offer the historian a glimpse into the life of the convict, their relationship to the victim, and social expectations of acceptable behaviour. In particular, the character of the defendant became a prominent aspect of the questioning process. This included, in limited cases, the demonstration of insanity as a means to evade a death sentence. In Charles Saunders’s case, his mental capacity was judged to be a hereditary aliment passed down from his mother. The Digital Panopticon has a possible death record for him in 1901 at the age of 80, which suggests that a recommendation for mercy was accepted due to his mental state. Whilst not a frequent occurrence in the sample size, this variable was a contributing factor in murder trials. Even more common were discussions about insanity caused by ‘madness in liquor’.

Drunkenness was used to support claims of character, albeit without ever being regarded as a “get out of jail free card” in this period. Thomas Robert Davis killed his wife while under the influence of alcohol, but at his trial the marriage was revealed to be a happy one. Once charged with the murder, Davis was left to sober up and it emerged that he had no recollection of murdering his wife; as the constable repeatedly told Davis whilst he was in a drunken stupor, ‘you are not in a fit state to make any statement to me; go and lie down’. Nevertheless, drunkenness in this case did not allow Davis to escape capital punishment: his death record is found in the Capital Punishment database. Additionally, in Peter Masterson’s case, inebriation led to a jury recommendation of mercy as they considered that the killing blow was struck under the influence of strong drink. According to capital punishment records in Kent, Masterson was still executed. Drunkenness was clearly a factor in many murder trials, but within my sample a distinct pattern remains elusive in determining sentencing outcomes during the period.

Recommendations for Mercy and Guilty Pleas, 1780-1837

The active role of juries is one of the starkest contrasts between the nineteenth century and contemporary judicial proceedings, as can be seen in figure five on the Digital Panopticon’s Penal Outcomes webpage. Between 1780 and 1880, 22% of cases involved a recommendation for mercy by the jury. These recommendations were made on age (sparing young offenders a death sentence), circumstances, provocation and, most importantly, whether the convict had a “Good Character”. The importance of these recommendations made by the jury highlights the power that they held to alter and influence the outcome. Out of 56 such cases, only two executions took place, that of Michael Crawley. and of Peter Masterson.

Juries often sought to spare women who murdered their children from the scaffold. Emily Church is one example of this. Her good character was affirmed during the trial, where she was deemed a good mother until the point of her child’s murder. The jury recommended mercy due to her age and the ‘desperate poverty-stricken condition’ she was in. In this case, the jury also asked the judge, Baron Hawkins, to join in their recommendation. Rather than facing capital punishment Emily was imprisoned (Parole of Convicts, 1853-1925, obtained via the National Archives).

An additional case, that of William Tomkins, further shows the role of a “good character” in jury recommendations. Tomkins killed his wife after returning from military service to find she had moved in with another man. The recommendation was given due to his previous “good character” as a soldier, and as a result he was transported to Western Australia (Convict Indents, Ship and Arrival Registers, 1788-1868). In addition, the apparent “bad character” of the victim was also used as justification for mercy, as in the case of Annette Meyers who shot her common-law husband Henry Ducker. While Ducker was in military service the couple exchanged correspondence, and these letters were read out as part of the trial to demonstrate Ducker’s predilection for engaging in affairs with other women: ‘Dear Henry, I hope you are not making a fool of me. If you do not mean to be honourable to me, say so at once’; ‘You know very well, that no other man but you had my company since you wished for it’; ‘if that is all the love you have for me, I do not care for such love, I know you care more for that young woman than you do for me’. Even though Meyers admitted in custody ‘I did it, I intended to do it, I have intended to do it for a long time’, the jury requested mercy due to what they deemed to be extraordinary provocation; she received it and was transported instead.

It is evident from this investigation, particularly for the period 1780-1837, that there is no stand-out explanation for how those found guilty of murder were treated by the English justice system. The original hypothesis on gender differences was not uniformly proven in the data, albeit an increasing trend towards the imprisonment of female convicts can be identified after 1838. Additionally, delineating intent does not by itself explain all cases where convicts were sentenced to death. Instead, the surprising conclusion of my research is that the jury held more sway in outcomes than I had previously thought, and what was said during the trial about the defendant and their character played a significant role in their eventual fate, arguably suggesting that the justice system, despite frequent recourse to capital punishment, was more humane than previously thought.

The Challenge of Visualising 100,000 Convict Lives

The Digital Panopticon project is linking together a wide variety of criminal justice, genealogical, and biometric records to trace thousands of convict lives from birth to death.  Each story will start with a birth date anywhere from the mid eighteenth century to the mid nineteenth century, and will include a variety of events including convictions for minor offences, one or more Old Bailey trials and punishments, possible subsequent convictions, marriage, children, census records, and death.  We are calling these life archives, though many will only present fragments of lives, depending on the amount of evidence available.  One such fragment we have already assembled is that of John Davis, born in about 1817, convicted of stealing some clothes and other items from a dwelling house in 1836, incarcerated for a month on the hulks, and transported on the ship Moffatt to New South Wales, where he arrived several months later.

John Davis

Life Archive for John Davis

How do we summarise 100,000 stories like this?  How can we find common patterns among all the individual narratives?  The project is exploring a variety of visualisation techniques in order to summarise this evidence without, as much as possible, obscuring the complexity of the individual stories.  We have already used visualisations to assess levels of missing evidence and detect errors in the Old Bailey Proceedings (Men as Wives: Visualising Errors in the Old Bailey Proceedings Data and Seeing Things Differently: Visualising Patterns of Data from the Old Bailey Proceedings), and to identify patterns in individual datasets (Transportation Under the Macroscope); and Open Data and the Digital Panopticon). But how do we use visualisations to document relations between datasets?

There is a bewildering array of visualisation formats available, as this Google Images screenshot indicates. Which one should we choose?

Which visualisation?!

Which visualisation?!

The choice obviously depends on the nature of the information to be displayed. Our most successful record linkage so far is between the records of sentences (from the Old Bailey Proceedings) and the records of punishments experienced (primarily execution, transportation, and imprisonment).  You may be surprised to read that there was a considerable discrepancy between the punishments judges dictated to convicts in the Old Bailey courtroom and the actual punishments they received.  Following their sentences, many convicts received reduced punishments as a result of pardons, other decisions taken by penal officials, and ill health or death.

Most useful to us for representing these patterns are Sankey diagrams, which depict flows in many to many relationships. Individual lines trace individual journeys, but where the same paths are followed by many people they are brought together as thicker lines, the thickness of the line denoting the volume of the flow.

Old Bailey sentences vs actual penal outcomes, 1790-99

Old Bailey sentences vs actual penal outcomes, 1790-99

For example, this diagram traces the convicts’ experiences in the 1790s, focusing on the two main sentences of that decade, death and transportation.  We can see from this that only a proportion (28%) of those sentenced to death were actually executed, with many others being transported (following a conditional pardon), and a few experiencing other outcomes such as going into service in the army or navy (during the French wars) or death.  Only around two-thirds of those sentenced to transportation, similarly, were actually transported, with the remained ending up in the hulks (and then presumably discharged after a period), or having a small number of other outcomes.

The advantage of presenting the information in this way—as opposed to, for example, a table—is that it is readily understandable without obscuring the variety of the possible outcomes.  Moreover, the patterns which stand out pose questions for further research, such as how and why did so many potential transportees manage to evade this punishment–and what determined which punishments they actually received?  These are issues we are currently investigating.

But what happens when the variables become more complex, and the number of stages prisoners might go through multiplies?  This is the problem we are working on now.  As noted, our multiple datasets include information about a variety of different types of events in convict lives.  Sankey diagrams should be able to help, as they can show multiple paths through several stages, which is what we want to do with convict lives.  Each life history can be a line in a Sankey diagram, which, when 1000s of lives are included, would reveal general patterns.  But how do we manage the large number of events, taking place at different times?  A problem here is that we want to introduce a time element to the variables (the actual dates of events), which makes it too complicated for a normal Sankey diagram.

There is no off-the-peg solution to this problem.  But here is a crude mock up using Excel of what we hope to achieve.  Eventually we will develop visualisations like this using D3, a JavaScript library for producing data visualisations.

Twenty-four convict lives from birth to punishment

Twenty-four convict lives from birth to punishment

This is based on twenty-four convict lives where we currently have eight or more records, including their birth, previous conviction (if any), Old Bailey conviction, and punishment (periods of incarceration in the hulks or a prison and subsequent release, or transportation, or execution).

It is hard to draw conclusions from the rather inelegant presentation, but you can start to see some interesting patterns.  A flat line means little time elapsed, while a steep line connotes a longer period.  We can see how many convicts had previous convictions, and how these often occurred years before the Old Bailey conviction which led to the punishment displayed.  In terms of punishment, we can see significant changes over time in the nineteenth century: crudely a shift from incarceration in the hulks followed by transportation; to prisons followed by transportation; to prisons leading to a prison licence.  What will happen when we replicate this format with tens of thousands of cases?  Will patterns become clearer, or will it just be a mess?

Convict lives by age at which events occurred

Convict lives by age at which events occurred

In fact, this visualization is in some respects already too complicated to interpret easily.  If we remove the date variable and just use the age at which events occurred, it simplifies things.  Here different patterns emerge: the wide age range of previous convictions (many first convictions took place at a young age), the wide age range of those convicted at the Old Bailey; the relatively short time gaps between conviction and commitment on the hulks, and between incarceration on the hulks and transportation (usually); the longer times spent in prison before transportation or licence; and the older ages of those sentenced to prison.

Obviously, this is work in progress, and we have a lot more work to do to create accessible and fine-tuned visualisations providing these types of information, while including thousands more cases. We hope that what we come up with will be of use not only to this project, but also to researchers in other fields who want to create visual representations of vast amounts of complex data in accessible formats.

The evolution of record-keeping as a means of understanding criminality, 1780-1860

Bob Shoemakers’ keynote address from the Penal History in a Digital Age conference in Tasmania, June 2016, focused on the project’s Epistemologies research theme. He asked: Why did they keep such detailed records about criminals?

What makes the Digital Panopticon project possible is the fact that in nineteenth-century Britain and Australia detailed records were kept for the first time about the personal characteristics of convicted criminals.  This information, particularly ages, makes the sophisticated record linkage possible which allows us to compile such substantial life archives for so many convicts.

This was not always the case.  In the eighteenth century, and earlier, we very rarely know anything more about convicts than their names and offences; the one exception is convicts who were executed, whose lives were written up in the wonderfully rich, but religiously framed, Ordinary of Newgate’s Accounts

In contrast, records containing personal information about convicts proliferated after 1780. By 1860 a vast amount of personal data was collected: in addition to their names, offences, verdicts, and sentences, details were recorded about ages, places of birth, occupations, marital status, number of children, and parentage; descriptions of their physical appearance (height, weight, eye and hair colour, ‘build’, marks, and tattoos); whether they could read and write, their education, religion; and previous convictions, character, and behaviour in prison.

Overview of developments in record keeping

Overview of developments in record keeping about criminals, 1778-1842

The table provides a brief overview of changes in record-keeping between 1780 and 1860.  It can be summarised in three main stages:

The first major innovations, in the late eighteenth century, were the recording of ages in the registers of the hulks (following the introduction of this punishment after the cessation of transportation to the American colonies), and the creation of the criminal registers in 1791 by the sheriffs of London and Middlesex.

Home Office Criminal Register, 1791 (HO 26)

Home Office Criminal Register, 1791 (HO 26)

The criminal registers recorded, largely in tabular form, information about the ages, places of birth, occupations, and physical descriptions for each person accused of a crime and committed to Newgate Prison.

Lavishly embellished front page of 1791 Criminal Register

Lavishly embellished front page of 1791 Criminal Register

The elaborate title page in florid handwriting, which proudly promised ‘a particular description of each offender’, indicates the pride taken by the clerk in its creation.

The second stage came with the opening of the first national penitentiary, Millbank Prison, in 1816, whose registers also included information about prisoners’ mental state (their character, behaviour, and religion) and family circumstances (marital status for both sexes, number of children for female prisoners).

Millbank Prison Register

Millbank Prison Register, c.1820

The third stage, in the 1830s and 1840s, saw important new developments in existing record series and the development of new record keeping practices by prison chaplains.  Information was collected about education (literacy skills and degree of previous instruction, particularly in prison chaplain records), and family and friends, and, in the registers of the newly built Pentonville Prison, prisoner weights.

Why did these changes occur? Scholars have offered various theoretical perspectives.  These innovations can be seen as an aspect of the evolution and growth in power of the modern nation state; as part of a society-wide cultural/political initiative to obtain knowledge as a form of control; or as part of growing cultural importance given to ‘facts’. While all these explanations are relevant, we would like to offer a fourth, more crime-focused, reason: that this information collection was the result of a growing desire to understand the criminal. Before developing this argument, what are the limitations of the alternative explanations?

Record-keeping as part of the evolution of the modern nation state works well for Australia, which was run as a military colony for the first few decades (essentially as a prison without walls), so the ‘state’ could easily claim near-absolute power.  But in England a focus on the growing power of the state at a national level, on Parliament and the Home Office, doesn’t explain why so many of the innovations in the collection of information occurred at the local level, by local officials, quasi-officials, and independent social investigators such as Henry Mayhew. The criminal registers, for example, were invented by the sheriffs of London.

And while the creation of the Millbank prison registers was dictated by the statute which authorised the building of the prison, the Rules and Regulations for the prison established by the prison committee mandated the collection of additional information, and the actual registers kept by prison officers went even further.  If anything, this story is about a growth in local state power, not national power, and even then it was often not formally sanctioned by local leaders.

Under the 1823 Gaol Act, prison chaplains were required to produce an annual written ‘statement’ on the condition of the prisoners under their charge and, from 1840, national prison regulations required them to keep a ‘character book’.  There is no evidence that these records were expected to be detailed.  However, in their efforts to reform prisoners (and facilitated by the requirement that they visit prisoners on a regular basis), some chaplains went far beyond these requirements and collected extensive qualitative and quantitative evidence.

John Clay Prison Register

John Clay’s Prison Register Template

John Clay, chaplain to the Preston House of Correction adopted a set of registers in 1839 for recording a vast range of information about those committed to the jail. Although he was the apotheosis of information-gathering chaplains, Clay was not alone: at least twenty other chaplains between 1820 and 1860 also produced detailed reports on their prisoners.

These information gathering activities by local officials were not always welcomed by their superiors.  While some local magistrates and central government officials applauded them, others raised objections, and some reports were even suppressed. So, this doesn’t look like a straightforward example of the growth of national state power.

One could instead see the growth of record keeping as a wider phenomenon, perhaps a society-wide development, in which there was a coming together of local and national institutions to obtain knowledge about the governed, as a means of shaping their conduct.  This is clearly a significant part of the story, particularly in the context of the apparent increasing ungovernability of society from the late 18th century, in the wake of riot, revolution, and rising rates of crime, but the wide range of individuals involved and scale of the information collected makes it difficult to describe this phenomenon solely as a political exercise.

Moreover, we should not exaggerate either the desire of the state to collect this information, or the amount of power this information gave to those in authority. In a perverse way the collection of this information gave some agency to the accused and the criminal, since they were often the only persons in the room who knew their ages, places of birth, occupations, and religion.  At least some prisoners enjoyed their own form of power, reinventing aspects of their identity to, for example, avoid harsher punishments for those with previous convictions or secure more comfortable prison conditions. In 1856 the Governor of Cold Bath Fields prison complained about the large number of convicts who entered his prison with the surname of Smith, thereby creating new identities for themselves so that their previous convictions would not be noticed.

If a political explanation doesn’t work, perhaps we can adopt a more culturally focused one. Bearing in mind that increasing amounts of information were collected at this time about a wider range of issues than just crime and disorder, we could see innovations in record keeping as a result of the growing weight placed on facts, and statistics based on those ‘facts’, throughout society at this time.  As anyone who has spent time in British archives knows, the collection of information on a wide range of topics did expand dramatically at this time, but this doesn’t explain why criminals were some of the first subjects of these new record-keeping practices, alongside two other groups: military recruits and aliens.

So these existing explanations don’t fully explain the how, when and what of the increasing collection of personal information about criminals.  Our explanation is this: these changes were the result of a new moral and empirically-driven desire to better understand the criminal and the causes of crime (and not just control or punish him).

There were, of course, some more mundane and practical reasons why information about criminals was collected: to assist in arresting suspects and apprehending escapees from prisons, and to assist those responsible for reaching sentencing and pardoning decisions, and determining penal regimes for those committed to prison.  But even if we accept that these explanations have some purchase, they do not apply to many types of information collected, nor do they explain why such information was not collected earlier.

Instead, this record-keeping points to the existence of a diffuse and varied, but nonetheless significant information gathering culture among local officials. There was clearly a desire on the part of these officials to understand their custodial subjects and their crimes, but since there was no consensus about the causes of crime in this period there was no agreement about the types of information that needed to be collected, and record-keeping practices varied.

John Clay Statistics

John Clay’s Statistics on Education and Offending

Above is John Clay’s table associating degrees of education with various causes of crime, including drinking, idleness, poverty, etc.  Not being able to read is associated with idleness and ‘confirmed bad habits’ (whatever that means), while being able to read and write is associated with drinking as a cause of crime (a warning we should all perhaps heed).

Rather than merely an example of the growth of state power, innovations in criminal record keeping in the nineteenth century reflect a growing desire among those responsible for dealing with crime at the local level to understand their subjects, and to develop new methods of preventing crime and new methods of reforming offenders.

Why collect personal information about criminals if it is not going to be used?

The reason the Digital Panopticon project is able to trace the lives of convicts in such detail is the growing tendency of British local government to collect information about the lives and personal characteristics of criminals.  From the late eighteenth century, and culminating in the registers mandated by the Habitual Criminals Act of 1869, information about places of origin, occupation, physical features, literacy, religion, previous offences, and behaviour while in prison was increasingly collected, leading to entries in the Habitual Criminals Register such as the following:

TNA MEPO 6/5

TNA, MEPO 6/5 (1893), reproduced from David Hawkings, Criminal Ancestors: A Guide to the Historical Criminal Records in England and Wales (Stroud, 2009), p. 164.

We can trace the origins of these registers back to the detailed evidence about accused and convicted criminals kept by Justice of the Peace John Fielding in London from the 1750s to the 1770s (which were destroyed in the 1780 Gordon Riots), and the Criminal Registers, kept first by the City of London and then by the Home Office from 1791, which recorded information about those committed to Newgate Prison in London.

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Home Office, Criminal Registers of Prisoners in Middlesex and the City, September 1791-1792, London Lives, 1690-1800, NAHOCR700050004 (www.londonlives.org, version 1.1, 12 December 2014), National Archives, Ms HO 26/1

For example, the last line of this table is about Benjamin Edmondson, committed in September 1791, ‘aged 16, born in Rosemary Lane, 5 feet 10 [inches tall], sallow complexion, short brown hair, by trade a rope maker’.  Accused of stealing a pocket handkerchief, he was convicted at the Old Bailey and transported for seven years.

It is information like this which makes the Digital Panopticon project possible; and the absence of such information explains why it is impossible to carry out a similar project for an earlier time period.

But if we are to understand the information collected, understand its limitations and use it effectively, it’s important to know why these details were collected in the first place.  The most straightforward and compelling explanation is the desire to take advantage of the increasing power of the state in order to control prisoners. This was what the philosopher Jeremy Bentham intended when he invented the ‘panopticon’ as a form of imprisonment in 1791, and this term was picked up by the philosopher Michel Foucault as a metaphor for the tendency of modern disciplinary societies (or states) to seek total control over their populations.  But when we examine when and by whom this information was collected, and what it was used for, this explanation is not fully convincing.  Too much of this information was collected by low-level officials, with no apparent purpose in mind, and not actually used.

For example, while John Fielding’s primary purpose in collecting information at Bow Street was to keep a record of previous and suspected offenders so that he could make arrests when crimes took place, some of the information collected does not appear to have used.  He appears to have thought that information about previous convictions should influence sentencing decisions, but there is no evidence that the evidence was actually used for that purpose.  Similarly, the information he collected about place of birth, trade and age, and even more remarkably about prisoners’ handwriting abilities, does not appear to have had a clear purpose.

Similarly, while much of the information in the Criminal Registers may have been used to detect recidivists, as in the case of Charlotte Walker in 1798 (sentenced to transportation following numerous previous trials at the Old Bailey), and in sentencing and pardoning decisions (though once again there is little evidence that the information was actually used for this purpose), why did they record information about age and place of birth?  Interestingly, in one of the few instances of record-keeping becoming less systematic, the Home Office stopped collecting much of this information in 1802, perhaps because it wasn’t being used.  (The amount of information collected in the Criminal Registers only expanded again in 1834.)

And why did the clerks decide to keep the information in the Criminal Registers in tabular form? (This is one of the first examples of this method of recording evidence.)  Perhaps this was to encourage clerks to fill in every piece of information required, though as you can see from the example above this did not always happen—often clerks could not be bothered, and there were many blanks.  A tabular form makes statistics easier to compile, but there is no indication that they were used for this purpose (the first official criminal statistics were not compiled until 1805-10, and they only counted crimes, sentences and punishments, not personal characteristics).

When imprisonment became a primary means of punishment in the nineteenth century, prison records began to keep detailed records of all those committed, including not only physical descriptions, past convictions, and records of behaviour in prison, but also in some cases marital status (of men as well as women), number of children, religion, and whether prisoners could read or write.  In the controlled environment of a prison it was easy to collect such information, but once again the purpose of collecting some of this information is unclear.  Information about literacy may have been used to determine the type of instruction the prisoner would receive in prison, but such information started to be kept in the early 1830s, a decade before such instruction was actually introduced.

It is remarkable, therefore, how much information was collected without any clear idea of how it was going to be used.  The intentions of those who created these records are often not clear to us, but perhaps few of the creators knew either. What we may have here is a classic instance of ‘bureaucratic creep’.   Sometimes the form of the records was dictated by statute, and some information had to be kept for very practical reasons, but for the most part record keeping systems were devised by local officials (such as the Sheriffs of London or prison governors), who guessed what types of information might be useful or needed.  A culture of information gathering evolved, in an apparent attempt to understand the criminal and shape punishments, but without a clear sense of how specific types of information would be used.  Perhaps Foucault was right—Britain was becoming a disciplinary society in terms of the amount of information collected—but, unlike the activities of national security agencies today, the state lacked the power (and perhaps the will) to act on such information, let alone compel its collection on a regular basis.  Significantly, as Chris Williams has recently demonstrated, in 1874. a few years following the creation of the Habitual Criminals Register, it ‘was found to be a failure’.