Author Archives: Sharon Howard

Project Conference, September 2017: Registration is Open!

To mark completion of the four year AHRC funded project ‘The Digital Panopticon: The Global Impact of London Punishments’ we are hosting a three day conference. Join us at Liverpool’s St George’s Hall for three days of papers, round-tables, and events on the topic of crime and Punishment in Britain and Australia 1780-1925.

Date: Wednesday 13th- Friday 15th September                          ‌

Venue: St Georges Hall, Liverpool‌

For more information on how to register and the conference programme please see the conference website.

CFP: Digital Panopticon Conference

Our conference to mark the completion of the Digital Panopticon project will be held on 13-15 September 2017, St George’s Hall, Liverpool, UK.

We invite papers on any aspect of crime and punishment in Britain and its penal colonies between 1780 and 1925. We also welcome papers which include a comparative dimension with other times and places; papers on digital history, life-histories of prisoners and convicts. There will be dedicated space at the conference for those wishing to display research posters.

Please send an abstract of 200 words (for papers lasting no longer than 20 minutes), or panel proposals (3-5 speakers) by no later than 31st March 2017 to Lucy Williams (lwill@Liverpool.ac.uk) or Barry Godfrey (barry.godfrey@Liverpool.ac.uk).

If you’d like to display a poster, please email if possible by the same deadline explaining the topic of your poster in 100 words or so.

Download CFP Poster (pdf)

Uncovering digital history in Tasmania: The Digital Panopticon

We are delighted to have a guest post by Lauren Vogel of The Prosecution Project reporting on their experience of the Penal History in a Digital Age conference in June 2016.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the intersection between the past and the present more aptly than digital history. Advances in digital technology and new media hold the potential to transform the way historical research is conducted and, in the process, our understanding of both the past and present. The Digital Panopticon – a recent conference convened in Hobart, Tasmania – exemplified the quiet revolution underway in the humanities.

The conference presentations were a testament to the way in which modern technology can be utilised to preserve, research, and understand the history of crime and punishment and the experiences of the individuals who lived these phenomena. Ambitious large-scale digitisation projects from around the world were well represented in the program – the Digital Panopticon, Founders and Survivors, the Prosecution Project, and the Carceral Archipelago.

The conference represented a milestone for the Prosecution Project, with members of the research team presenting the first collective roundtable since the project’s inception in 2013. The Prosecution Project is digitising Australian court records from the 1830s to the 1960s and, serendipitously, the roundtable coincided with the entry of the 100,000th trial record in the online open-source database. A later version of the Digital Panopticon roundtable was presented at the Queensland Supreme Court in celebration of this second milestone (a recording  can be seen here).

The Prosecution Project roundtable explored the Australian trial process from beginning to end, with a focus on some of its important actors and decision-makers. It challenged some long-standing ideas in the historical and criminological literature and highlighted the potential of digital history to reimagine and clarify our understanding of the past.

PhD scholar Lisa Durnian opened the substantive discussion with an exploration of the evolution of the guilty plea. Representing a fundamental shift in the adversarial legal system, the rapid rise of the guilty plea in the mid-20th century is often attributed to an increase in plea-bargaining between prosecutors and defence lawyers at trial. However, Lisa found that from 1941 most guilty pleas were entered at the committal hearing, raising the interesting probability that factors aside from plea-bargaining were at play within the Australian legal system.

Project Leader Mark Finnane explored the role of lawyers in the trial process, showcasing the potential of the Prosecution Project to provide quantitative data in a hitherto speculative research area. Prospective research questions encompassed the effect of lawyers on judicial conduct, how the rights of defendants were shaped by lawyering, and the different tactics employed by lawyers throughout the trial process. Additional findings presented in another paper with Research Fellow Alana Piper indicated that legal representation bestowed significant advantages, including an increased likelihood of acquittal, receiving bail, and favourable sentencing outcomes (e.g. bond, suspended sentence, or probation).

Alana Piper focused on the more anonymous decision-makers within trials – the jury. She questioned whether the increasingly common criticisms of juries expressed by members of the justice system across the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were justified. Trial by jury was often an unwieldy and less-than-ideal process: delivering verdicts encumbered by various biases and in other instances failing to deliver verdicts at all, with almost ten per cent of trials resulting in jury disagreements in some years.

Research Fellow Yorick Smaal considered the nature of legal evidence beyond the usual doctrinal endeavours. Focusing on witnesses in sex offence trials in Queensland from 1870 to 1930, Yorick found that despite an increase in the average number of witnesses per trial across the period, around half of the accused were consistently convicted regardless of the number of witnesses who testified against them. This suggests that quality rather than quantity of witnesses was important to trial outcomes. Nonetheless, a greater number of witnesses in trials involving female and child complainants points to disparities in moral surveillance, policing, and perceptions of complainants.

PhD scholar Robyn Blewer challenged the conventional view of objective and predictable judge craft. The digitised prosecution data facilitated an easy comparison of all known criminal cases presided over by two well-known Australian judges between 1925 and 1939 – Queensland’s Justice Brennan (352 cases) and Chief Justice Webb (234 cases). Even though media reports indicated that the two judges shared a progressive approach to sentencing, Robyn found that the judges handed down significantly different sentences. Brennan, for example, was far more likely to hand down non-custodial and alternative sentences (e.g. convicted but released).

Finally, Research Fellow Andy Kaladelfos explored sentencing patterns in more detail, focusing on the effect of victimisation on sentencing outcomes in sex offence trials. In particular, Andy was interested in the mid-20th century rise in non-custodial sentences, as this trend does not accord with historical scholarship that characterises the sex offence sentences in the period as punitive. Andy found that these non-custodial sentences were primarily used in cases involving adolescent female complainants and homosexual males – although why judges were more lenient in these cases is the topic of future qualitative work.

The digitisation of archival material clearly opens up new avenues for questions, analysis, and interpretation of crime and punishment across history. Of course, digital history is not just about big data. The conference also highlighted forays into digital history beyond such projects, for example, POWs during the South African Boer War (Chris Holdridge and Matthew Kennedy), digital matching of cross-Tasman convicts (Raewyn Dalziel), and digital (re)constructions of penal sites of significance such as Port Puer in Tasmania (Martin GibbsDavid RoeRichard Tuffin, and John Stephenson) and Bentham’s Panopticon (Zoe Alker and Nick Webb).

Importantly, digital history not only helps us come to new or richer understandings of crime and punishment, but it also permanently preserves a record of the past and makes history accessible to people who may never venture into an archive. Through the use of online open-source databases and new media, digital history can (re)introduce people to the story of their ancestors, their communities and countries, and, ultimately, humankind.

Lauren Vogel
The Prosecution Project, Griffith Criminology Institute

Digital Panopticon @ Digital Humanities Congress

The project team will be out in force at this year’s Digital Humanities Congress in Sheffield, part of an excellent programme of papers including text analytics from our neighbours at Linguistc DNA  and the Early Modern Intoxicants project, as well as a panel from another AHRC DIgital Transformations project, Transforming Musicology.

Keynote speakers: Professor Marilyn Deegan (King’s College London), Dr Stephen Gregg (Bath Spa University) and Dr Matthew Gold (City University of New York)

For a taste of what we’ll be up to:

Look forward to seeing you there!

Conference programme and Registration (deadline 24 August)

Financial Crime Conference, London, 2 September

We’re delighted to be involved with Financial Crime Symposium: past lessons, contemporary challenges, and future solutions which is being held at the London campus of the University of Liverpool on 2 September – registration is now open!

Fee is just £10 for students; the programme covers topics from the 18th century onwards and looks very appetising: financial_crime_programme_july_2016

Robert Jones, a transported thief and loving husband

From Robert Jones's petition, 1792 (TNA HO47/15/32, findmypast.co.uk)

From Robert Jones’s petition, 1792 (TNA HO47/15/32, findmypast.co.uk)

Robert Jones was convicted at the Old Bailey in February 1792 of stealing a pair of silk stockings from the shop of Richard Marsh, and sentenced to transportation for seven years. We can picture Robert and trace his journey to New South Wales from the official records. The Criminal Register (HO26records that he was 30 years old, 5 feet 9 inches tall, with light hair and black Eyes, he had been born in Wales and was a labourer. The register also notes that he was delivered on Board the Royal Admiral at Gravesend in May 1792, which is confirmed by both the Newgate gaoler’s lists of prisoners and the transportation registers. The Royal Admiral landed in New South Wales in October 1792, and Robert can be found in the early convict records which have been digitised by NSW State Records. (According to some records, the Royal Admiral sailed in May 1791, but this can’t be right.)

But these records include very little of Robert’s own words or voice. During his trial, he spoke only once, to say that he would leave his defence to his lawyer. And, it seems, there may be someone missing from these official registers and records of his voyage.

I came across Robert in TNA’s Discovery summary descriptions for HO47, which noted Robert’s petition for mercy, and was immediately intrigued:

The prisoner requests in his petition, and a covering letter, that his wife be permitted to travel with him when transported. (HO47/15/32)

These records are available on Findmypast, so I just had to take a look at the images of Robert’s petition and letter. (If you have a subscription, here he is.) In rather flowery language, Robert asked that his sentence might be mitigated to service with the East India Company ‘so that he may not be torn from the arms of his disconsolate unhappy wife’, emphasising that he had never been in trouble before, until ‘misfortune and necessity brought him to this melancholy transgression’.

Your petitioner humbly craves your pity to be pleased that he may not be taken from his beloved wife the only happyness that a human being can with dolefull trouble condole with in this miserable unhappy place of abode [Newgate, presumably] where he hopes to make an atonement for his past offences…

The judge’s report gave short shrift to the first part of the petition, since Robert had been ‘convicted upon satisfactory evidence’. But he agreed to recommend that Mrs Jones would be permitted to sail to New South Wales with her husband. According to another letter, she was willing to go, and a number of female passengers did sail on board the Royal Admiral, but at present the project has no further record of whether Robert’s wife was actually among them.

If it weren’t for the rich records of HO47 we wouldn’t even know of her existence – the official lists and registers record only convicts. There are a few other early cases like this in HO47 (eg 1796, 1809), but most existing records of this kind are from later in the 19th century, after the institution of formal procedures for applications for wives and families to travel with husbands to Australia or for reuniting them after the convicts had arrived. This kind of correspondence gives us rare and precious glimpses into the emotional lives of the convicts we’re studying.

[This post is one of a series of Convict Tales, in which we post about individual convicts whose lives the project has begun to link together. It may be updated as we learn more.]

Elizabeth Morley, a humble petitioner

Elizabeth Morley's petition for mercy, 1795

Elizabeth Morley’s petition for mercy, 1795

In the spring of 1795, Elizabeth Morley (or Morlay) was convicted at the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace and sentenced to 7 years transportation. Because this was not at the Old Bailey, we have very little information about her trial. Her entry in the Home Office Criminal Registers doesn’t include a physical description or even a description of her offence. But Elizabeth petitioned the magistrates for clemency, and from that we’re able to learn quite a bit more about her offence and Elizabeth herself – or at least the version she presented to the magistrates.

Throughout the 18th century and well into the 19th, many convicted criminals petitioned authorities begging for mercy; a few were granted a full pardon and released but a reduction in the severity of the sentence passed in court was more common, whether that had been for death, transportation or imprisonment. Petitioners were successful in changing the punishment initially prescribed in court so often that tracing actual outcomes is a major challenge for historians of criminal justice in the period and, of course, for our project.

The main series of criminal petitions relating to the more serious crimes that incurred the death penalty or transportation is at The National Archives (TNA HO17-18). There is currently an important volunteer project underway at TNA to catalogue HO17, and a large group of the petitions and related records has been digitised by FindMyPast. It’s more unusual to find a petition concerning a sentence of transportation in local archives, though this one is earlier than TNA’s petitions. However, Elizabeth’s petition is very similar in form and style to many of TNA’s criminal petitions.

They’re documents intended to persuade authorities that the petitioner is a worthy object of mercy. This includes extreme deference to authority – they’re always ‘humble’ petitions. It’s hard for historians to know to what extent petitions really represented the ‘authentic’ voices of ordinary people. The flowery language similarly may not be Elizabeth’s own – the handwriting is that of a highly educated person, and the mention of ‘social passions’ wouldn’t have been out of place in literary genres from philosophical tracts to Jane Austen novels.  It’s common for petitioners to stress their age, as Elizabeth does, and perhaps with good reason, since it seems that older prisoners were slightly less likely to be transported. It’s also not uncommon for them to blame someone else for leading them astray!

Elizabeth’s petition seems to have been successful, in that she doesn’t appear in the Transportation Registers or convict indents data, but we don’t (yet) know what did happen to her. However, I think we have a little bit of her previous history. In October 1793, an Elizabeth Morley was tried at the Old Bailey for stealing a variety of items including shirts, napkins, women’s clothes and pockets. She was acquitted; much of the evidence against her was quite circumstantial. In the course of the trial we learn that she was a married woman, with two sons. This is corroborated by her entry in the Criminal Registers, which describes her as

48. 5/2 Hazel Eyes Brown hair fresh Complexion Brentford Married woman

Now, this would of course make this Elizabeth only 50 in 1795, five years younger than the age stated in the petition. But ages in our data, before the age of universal civil registration, are often approximations and it isn’t at all unlikely that the 1795 Elizabeth would be exaggerating her age slightly for sympathy. (It’s striking that she claims to be 55 – Richard Ward has shown how ages in the Old Bailey data tended to be rounded up or down to numbers ending in 0 or 5.)

The context of the 1793 offence is also a good fit. Women were often charged with receiving in circumstances very similar to those of the 1793 trial; thieving and receiving domestic items like these were closely related criminal activities in women’s ‘economies of makeshifts‘.

It isn’t an absolutely certainty that the two sets of records belong to the same woman, but the balance of probabilities is looking good. What do you think?

[This post is one of a series of Convict Tales, in which we post about individual convicts whose lives the project has begun to link together. It may be updated as we learn more.]

Crime and the Courts in Three Dimensions: Workshop Presentations

The workshop was immensely enjoyable and stimulating and we’d like to thank all the speakers and attendants for making it so. We hope to bring a fuller workshop report in the near future, but in the meantime the workshop presenters have made the slides of their presentations available for those interested to download. (The Mulcahy/Rowden slides are not yet available but will be added if we get them.)

Valeria Vitale, An Ontology for 3D Visualization in Cultural Heritage

The use of 3D computer graphics and modelling techniques in the study of the ancient world has been mainly limited to the display of traditional research. Often, their value has been assessed merely on aesthetic quality. Behind every scholarly 3D visualisation is a thorough study of excavation records, iconographic documentation, literary sources, artistic canons. However, this research is not always detectable in the final outcome, and 3D visualisations do not seem able to meet the standards of scientific method (reproducibility) and academic publishing (references and peer-review)…

Tim Hitchcock, Re-imagining the Voice of the Defendant at the Old Bailey

When the sessions house at the Old Bailey was rebuilt in the 1770s, a traditional open courtroom was transformed in to a fully enclosed space, with a new and complex internal layout. The relative positions of the judge, jury, defendants and witnesses where substantially reconfigured. This presentation represents a preliminary attempt to capture the significance of that transition in sound: to explore how the different actors in the legal drama of a trial heard, both their own voice, and that of other participants…

Nick Webb, Analysing historic works of architecture using digital techniques

This presentation will discuss the use of digital techniques to analyse significant works of architecture, whether they exist, are destroyed or are not built at all. A methodology is introduced for future research employing digital tools in this context. Examples will show how the process augments research already undertaken by architectural historians, who provide traditional critique and analysis, by testing such studies further using a range of contemporary digital techniques…