Category Archives: Convict Lives

The Social and Spatial Worlds of Old Bailey Convicts

For my PhD I am investigating the social and spatial worlds of impoverished Old Bailey convicts to determine to what extent poverty was a cause of crime. Part of this research involves investigating whether convicts were engaging in criminal activity because they were unable to, or unwilling to obtain parish poor relief, or because parish relief was insufficient. Although the Old Poor Law (1601) declared that parishes must relieve their poor, there are various reasons why people may have been outside of that system. The provisions of the Settlement Act (1662), and the Workhouse Test Act (1723) might have excluded people from parish support, or discouraged their applications. Though the law stated that the poor must be relieved in their parish, there was no legal basis to determine who would be relieved and by how much. This too could prevent access to official relief systems, or when relief was obtained it might not be enough to support individuals and families in need. If relief was unobtainable, undesirable, or insufficient then crime might have become a means of support for poorer members of society.

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Image via NY Times

  Historians have concluded that official parish relief was only one strategy which individuals and families used for support. This concept was encapsulated as an ‘economy of makeshifts’. This describes the network of informal sources of support accessed by the poor, which included casual labour, borrowing and small loans, and critically, crime.[1] This phrase provides a conceptual bridge between the history of crime and the history of the poor but there is much work to be done before the relationship between poverty and crime can be fully established.

       Until recently the methodological techniques to enable this type of research within a reasonable timeframe were simply not available. Judicial sources are extensive collections and poor law records for the metropolis are intimidatingly vast but the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online 1674-1913, as well as the growing number of digitised parish records (an excellent collection can be found at London Lives), alongside the development of modern record linkage techniques means that this work can now be done. It is important to determine whether the poor – who were never a homogenous group but rather a disparate section of society who might move in and out of poverty throughout their lifetimes – were committing crimes, and whether poverty was the cause.

     At present I have more questions than I do answers but preliminary source analyses reveal that some people were stating in their trials at the Old Bailey that they committed theft because they were unable to obtain parish relief.  Mary Johnson, a spinster from Bishopsgate was found guilty of stealing a silver spoon, worth 10 shillings from a public house in Old Bedlam in 1751. During her trial, Mary admitted the theft but claimed that the parish officers in Bishopsgate would give her no relief. She declared that when she asked for relief, an officer told her that he did not care how she ‘got her bread’ and that she could go whoring or thieving. This story was either not believed, or it was not considered to be a mitigating circumstance so Mary was sentenced to be transported for seven years.[2] In 1792 John Shaw was tried for grand larceny. He stood accused of stealing a length of oak timber from Thomas Winkworth in Cripplegate. Shaw admitted that he stole the timber and claimed it was ‘real distress and want’ which prompted him to do it. The clerk of the court recorded him saying ‘I had not a farthing in the world nor could I get any relief from the parish where I belong to; I took a piece of wood whether it is the same or no I cannot tell’. In this case the jury was more sympathetic. Although Shaw admitted to the theft, he was found not guilty of stealing that particular length of timber and acquitted.[3]

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Image: Thomas Rowlandson, A Select Vestry, 1806. Lewis Walpole Library, 806.0.49. © The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

     These two cases illustrate how convicts sometimes blamed their crime on having been denied parish relief, however, it is crucial that these statements are not taken at face value. Claims of poverty in the Old Bailey proceedings must be treated with caution. Defendants might cite poverty in court in the hope of soliciting clemency from judge and jury, or they might claim poverty when apprehended to dissuade victims from prosecuting them. However, if defendants were poor, and were settled in a parish, this could be corroborated by exploring poor law records. The poor law records for Bishopsgate are undigitised but they are held at London Metropolitan Archive and so, the next step would be to locate Mary Johnson in the archives and attempt to verify the claims she made in court. However, as her application for relief was allegedly denied, we might not find her in those records, but this absence might also be revealing.

       Explicit claims of poor relief being denied, such as those made my Mary Johnson and John Shaw are only one line of enquiry which will be followed. Of course, not all convicts made a defence in their trials, (using poverty as a defence would involve admitting to the crime, after all) and not all defences were recorded in the trial proceedings. Other strategies for determining the socio-economic status of Old Bailey convicts must be devised. The occupations of prisoners are often recorded and these can be illuminating. The type of crime and, particularly in petty larceny cases, the types of items which were stolen can also provide vital contextual clues.

     This research is a natural step forward for me as prior to joining the Digital Panopticon project I completed a Master of Research degree which analysed the provisions of the Old Poor Law and the agency of parish officials – within the framework of social discipline theories – to determine whether poor citizens were criminalised, stigmatised or controlled by the Old Poor Law. I have an abiding interest in the experiences of working class people in the past and am keen to understand to what extent criminality was part of that experience.

Lucy Huggins, University of Sheffield

[1] Olwen H. Hufton, The Poor of Eighteenth-Century France, 1750-1789 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974).

[2] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 6.0, 17 April 2011), October 1751, trial of Mary Johnson (t17511016-12).

[3] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 6.0, 17 April 2011), December 1792, trial of John Shaw (t17921215-92).

Convict Tales: small stories and big data

View near Woolwich in Kent shewing [sic] the employment of the convicts from the hulks, c. 1800. From the collections of the State Library of NSW.

View near Woolwich in Kent, c. 1800. From the collections of the State Library of NSW.

We’ll soon be starting a regular series we’re calling Convict Tales. Every week (or thereabouts), we’ll tweet and blog about individual convicts whose lives we’ve started to link together in our database. Some of their stories might be exciting, others will be quite unexceptional (and short).

We have several reasons for doing this. Firstly, we want to share with you some of the material that we’re starting to gather; the range and variety of sources will expand along with the development of the project. At the same time, it may be a reminder of the many gaps and silences in the records. We expect many lives to be fragmentary, or for links to be not quite certain. This can all be smoothed over, perhaps misleadingly, in the aggregate and the data visualisation. The final reason is that amidst all our visualisations and statistics, we don’t want to lose sight of the multitudes and the diversity of real people and individual stories – lives like those of George Fenby – that make up the monstrous regiments of ‘Big Data’.

Life stories and their Historians: Bridging a divide?

Most of us have at one time or another wondered about our ancestors. Even the historians whose bread and butter is the study of social, political, economic or cultural histories speculate about their own family’s part in the unfolding of the wider movements and economic changes down the ages. Many others have studied the genealogical websites, and laboured in the archives, simply to chart the family line further and further back until either reliable data or stamina are exhausted. New pieces of information that are discovered may offer a glimpse of a family ‘on the make’ or a family ‘on the slide’. Whatever the case, family history has become a persistent and compelling pastime enjoyed by millions of people.

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(Image via RootsChat)

For those without an aristocratic pedigree to fall back on, family piety used to amount to little more than repeated anecdotes about half-remembered relatives.  Now that the internet has democratized information, anyone with a computer and a measure of determination can go much further.  Archives and public records and censuses are accessible to all, and there’s plenty of advice on how to make sense of them.  The viewing figures for the BBC’s series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ have held up for a decade, while  ‘Secrets From the Clink’, its lurid ITV cousin, adds a distinctively Dickensian preoccupation with forebears who served time. The investigation of family history has become the third most popular online activity, after shopping and pornography. Primary research is no longer exclusively a matter for academic historians, traditionally concerned with movements that shape national destinies – wars, politics, conquest, or trade.  Amateurs can share the buzz of a first-hand encounter with discovery, retrieving neglected documents and filling in the gaps in a family tree.  If you have ancestors and a search engine, you too can be a historian.

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(Image via

Unsurprisingly, professionals in the business of history have mixed feelings about the swarm of explorers among the databases. Every historian sympathizes with the impulse to learn about the past.  But bare facts about long-buried members of a family can’t reveal much about the broader cultural and economic circumstances that defined their lives, and those who pursue them often do so in the context of their own interests and priorities. Objective analysis takes second place to the resurrected details (revealing self-made success, lost grandeur, anti-authoritarian spirit or helpless victimhood) that best confirm the values of the investigator. Trained historians observe, sometimes disdainfully, that such researchers are looking for archival comfort food. But in general family detectives are too busy digging for the next piece of evidence to take offence, while their denigrators are not seriously threatened by part-time rivals.  The two breeds of historians are more or less prepared to tolerate each other, though there isn’t much traffic between them.

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(MEPO 6, 8 March 1907. Available at

Perhaps the Digital Panopticon can help to bridge the divide? The data provided is clearly of use and of interest to those researching their family history. Indeed the information that can be found in the prison records can reveal more about the character, physique, and exploits of forefathers than almost any other record. In this respect they are a boon to the genealogist, and a first-rate source of information. Each of the life stories revealed by the Panopticon is varied and interesting enough to be studied in its own right. However, when taken together they are invaluable to the social historians as a guide to (for example) the height and weight of the ordinary Londoner, the character of crime and punishment in the nineteenth century, and the long-term effects of transportation and imprisonment on generations of families living in Australia and in the United Kingdom. The next trick might be to persuade the two communities (genealogists and social historians) that they have something in common. They might even learn something by talking to each other, not least because descendants can provide valuable information to historians about the identities and experiences of their forebears. They can fill in the gaps and silences that punctuate the records. In return, historians can add context to family histories by revealing the social conditions in which our ancestors lived, loved, and laboured.


Professor Dinah Birch

Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange

University of Liverpool

PhD Work in Progress- Emma Watkins &The Case of George Fenby

The Case of George Fenby

You can see a video of Emma’s slides here: The Case of George Fenby

Euryalus Wash room

(Image courtesy of National Archives)

My PhD research explores the lives and criminal careers of convicts in the nineteenth century, specifically juveniles aged 7-14 – who were sentenced at the Old Bailey to either transportation to Australia or Penal servitude at home – in the period of 1816-1850.

After transcribing all juvenile criminals fitting my criteria a sample will be traced using data-linkage between different digital resources.[1] Then through utilising both a quantitative and qualitative approach, the common factors and experiences present in the lives of juvenile offenders will be identified, and biographies of individuals created.

This will allow for a rounded understanding of the context of these offenders, and enable me to approach the broader questions such as: (i) what part did social, economic, environmental and familiar factors play in criminal juvenile lives? And (ii) by comparing both those who were transported and those who served a penal sentence, which route led to greater criminal desistance and why?

Centred on transportation, this blog will use a case study interspersed with some initial trends of the whole transportation dataset. Notwithstanding the estimated 72, 500 convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land alone, in my period there were 1411 juveniles sentenced to transportation to Australia as a whole.[2]


(Image courtesy of

Firstly, it is important to point out the disparity in numbers between male and females. There were only 77 females sentenced to transportation, compared with 1333 male. This disparity is clearly seen in this graph comparing age and gender of transportees (shown in Figure 1.0). This graph also shows the proportional increase of transportee sentences and age. But, the key word here is sentence as not all were sent.

Number and Age of Juveniles Sentenced to Transportation

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Figure 1.0

The youngest transportee in the sample is George Fenby. According to some historians, juveniles were not usually transported until “they were a suitable age” – 14 or 15 years old.[3] If they were younger upon conviction they would spend this period of limbo in local gaols or on the Hulks (moored prison ships). Clearly, however, there were exceptions and juveniles were transported under the age of 14. George Fenby is an example.

 Description List CON18/1/15

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Figure 1.1

Parish Birth Records

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Figure 1.2

Fenby’s trip on-board the Manlius took four months. While his transportation records suggest that he was 10 years old, it would seem that he was in fact 12 years old when he first stepped foot in Van Diemen’s Land (see figure 1.1 and figure 1.2). Interestingly, whereas transportation officials believed the youngest male transported was 10, the youngest female in my sample – Mary Ann Oseman – was described as 14 when she arrived in Australia. Four years older than the youngest male.

Born in 1818, one of Hannah Fenby’s five children, George Fenby was convicted and sentenced for stealing two pairs of shoes from a shop, with his mother. The court believing him to be 9 years old.[4] Fenby’s mother, age 43, was also transported on board the Eliza for her part in the offence.

Subcategory of Offences

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Figure 1.3

Except the odd coining or fraud offence, all offences were theft. As we can see in the graph above (see Figure 1.3), the most common offences were Grand and Simple Larceny. Grand Larceny involved the theft to the value of at least 1 shilling in the absence of aggravating circumstances. But, in 1827, this offence was replaced by the new offence of Simple Larceny, which also did away with Petty Larceny and the complication of minimum values. Pickpocketing was also prevalent but this is skewed by male offenders, which is highlighted when we break down offences by gender (see Figure 1.4).

Male Offence Subcategory

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Female Offence Subcategory

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Figure 1.4

Still, even after breaking down offences by gender the most common offences in both sex remain Grand and Simple Larceny – if taken together. However, as well as some differences between genders it is noteworthy that the offence, shoplifting, is not prevalent in either sex. Yet, if we take into account the ‘spatial environment of the crime’, the most common place to steal from, in both genders, was the shop (see Figure 1.5). The Fenby’s are an example this.

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Figure 1.5

The question is: why was Fenby selected from the Euryalus Hulk for actual transportation at such a young age – when others were not? Perhaps his Conduct and Appropriation Records may shed some light (see Figure 1.6). After being with his first mistress, Mrs. Humphrey’s for less than two years, Fenby was re-assigned to a John Kerr. There Fenby began his misconduct relatively unremarkably, for example, he received twelve lashes for being absent in December 1833. However, just a year later his misconduct took on a new form. It was reported that Fenby took “liberties” with his master’s 6 year old daughter, himself only being approximately 14. As a result he was removed to Port Arthur, and placed in the worst class of boys at Point Puer (a juvenile penal settlement 1834-1849). This event even made the Colonial Times (see figure 1.7). At Point Puer Fenby received a further twelve lashes for “most riotous and improper conduct in the cells”. This was followed by more absenteeism. It is possible that Fenby’s behaviour in the colony is indicative of his behaviour while imprisoned before transportation, resulting in his early selection.

  EW Fig 1.7

Figure 1.6

 EW Fig 1.8

Figure 1.7

After receiving a certificate of freedom in 1836, he at some point made his way to Victoria, living for period in Geelong where he worked as a sawyer. There he again appeared in the papers in August 1842 having been charged with attempted highway robbery (see Figure 1.8). Unfortunately as yet I have no details of this charge other than a newspaper clipping and so do not know the outcome. However, we can be relatively confident that it was him, because it states his alias was Timms. There is a connection with Fenby and the name Timms. Not only was the name on his mother’s death certificate, but the connection is also shown in a newspaper notice addressed to George Fenby by his mother Hannah Timms (see Figure 1.9).

 EW Fig 1.9

Figure 1.8

 EW Fig 2.0

Figure 1.9

While there are unknowns in periods of this convict’s life, what is clear is that George Fenby lived an eventful 75 years, living 15 years longer than the average life span. Marrying three times and having children with his first and second wife. Fenby died in 1893 in Corryong, Victoria.

While George Fenby was badly behaved, he was not a repeat offender before he was transported. Notably, only 26% of male juveniles had former indictments or convictions acknowledged at court, compared with 49% of females. This suggests a greater reluctance to sentence girls to transportation unless they were known to be repeat offenders. For males there is a sudden recording of previous convictions just before 1830. While this is probably more of a change in recording, rather than boys suddenly deciding to commit more than one offence – it is of interest both because of its sudden importance – and because when we look at females we can see there is more of a correlation (see Figure 2.0).

 ew Fig 2.2

Figure 2.0

This all raises more questions than it answers. On what basis were juveniles sentenced to imprisonment or transportation? And of those sentenced to transportation, how many were actually sent? And how were they selected?

This idea that bad behaviour and previous offences led to a greater chance of those sentenced to seven years transportation actually being transported, is supported by the 1812 Parliamentary Paper. However, in the same paper, while the superintendent of hulks claimed that “probable utility” to the colony was not considered, he then goes on to say he would not send men over 50, and would probably not send women over 42, and definitely not over 45 – because they would be a “great burthen to the colony.”[5] Notwithstanding the fact that Hannah Fenby was 44 on her arrival.

At the other end of the scale, Captain Williams, government inspector of prisoners, believed many juveniles were too “diminutive” to be sent. So, did they base selection on the size and strength of the juveniles, implying utility was considered? Or was it those they perceived as “hardened” that were selected? Or were other factors, such as practicality, influential? Meaning whether ships were available.

Through tracing how many juveniles sentenced to transportation in my sample were actually transported, and using prosopography, I hope to approach these questions of selection.


[1] Examples of online sources that will be utilised; The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London’s central criminal court, 1764-1913, Found at; State Library of Queensland, Convict transportation registers database, Found at /; Tasmanian Government, Tasmanian Names Index, Found at

[2] James Bradley et al, “Research note: The founders and survivors project”, The History of the Family, 15:4 (2010), p. 467

[3] Jeannie Duckworth, Fagin’s Children – Criminal Children in Victorian England, (2002), pp.86-87

[4] Follow link to original Court Proceeding of George and Hannah Fenby;

[5] Report from the Select committee on Transportation 1812 (314), pp. 77-78. (p.16 index)


Duckworth, Jeannie, Fagin’s Children – Criminal Children in Victorian England, (London, 2002)

Godfrey, Barry. S., Cox, David J., and Farral, Stephen, D, Criminal Lives: Family life, Employment, and Offending, (2007, Oxford)

James Bradley et al, “Research note: The founders and survivors project”, The History of the Family, 15:4 (2010)

Jeannie Duckworth, Fagin’s Children – Criminal Children in Victorian England, (2002)

K.S.B Keats-Rohan (ed.) Prosopography Approaches and Applications. A Handbook (Oxford, 2007)

Report from the Select committee on Transportation 1812 (314)

Shore, Heather, Artful Dodgers: Youth and Crime in early 19th-century London, (Suffolk, 1999)

Digital Resources

 State Library of Queensland, Convict transportation registers database, Found at /

 Tasmanian Government, Tasmanian Names Index, Found at

 The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London’s central criminal court, 1764-1913, Found at