Category Archives: News

Nineteenth-Century Criminal Tattoos Project

Thanks to funding from BA/Jisc Digital Research in the Humanities, the Digital Panopticon has a new baby project!

Tattooing has a long history, but the practice increased significantly in Britain and Australia in the nineteenth century, when a growing number of criminal convicts acquired tattoos. Their many meanings include expressions of love, hope, pain, defiance, fraternity, and religious commitment, and aspirations to be fashionable. As a largely voluntary practice, tattooing provides valuable evidence of non-elite voices which are otherwise difficult to locate in the historical record.

While tattooing has been the subject of a few studies, particularly of convicts transported to Tasmania (1802-53) and imprisoned in Ireland (1895-99), most research to date has been based on limited data and there is much that we still do not understand about the practice (Breathnach and Farrell 2015; Caplan 2000; Bradley and Maxwell-Stewart 1998; Maxwell-Stewart 1997). While tattoos can be interpreted as expressions of convicts’ individuality and aspirations, official practices of recording tattoos when documenting their physical characteristics can be seen as a form of state control. It is unclear why convicts engaged in a practice which facilitated such control, and whether the increasing use of tattooing signalled the growth of a defiant criminal subculture, or of more inclusive cultural aspirations.

The Digital Panopticon contains the most extensive information about tattooing in 19th-century Britain and Australia digitally available – there are at least 60,000 convicts who have described tattooes in the database – but the information is not currently systematically accessible. Evidence of tattoos is contained within at least six of the site’s datasets, in composite fields with diverse labels such as ‘distinguishing marks’ and ‘description’, and this evidence is intermixed with other physical details, such as eye colour, scars, bodily shape and physical infirmities. For example, the ‘body marks’ of James Rees, transported to Tasmania in 1826, are listed as:

‘Crucifix above elbow Joint rt arm deep dimple on chin Scar near outer corner rt eye Moon & 7 stars JW mermaid anchor JC MD JD TD & Cannon (Prop) inside rt arm’.

The language describing these tattoos is highly varied, using terse and incomplete phrases, and it can be difficult to separate out deliberate tattoos from other physical marks.

In addition to the challenge of extracting relevant information concerning tattoos from the highly varied physical description fields in the Digital Panopticon, a second technical challenge exists in coping with the complexity of the multiple variables available, and in summarising such voluminous and diverse data.

Via the ‘life archives’, information about tattoos can be linked to a large amount of other evidence about the convict, including their gender, age, occupation, religion, place of origin, type of crime committed, previous convictions, and punishment. The Digital Panopticon project currently uses visualisations to summarise this data and detect patterns, notably Sankey diagrams, pie charts, and specially developed ‘life charts’, but these formats are inadequate to the task of displaying complex multivariate data about convicts and their tattoos. New visualisation methods need to be developed.

Research Questions

There are two sets of research questions. The first set concerns the historical significance of the practice of tattooing:

  • Why, over the course of the nineteenth century, did convicts increasingly use their bodies as sites for recording their life events and expressing their identity and sentiments, despite the fact the state collected evidence of their tattoos for surveillance purposes?
    What is the relationship between the marks convicts chose to have imprinted on their bodies and those which were imposed by the state, by flogging and the branding of military deserters?
  • Which convicts, and from which social contexts, were most likely to have tattoos? How does tattooing vary by gender, age, occupation, religion and place of origin? How did these patterns change over the course of the nineteenth century?
  • Are there any significant differences between the tattoos of convicts who were transported to Australia and those who were imprisoned in Britain? Were recidivists more likely to have tattoos, and how did convicts chart their penal experiences?
  • What do the answers to these questions, when combined with evidence of the form and content of tattoos, and their locations on the convict body, reveal about convict sentiments and attitudes?
  • How does the history of convict tattoos fit in with the wider history of tattooing in Britain, Australia, and the wider world?
  • What light does the practice of tattooing shed on changing attitudes towards the body in the nineteenth century?

The second set of questions concerns how digital humanities methodologies can help us answer these research questions:

  • How can evidence of tattooing, described using a wide variety of terminology and linguistic patterns, be extracted at scale from the complex language of physical descriptions found in the Digital Panopticon records?
  • How can visualisations be utilised to summarise and analyse this evidence, particularly when it is combined with evidence about the convict’s personal background and characteristics, in order to identify the specific contexts in which tattooing, and particular types of tattoos, were used?
  • In particular, can new visualisation techniques be developed to uncover significant patterns in this and potentially other collections of complex, multivariate humanities data?

The project will run until the end of October 2019. There will be updates at the project’s data blog and on Twitter over the coming months. The main project event will be a hackathon in Sheffield in April 2019, which will enable interested researchers to experiment with the new tattoos corpus and give feedback on project progress. The corpus will also be made available as an open dataset.

Image credit: ‘Tattooed arms’, Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Building Bentham’s Panopticon

This post describes a project that myself and a colleague from the Architecture department at the University of Liverpool, Dr Nick Webb, are currently working on–Building Bentham’s Panopticon– which is creating a 3D model of the Panopticon prison viewed through virtual reality software, Oculus Rift.


Bentham’s Panopticon was imagined as the ‘ideal’ prison; it was designed as a circular building with prisoners’ cells arranged around the outer wall and dominated by an inspection tower. From the tower the prison inspector would be able to gaze upon the prisoners at all times. The central inspection principle, Bentham argued, would result in ‘morals reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffused, public burdens lightened…all by a simple idea in architecture’ (Bentham, 1787).

Due to its escalating cost, his designs were never put in to practice. But the recent digitization of Bentham’s plans by Transcribe Bentham, alongside advances in virtual reality software, means that we now have the opportunity to digitally construct the Panopticon and venture inside.


This small element of the wider Digital Panopticon project seeks to explore how we can use digital technology to examine and recreate alternative ways of seeing and experiencing, in a particular space and place-the Panopticon prison- had it been built. Through the use of 3D modelling and virtual reality technology, we can recreate the perspective, positioning and movements- through sight lines, walking routes, and height and weight records- of the gaolers and prisoners who could have potentially been imprisoned within the walls of the Panopticon.

In doing so, this project takes its inspiration from Tim Hitchcock, who is currently modelling the Old Bailey courtroom, and contends that by, ‘building something in three dimensions, with space, physical form and performance, along with new forms of analysis of text; can change how we understand the experience of imprisonment; allow a more fully empathetic engagement with offenders; along with a better understanding of how their experience impacted on the exercise of power and authority’.[1]

Building Bentham’s Panopticon rests upon two lines of enquiry. Firstly, it seeks to rebuild and re-examine the idealized construction of prison discipline at its most ideological- to examine the beginning of the separate, silent system and the development of modern prison reform through architecture. But it also seeks to contribute to a history from below and examine how, by adding in height and weight records of offenders, we can rebuild the perspectives, movements, and thereby explore the potential for transgression that could have occurred within a prison like the Panopticon.

We are about halfway through our research, and are yet to add in biometric data of prisoners taken from the Digital Panopticon project. Yet, in building the model using SketchUp, we have already begun to discover important findings.


The use of 3D modelling has been essential to visualising Bentham’s process and building the interior of the Panopticon. Bentham’s plans, letters and writings about the Panopticon represent a conversation- between himself, architects, managers, and politicians- that include a series of changes to the design of the building and its regime. We are very early on in our findings, but constructing the Panopticon using 3D software, SketchUp, has demonstrated the significance of using this technology to investigate different lines of historical enquiry. Bentham’s never completed the design for the Panopticon, and the debate continued from the 1780s to 1820s. However, plans exist from 1787 and 1791 and these designs are the source from which we have built the 3D models.  However, the interior was never fully decided upon due to conflicts between, amongst others, Bentham, John Howard, and William Pitt the Younger.[2]As Nick Webb has argued previously, ‘This is important, as inferences have to be made due to representational source data such as architectural drawings almost always being incomplete’.[3] Therefore, it is necessary to delve in to primary and secondary resources to explore the context, and fill in the gaps in an informed way. For example, Bentham initially wanted the Panopticon to be made out of glass and cast iron. ‘Architecturally’, according to Janet Semple, ‘the Panopticon foreshadows Paxton’s Crystal Palace rather than Pentonville’.[4] However, despite technological innovation in glass manufacture in the late eighteenth century, the building materials were never decided upon, so Nick and I decided to use London stock brick as this was the most commonly used material in London at the close of the eighteenth century.

Panopticon build

The models take the form of an idealised, architectural plan, and our current focus is to examine how a series of changes and compromises in the design, seen through the application of 3D modelling, demonstrate the political ideas behind the introduction of the separate, silent system and solitary confinement, but also the relative positions and viewpoints of the different historical actors, in this case, the gaoler, chaplain, and inmates.


What currently interests us at the moment is lines of vision and mobilities as, for Bentham and Foucault, panopticism as a principle is about the power of the gaze- of observation, regulation and power. But I would argue that Foucault and Bentham both had simplistic arguments when it comes to this aspect. In terms of sight lines, or what people can see when stood or walking through a particular point in space, this study builds upon the work of Philip Steadman (UCL). Steadman sketched out two dimensional axonometric drawings of the Panopticon, but with the use of 3D, we are able to build the interior of the Panopticon and therefore provide a space in which the viewer can walk around the prison and inhabit the potential routes of the gaolers, chaplain, and offenders. Steadman draws upon architectural research to plot the totality of what can be seen from a fixed position- also known as an ‘isovist’. (Steadman, 2012: 16).


In Steadman’s image here, you’ll see that the shaded area shows the warder’s isovist. The warder must circulate continuously to watch all the prisoners on his floor. But Steadman’s method, while highlighting the problems in Bentham’s design, is set from a fixed point. Our study builds on this in two crucial ways: firstly, we are able, through the use of Oculus Rift and Virtual Reality Software, to recreate the viewpoints and sight perspective of the gaoler, chaplain, visitors, and offenders, and secondly, we are able to move beyond fixed isovist points to follow the potential mobilities of both gaoler and offender had they been incarcerated in the Panopticon.


So Bentham designed the process of observation to be one way; that is, that the governor, gaolers, other prison staff, and prison visitors to be able to observe the convicts, but that the convicts could only look upon the inspectors gallery. This was, in essence, the central inspection principle. The idea was that every prisoner should be under constant apprehension that he might be observed, night and day, even if no-one was actually looking in his direction at that very moment. He would thus be constantly fearful of being discovered in any misdemeanour.

Screen shot 2012-10-25 at 10.58.43

The Panopticon was a disciplinary technique for making a new social individual; a social laboratory where new subjects were made. Under Bentham’s design, the inmate doesn’t know when they are being watched, and assumes that they are under surveillance at any time. Therefore the prisoner is the subject of observation and power – and this is power through observation. By learning to internalize system of discipline, to watch himself or herself, the Panopticon, theoretically at least, aimed to produce reform through the regulation of the self. The aim of this kind of discipline was, according to Foucault, to turn inmates into quiet, orderly, tractable, malleable subjects or what he provocatively calls ‘Docile Bodies’. As Foucault stated, ‘solitude is the primary condition of total submission’ (Foucault, 1975: 237). Each individual, in his place, is securely confined to a cell from which he is seen from the front by the supervisor; but the side walls prevent him from coming into contact with his companions.

He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication (Foucault, 1975: 201).The prisoner is therefore, the object of power rather than an agent of power – ‘the object of information’ – never a ‘subject in communication’.


And it is this very notion- the power of the gaze and the power relations that manifest through looking- that Building Bentham’s Panopticon seeks to investigate. The use of 3D and Virtual Reality technology, allows us to put Foucault’s theory, and Bentham’s designs, to the test.


NB Please note that the models are incomplete at present, so may contain errors and inconsistencies.

[1] T. Hitchcock, ‘Voices of Authority: Towards a history from below in patchwork’, [Accessed 22 April 2016].

[2] J. Semple (1993), Bentham’s Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary (Oxford University Press: Oxford).

[3]  N. Webb & A. Brown (2016). Digital re-analysis of lost architecture and the particular case of Lutyens׳ Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. Frontiers of Architectural Research.

[4] J. Semple (1993), Bentham’s Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary (Oxford University Press: Oxford), pp. 116-117.

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.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 08.16.37

(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

Event: Representing Penal Histories: Displaying and Narrating the Criminal Past (Nottingham, Jan 2014)

Our Criminal Past AHRC Network – third network event

Date: 31 January 2014, 10am-4.30pm

Venue: Galleries of Justice, Nottingham

Free event but registration is required: more details here.

Prof. Barry Godfrey will be talking about ‘Conceiving the Digital Panopticon’ and other DP suspects team members will almost certainly be lurking. It promises to be an enjoyable and thought-provoking day.



Jobs: Two Research Associates (Sheffield/Liverpool)

Would you like to work with us?

We are looking for two highly motivated individuals to join our research team on the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded Digital Transformations project, ‘The Digital Panopticon: The Global Impact of London Punishments, 1780-1925’, a collaborative project between the Universities of Liverpool, Sheffield, Oxford, Sussex, and Tasmania. …

The project will assemble large and complex bodies of criminal justice, genealogical and biometric data and use sophisticated visualisation and data-linking methodologies to map and analyse convict lives at both the collective and individual level. The project has seven research themes: Epistemologies; Voices of Authority; Penal Outcomes; Intergenerational Inequalities; Biometrics; Digital Dark Tourism; and Ethics and Digital History.  In addition to a wide range of publications, project outputs include an electronic resource which will provide an integrated publicly available search engine for searching conjoined datasets containing life course data for 66,000 Londoners who experienced the two penal regimes…

As Research Associate you will undertake core duties on the project: checking the quality of archival documents which have been digitised, undertaking some manual transcription of archival documents, creating and checking semantic tags’ in electronic datasets, analysing processed data, checking the outcomes of record linkage processes, and assisting in the researching, writing up and communication of project outcomes.

The two posts are fixed-term (1 January 2014 to 30 September 2017). One is based at Sheffield (0.75 fte) and the other is based at Liverpool (1.0 fte).

Deadline for applications is 13 December 2013.

More information at or via Sheffield jobs website (search for ref UOS007546).

Summary information  (pdf)

Event: Transforming Research through Digital Scholarship (London, 11/11/13)

A showcase event for British Library Labs and AHRC Digital Transformations Projects

Monday 11th November 2013 11.45-16.00, The British Library, St Pancras, London (free, including lunch, but booking is required)

Audience: “Anyone who is interested in Digital Scholarship, research which involves the use of digital content, collections, data, particularly using digital methods for investigation.”

I’ll be attending and talking about what the Digital Panopticon project is about and what we’re hoping to achieve.

More information here. (The booking form is still open at the time of writing, although it mentions a deadline of 7 November…)

Announcing the Digital Panopticon forum

In order to facilitate a range of discussions among different groups likely to be interested in the Digital Panopticon’s themes, we have created a discussion forum using Google Groups:!forum/digitalpanopticon

The purpose of the forum is to provide an informal community space and an online space for the project team and our audiences to share knowledge and learn from each other. We welcome discussion relating to any of the research themes, for example:

  • criminal justice history and policy
  • biometrics and health
  • family histories
  • data visualisation
  • record linkage
  • the impact and ethics of digital history

Joining should be straightforward (though I’m still getting used to how it works myself so I might have got something wrong: email if you have any problems!): see the Google Groups Help for more information.

PhD Studentship: The Social and Spatial Worlds of Old Bailey Convicts, 1785-1875

This is the first of a number of PhD studentships attached to the project, which will be spread between the Universities of Liverpool, Sheffield and Tasmania. This one is based at Sheffield.

The doctoral project will constitute an independent piece of research on a topic related to the overall project. The student will be able to use evidence and electronic resources generated by the project; attend project meetings, workshops and conferences; benefit from working closely with the investigators and Research Associates; and be given the opportunity to co-write publications. Nonetheless, in consultation with the supervisors, s/he will be given the latitude to shape their own direction of research.

Studentship Description

The studentship will investigate the social and geographical origins and destinations of men and women convicted at the Old Bailey between 1785 and 1875, in order to shed light on patterns of mobility and understandings of identity in early industrial Britain. Using evidence of origins from convict registers and social/occupational and place labels in the Proceedings, the project will trace convicts from their places of origin through residence and work in London before their arrests, to places of imprisonment and subsequent life histories. Analysis of the language they used in trial testimonies will provide an indication of how identities were shaped by complex backgrounds.

The studentship will cover full UK/EU fees and a maintenance grant, to commence in February 2014.

Application deadline: 2 December 2013, with interviews in December or early January.

Any academic enquiries should be directed to Professor Robert Shoemaker:

More information and how to apply.