There are approximately nine million family history researchers in the UK. The New Digital Media which I’ve described in Crime in England 1880-1945 (Routledge 2014) feeds their enthusiasm and makes it easy for new adherents to start researching their family histories. The ease of finding online data means that it does not take people very long to trace their family history back to the mid nineteenth-century (about as far back as their great-great-grandparents). Almost inevitably this popular pastime has developed a commercial element, with its own websites (for example www.blacksheepancestors.com; www.societyofgenealogists.com/was-your-ancestor-a-criminal/; www.geni.com/…/do-you-have-a-criminal-in-your-family-tree-354741.html), popular magazines (there are lots of them on the shelves of high street newsagents), and Radio/TV shows (for example, “Tracing Your Roots” on Radio 4; “Who Do You Think You Are?” on BBC1).
Approximately six million viewers watched actress Patsy Kensit unravel both her father and grandfather’s involvement with the courts. Ancestors who have had brushes with the law feature quite heavily on these shows. Having a criminal ancestor is a little like hitting the jackpot for family historians. In addition to the increased chance of an official record being available, there is usually an interesting story behind the facts of the criminal case. Crime seems to be inherently fascinating, and having a forefather convicted of, say, poaching, or horse-stealing, means that one’s ancestor stands out from the crowd. Of course, the excitement might wane if the family member concerned was a convicted bigamist or a sex-offender. Family historians may be unprepared for the emotional consequences of that kind of unwanted knowledge.
On finding a `criminal past’, in order to make sense of the discovery, some will turn to academic histories, or other primary resources such as Old Bailey Online in order to find out more about particular crimes, or the specific punishments (this might explain the nearly one million annual visitors to the website). They might also, like so many other people, want to watch either factual or fictional representations of Victorian or Edwardian crime and policing to help them get a ‘feel’ for the space and place which their ancestor inhabited. Some have suggested that the fictional Constable George Dixon epitomises the “Golden Age” of policing in the 1940s and 50s in the way that the fictional North Yorkshire police officers do in the BBC series “Heartbeat”. These gentle homage to community policing have been swamped latterly by depictions of the pre-World War One period – the landscape in television’s “Ripper Street” or Guy Richie’s “Sherlock Holmes” films seems more appropriate for depictions of violent crime and disorder (something that seems more suited to the fears we have for modern society in the new Age of Austerity perhaps?).
Unfortunately, however, the considerable interest in televisual representations of crime in this period has not readily translated into an upsurge in academic interest amongst the viewing public. More often it encourages, not a trip to the university to sign up for a degree course in criminology, but a visit to the (admittedly more sensational) sites, both physical and digital of “Dark Tourism”.
There is a strong argument to be made that public histories of crime have never been more popular. Public access to, and interest in, the crimes, punishments, and offenders of the past have rarely been greater. As those at the forefront of uncovering new histories, and pioneering innovative research, how can academic crime historians, and the rich and informative histories they create, take a more central role in the development and dissemination of popular programming?
More widely, is there a greater opportunity for academics to become more forceful in shaping other general histories of crime, or in interpreting gaol and court sites? In the world of instant internet information, and the, at times anti-intellectual, mass media what role is there for academic crime historians – and should we be fighting harder to expand it?