Tag Archives: record keeping

Lost in Transportation: William Prudence and Robert Armstrong

The Digital Panopticon is a phenomenal tool but its success is ultimately dependent on the quality of past record-keeping. The eighteenth and nineteenth century data on which the project is based is outstanding in its detail and range, but it does contain some holes. Occasionally, individual convicts can fall through these. Here are a couple of examples of convicts who, in different ways, became ‘lost in transportation’.

William Prudence

On 7th July 1784 William Prudence was tried at the Old Bailey for:

burglariously and feloniously breaking and entering the dwelling house of William Penn…

Prudence was found guilty of stealing several items of clothing, four brass candlesticks and a looking glass, but was not convicted of the break-in itself. This was because the crime took place in darkness and the witnesses could not be certain of the burglar’s identity. In spite of these doubts, Prudence was sentenced to seven years transportation. After his trial Prudence was held for a spell in Newgate Prison (TNA HO77 17/07/1784) but there is no record of him arriving in Australia.

In fact, he never left Britain. William Prudence went on to live as a weaver and had several other run-ins with the law. In 1793 he spent 6 months in Newgate Prison and was publicly whipped for stealing four loaves of bread. A year later, he stole 56lbs of salted butter – as punishment, he spent another 14 days in Newgate and was again whipped in public.

This means that Prudence must have been granted a reprieve in 1784. Unfortunately, no record of this survives and we can only speculate about what happened. For instance, Prudence could have filed a petition for mercy and had it upheld; he could have been pardoned in light of new evidence; or he may have had a medical condition which prevented him travelling. We simply don’t know. The absence of this type of record is not uncommon – the date of Prudence’s trial is particularly early and records from this time often do not survive – however, it is a deeply frustrating reminder that there are missing links within the data.

On 22nd June 1796 Prudence was once more sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing several lengths of muslin cloth. Again he not serve this sentence; he died a natural death at Newgate Prison before he could be transported. William Prudence never set foot in Australia; sadly, despite all of the technology at our disposal, we will never know the exact reason why.

Robert Armstrong

After previously being convicted for grand larceny in 1792, Robert Armstrong was sentenced to death for his role in a burglary in 1794. However, on the recommendation of a Judge, his sentence was respited (HO47/19/16). Instead of facing the hangman, Armstrong was transported to the West Indies to serve as a soldier with the Sixtieth Regiment.

Robert Armstrong was quite literally lost in transportation. In 1797 he reappeared at the Old Bailey accused of returning from transportation before the end of his sentence. The defence he gave to the court was truly extraordinary:

In 1795, I was pardoned upon condition of serving his Majesty King George, in the sixtieth regiment of foot, to go in the capacity of a soldier; I embarked the 14th of April, 1795; I had the misfortune to be taken by the French, and carried into Guadaloupe; they wanted to force me to serve against my country, and rather than be a traitor to my country I was determined to get my liberty, or die; here are two shots in my neck that I got as I was making my escape.

Having been captured by the French and then escaping back to London, Armstrong faced one last hurdle – proving his story. His trial was not going favourably until a record kept by the Sixtieth Regiment themselves was produced. This proved that he had been sent to the West Indies and that his account was truthful. The court was clearly unaware of the existence of this document. A reward was offered for Armstrong’s arrest – he was captured and brought to court by Joseph Nash who was clearly hoping to receive some financial reward. Armstrong was fortunate that a military record existed to prove his story; otherwise he would likely have faced the death penalty.

Robert Armstrong nearly slipped through the net because there was no court record of his transportation. This story is another example of how careless record-keeping could make life difficult for convicts and can still frustrate modern researchers.

Criminal Records: Prison Licences


Home Office and Prison Commission Licences are one of the core sources being used by the Digital Panopticon to trace the lives of nineteenth century convicts sentenced to imprisonment in England.  Licences began to be issued in 1853 when the 1853 Penal Servitude Act officially substituted terms of transportation for terms of imprisonment. Licences granted convicts undertaking penal servitude freedom before the expiration of their sentence in a system closely modelled on the Australian ‘Ticket-of-Leave’. The licence system remained in place well into the twentieth century.

The licences are split into two collections, the PCOM 3 licences for male convicts and PCOM 4 for female convicts. However, only a proportion of the total licences issued between the 1850s and 1940s have survived and are accessible to the public. For women only licences issued between 1853-1871 and 1882-1887 are available, and for men licences issued between 1853-1887.

What are the licences?

A licence document was issued for each convict on release, detailing the conditions of their freedom. However, the prison ‘licences’ can actually refer to a much larger collection of documents covering an individual’s entire time in penal servitude. The PCOM licences can contain items such as a penal record detailing criminal history, medical evaluation form, prison punishment records, and notes of applications by the prisoner to the Secretary of State. From the 1870s onwards, licence bundles also contain photographs of offenders and records relating to their correspondence in prison and, on occasion, police intelligence about their associates and former lives.

This example shows the licence issued for Caroline Jones when she was released in 1866, and her reception form at Newgate Gaol from when her sentence began.

Caroline Jones Licence       Caroline Jones Newgate form

These collections of documents were created by a number of officials over the course of an individual’s incarceration. Various legislation over the second half of the nineteenth century, such as the 1869 Habitual Criminals Act, made provision for the collection of an increasing volume of data about offenders. Some forms, like the penal record, were completed as a convict was processed into prison, others were produced over time as a convict served their sentence. Medical records, record of punishment, and applications and letters travelled with a convict to each institution they spent time in where it became the duty of different administrators to keep them up to date.

This left hand example shows the medical record of Elizabeth Davis, partially completed on her admission to prison, but updated with details of her weight every time she moved to a new institution. The right hand example shows the punishment record of Elizabeth Davis as she served a sentence of penal servitude in Woking prison between 1873 and 1875. Further entries were added each time she committed a prison offence.

Frances Reece medical record      Frances Reece prison offences record

Why are they important to historians?

How, when and, most importantly, why such extensive information relating to convicts was collected over the course of the nineteenth century is currently being explored as part of the Digital Panopticon’s Epistemologies theme.

The PCOM prison licences give historians an unparalleled insight into the imprisonment of thousands of ordinary nineteenth century convicts. The multifaceted remit of these records means that they are useful for studying the personal details of individual convicts and following their journey to and through the convict prison system. Documents within the licence bundles offer us the chance to amass details such as aliases and criminal histories, names and addresses of family members, police intelligence about a convicts ‘character’ and previous life all of which can be used to find the same individual in other sources. These records are also useful for developing a more comprehensive understanding of the prison regime during the mid and late nineteenth century imprisonment came to define penal experience after the end of transportation. Institutional paper-work shows how the system of labour, diet, and marks for gratuity operated on a daily basis. Lastly, any of these records allow us to examine in more detail individual facets of the convict prison system. Whether that be the development of medical provision for prisoners over time, or the punitive measures taken to control the prison population.

This example shows the penal record of Elizabeth Davis, stating her full conviction record and several aliases which can be used to trace her in other records.

Frances Reece penal record

Problems with the licences

Despite the potential of these records there are issues and limitations that researchers should be aware of. There is a lack of consistency in the content of licences. Some of the earliest examples have little more than the paper licence issued for prisoner release, and later licences (from the 1870 and 1880s in particular) can have vast amounts of material. The style and content of recorded information also changes over time. Whilst this can be useful for epistemological questions and examining the development of the administrative prison system, it does present a challenge when creating research questions relating to inmate experience across time. Whilst offering a great amount of detail about individuals and their lives inside (and often outside) prison, the documents were written from the perspective of the prison system. The emotional lives of inmates, their motivations, and experiences are not often explored. For example, the licences can help historians investigate the difficult and dangerous environment in which prisoners lived. Instances of prisoner violence and distress are very commonly recorded on prison offence forms. However, the forms do not record contextual exploration of why and how such behaviours occurred. Likewise, information relating to key issues such as mental illness are largely absent from these documents.

Nonetheless, the diverse range of documents available through the PCOM prison licence collection remain one of the best and most important sources for researching the men and women confined in Victorian convict institutions. The PCOM licences give us a rare insight into the minutia of daily prison life. Most importantly, these sources provide otherwise unavailable information about thousands of individuals serving time in prison between the 1850s and 1880s. Licence documents can prove essential for understanding the lives of prisoners and for collecting information which lets us trace how they arrived in prison, and what happened after their release.

A tale of two Thomas Smiths

This is a bit different from previous convict tales: it’s about two people – who shared the same name. Lucy Williams has previously blogged here about the difficulties that people with identical names (and few other pieces of information to differentiate them) present for historians attempting to do record linkage. But the story of the two Thomas Smiths suggests that contemporary administrators sometimes found this challenging too.

Let’s start at the beginning, in the Old Bailey, with two trials just over a month apart in late 1833. Firstly, Thomas Smith (we’ll call him “Thomas A”), aged 35, was convicted in October of stealing gowns and other clothing, and sentenced to 7 years transportation. According to the transportation registers he was transported on the John Barry, 2 April 1834, to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).[1]

In November, Thomas Smith (“Thomas B”), aged 18, was convicted along with Benjamin Underwood of stealing lead piping. Benjamin was a year younger, which may be why he was sentenced to 6 months imprisonment rather than the 7 years transportation which Thomas received. In the transportation register, he went on the Henry Tanner, 27 June 1834, to New South Wales.

So far it seems straightforward – there’s enough detail in the register to make linkage quite easy, even though there were four convicts called Thomas Smith on the John Barry and two more on the Henry Tanner. (Moreover, there are upwards of 300 Thomas Smiths in the register database as a whole – and 8 Old Bailey defendants named Thomas Smith in 1833 alone.)

But then, on looking in the Tasmanian Founders and Survivors data at what’s supposed to be the entry for Thomas A, it suddenly gets a lot less simple:

This Man who states himself to have been tried in November came by mistake, in the place of Thomas Smith a Glass Cutter.

The statement is from a conduct record, and it’s corroborated by the corresponding entry in the description lists, where his age is given as 18.[2]

Thomas Smith in the  Description Lists (Tas CON 14/1/11)

Which Thomas Smith? (Tas CON 18/1/11)

In other words, the transportation register is wrong: it was actually Thomas B, the younger man, who went to Tasmania. This is also confirmed by the convict indents for the Thomas Smith who went to New South Wales on the Henry Tanner.[3] That Thomas is evidently Thomas A: aged 35, married with several children, and a glass cutter. (In receiving a mature, skilled worker rather than a teenage labourer, NSW seems to have done quite well out of the mix-up.)

So the confusion seems to be cleared up quite readily. But the mystery remains: how could the mistake come about in the first place?

It’s time to turn to some large datasets that have recently become available to the project: the several important series of hulk records digitised by FindMyPast and Ancestry. (Prison hulks were old ships, no longer sea-worthy, where convicts awaiting transportation were held, to ease overcrowding in gaols.) The two Thomases were transferred together from Newgate to the Fortitude at Chatham in December 1833. They are both in the quarterly returns for December 1833 and March 1834. In the latter, Thomas A’s entry has a note of his departure, “VDL 26 March 1834”. Thomas B makes one final appearance in the June 1834 register with the note “NSW 21 June 1834”. The British authorities had no doubts about where the two men were supposed to have gone.[4]

In Convict Maids, Deb Oxley describes how clerks built up detailed records of every convict transported, drawn both from judicial records and from individually examining and questioning the convicts several times during the stages of their journey from British gaols to Australia.[5] A key part of this process was the creation of the convict indents shortly before departure, which would travel with the ship to provide the receiving colony with essential information about each convict:

In order to construct his indent, [John] Clark [the clerk contracted to carry out this particular task during the 1830s] collated the relevant documentation, attended the docks several days before the voyage was expected to take place, inspected the convicts and called the roll, and finally questioned them, checking their answers against his paperwork.

I still don’t know exactly how the mix-up occurred, but it’s clear that in the case of the two Thomases, practice must have diverged quite significantly from the ideal. If a clerk had questioned the Thomas who boarded the John Barry and compared the man to the paperwork it would have been pretty obvious that something was not right. He was 17 years younger than he was supposed to be, had been convicted at a different time and for a different offence, and lacked any of the older man’s family and work history. There were some superficial physical similarities between the two Thomases – brown hair, 5 ft 4-5 ins in height, dark complexion – but in addition to the age gap, Thomas A had lost two upper front teeth, which sounds quite hard to overlook.

Surely the mistake had been discovered by the time Thomas A embarked for New South Wales, and yet none of the British-based records were ever corrected. And some of the confusion lingered in their Australian records long afterwards. The NSW records for Thomas A, from his convict indent right through to his certificate of freedom in December 1840 (also on Ancestry), continued to repeat the wrong Old Bailey trial date. Thomas B’s conduct record also retains the wrong trial date, and it also makes him both married and single, and a thief of both lead pipe and gowns (an interesting combination). The conduct registers were created partly from the indents and partly by examining the convict; the clerks seemingly decided to simply leave in all of the conflicting data they had been given.

The British penal system sent thousands of convicts to Australia every year for decades; it would be surprising if even the most well-oiled machine didn’t occasionally slip under those circumstances. It still happens, after all: as recently as July 2015, a prisoner was released ‘by mistake’ from Wandsworth Prison. If it had been anything other than a rarity, there would be far more frequent records of similar errors in the Australian records.

As such, it’s less of an issue for big data approaches than for efforts to trace individuals in depth (and we got there in the end!). Even so, it’s one of those instances where the stories of individual convicts open up wider questions: they force us to think about the problems and limitations of the available evidence. For a start, the case warns against presuming that information is more reliable simply because it’s repeated in several (even official) sources. Secondly, it provides a reminder that keeping track of people who shared the same name was not just a problem for historians today. Maybe it even offers one answer to the question posed by Bob Shoemaker: why was so much information about criminals being collected for no obvious purpose?

[1] TNA HO 11, searchable at the  transportation registers database
[2] Tas CON 31/1/40 and CON 18/1/11, both accessible via Thomas Smith’s record at the Tasmania Archives website.
[3] We are using the convict indents data created by Deb Oxley, which we’ll be including in DP; also searchable with images on Ancestry.
[4] HO9/2, available (as low quality pdf) via TNA’s digital microfilm service (at fol. 77) and searchable with better images at AncestryHO 8/38-40, at FMP; and see also ADM 6/421 (f.215) also on FMP.
[5] Oxley, Convict Maids, pp 18-27.


[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.]

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 (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.


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’.