Tag Archives: record linkage

James Littleton and the Problems of Automatic Record Linkage

James Littleton's Conduct Record from 1842 (TAS CON33-1-17)

James Littleton’s Conduct Record from 1842 (TAS CON33-1-17)

In 1832, James Littleton was indicted for theft. This, according to a series of records automatically matched by the Digital Panopticon, marked the beginning of his exceptional story. Littleton was accused of stealing 10lbs of beef, 3lbs of mutton and five eggs from a wine-merchant named Thomas Wood. He was caught red-handed as Police Constable Cornelius Wintle amusingly explains:

I was on duty in Holborn, on the morning of the 27th of September, and heard a gentleman call out “Police!” opposite King-street – I crossed, and stopped the prisoner; some eggs dropped out of his hat; I took him to the area of Mr. Wood’s house, and the beef and mutton were in the area – Mr. Wood was looking out of the window.

Littleton offered no defence and was found guilty. The sentence passed down was lenient; he was imprisoned for one month. As he was aged just 16 and this was his first conviction, this judgement was a wrap on the knuckles to deter any future criminal activity.

Less than two months later Littleton was back at the Old Bailey. On 29th November 1832 he was charged with the theft of 37 cigars from a Tobacconist in Holborn. Again, he was caught in possession of the stolen goods by a Police Officer. This time, however, the court did not give him another chance; now aged 17, Littleton was sentenced to seven years transportation.

The next trace of James Littleton is a record of his transportation. On 13th December 1832, Littleton was one of 216 convicts transported aboard the Lotus to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). After sailing for 154 days and stopping at Rio de Janeiro, James Littleton arrived in Van Diemen’s Land on 16th May 1833.

The next linked record, placed Littleton back at the Old Bailey in November 1840 charged with the murder of Mary Nicholls. He was reported as being aged 27, a figure which, allowing for some error, corresponds to his previous records. The crime also took place close to Holborn, the scene of his previous offences. Found guilty of this brutal killing, Littleton was then sent back to Van Diemen’s Land to serve a life term.

Before he was shipped, Littleton was detained aboard the Prison Hulk ship Leviathan moored at Portsmouth (TNA H09 09/12/1840). These floating prisons were used largely because the English prison system was grossly overcrowded and there simply was not enough space to house convicts on land.[1] Mentioned as an aside, it seems that Littleton escaped from the Leviathan on the 27th January 1841. There is little record of this daring escape but evidently Littleton was on the run for a considerable period; he was not transported to Van Diemen’s Land until September 1841. Following his arrival in February 1842, Littleton’s conduct record is full of incident. He was found guilty of attempted murder and was hanged at Hobart on 31st December 1842.[2]

This is the truly extraordinary story of James Littleton according to the records linked automatically by the Digital Panopticon. It is a fascinating account of a how a youth involved in petty crime transformed, on his return from Australia, into a hardened criminal. With an escape from prison and a sorry end at the hangman’s noose, James Littleton’s story has all the hallmarks of a box office epic. However, on closer inspection, all is not as it seems.

James Littleton arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in May 1833, having received a sentence of seven years. The conduct record for his first stint in Van Diemen’s Land, whilst very difficult to read, indicates that he was still there on 12th May 1839. In theory he could have completed this term and made the four or five month voyage to Britain in time to commit murder on 18th October 1840, though this seems unlikely. The transcript of his murder trial makes clear that:

the prisoner [James Littleton] and the deceased [Mary Nicholls] lived together, and slept in the same bed’.

This relationship suggests that Littleton had spent a significant period of time in London before he murdered Nicholls in October 1840. This narrows the window for Littleton to travel back to Britain and commit the offence even further. The logistics of such a journey work, but only just.

The descriptions of James Littleton upon his arrival in Van Diemen’s Land in 1833 and 1841 differ markedly. In 1833, he was reported as being 5ft 1in tall, with light brown hair and dark grey eyes. He also had a tattoo in the shape of an anchor on his arm. By 1840 however, he had grown 6½ inches and had black hair, while the tattoo on his arm had vanished. In 1833 Littleton’s occupation was listed as a ‘baker’, yet by 1840 he was classed simply as a ‘laborer’.

James Littleton’s trial in November 1840 was high profile and was covered by a number of newspapers. This report is taken from The Standard (Saturday 24/10/1840; Issue 5101):

James Littleton, alias Shamus, a ruffianly-looking fellow, aged about 25 years, who had been repeatedly brought to this court and convicted for violent assaults upon the police… On the prisoner having been placed at the bar, Mr Combe [the Judge] recognised him as one whom he had seen before on charges at this court. Policeman 49, Q division, stated that the prisoner [James Littleton] had frequently been charged at this and other courts for violent assaults, and he had been once cast for death and left for execution. Seven years ago he had been convicted of a rape. The prisoner denied this, and said he had been acquitted of the charge.’

James Littleton did not deny being accused of rape; in fact, he was keen to show how he had been acquitted at a trial. Yet how can this trial have taken place seven years earlier (1833) in London if, as the record linking process suggests, James Littleton was actually on the other side of the world?

This evidence leaves only one possible conclusion; there were two James Littleton’s born within a couple of years and living within a couple of miles of each other. One was a tobacco thief from Holborn – the other a dangerous thug with a string of violent convictions.

A subsequent search for the second James Littleton’s prior convictions mentioned in The Standard, revealed evidence of a trial at the Old Bailey in September 1839. A ‘James Lyttleton’ was convicted of stealing a basket and ‘three pecks of French beans’ in August of that year and was sentenced to six months in prison. The irregular spelling of ‘Lyttleton’ meant that this information did not appear in the records compiled by the computer. It proves that we are in fact looking at the exploits of two people. Our first James Littleton was still in Van Diemen’s Land in May 1839, so cannot be the same person who committed this offence in London in August. There are indications that the second James Littleton may have faced trial in 1838, which would provide categorical proof that there were two people; however the record of this trial is proving difficult to locate.

This search also revealed earlier records of the first James Littleton’s criminal career. Aged just 13, in April 1829, he was accused of pick-pocketing. Despite the loss of a considerable sum of money, the prosecutor failed to turn up to the Old Bailey and Littleton was acquitted. His next appearance in court was in October 1830. This time Littleton appeared as a witness in the trial of two 14 year old youths charged with the theft of snuff boxes and pipes. Although, the two defendants were put to death for this crime, Littleton, despite playing a part in the robbery, faced no charges. These records were not matched because they contain little information about Littleton himself – for instance, they lack specific details regarding his age or appearance. However, they seem to fit with the petty nature of his subsequent crimes.

This complex case illustrates some of the drawbacks of linking records together in this way. By creating matches based on names and ages, two (or maybe more) individuals can be confused for one. Also, this method is ultimately reliant on the searcher themselves. A program can only search what a user inputs. If, in my initial search for James Littleton, I had typed ‘L*ttleton’ to cover other possible spellings, this story would have become a lot clearer a lot sooner.

Such algorithms are extremely powerful tools to identify potential links between individual records and are vital to constructing convict lives, however the links created cannot always be completely relied upon.

Below are alternative timelines for each James Littleton:

James Littleton (1)

1815/6: Born

09/04/1829 (aged 13): Found not guilty of pocket-picking

28/10/1830 (aged 14): Appears as a witness in a trial of two 14 year olds who stole snuff boxes and pipes – involved but not convicted

18/10/1832 (aged 16): Found guilty of stealing food – sentenced to one month in prison

29/11/1832 (aged 17): Found guilty of stealing cigars – transported for 7 years

20/12/1832: Sailed to Van Diemen’s Land aboard the Lotus

16/05/1833 (aged 18): Arrives in Van Diemen’s Land

06/06/1833: Given 12 lashes on the back for being ‘absent without leave’ and for showing insolence to a ‘Mr Pearson’

16/07/1838: Disobeyed orders and showed highly improper conduct for allowing a servant to be drinking in a hut with two female prisoners until one of them was drunk. Sent to a Road Party on probation 21st July 1838

From this point on his story is unclear. His conduct record is dated 12/05/1839 which suggests he was still in Van Diemen’s Land at this point but it gives little clue as to his life after the end of his sentence.

James Littleton (2)

1813: Born

1813-1839: Prior convictions – assaults on Police Officers and/or rape – also a possible trial in 1838

16/09/1839: Found guilty of stealing French beans – sentenced to six months in prison

23/11/1840 (aged 27): Tried at Old Bailey – found guilty of murder – transported to Van Diemen’s Land for life

09/12/1840: Held prisoner on the Prison Hulk Leviathan in Portsmouth

27/01/1841: Escaped from prison

28/09/1841: Transported to Van Diemen’s Land aboard the Tortoise

19/02/1842: Arrives at Van Diemen’s Land

31/12/1842: Executed at Hobart


[1] Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 (Sydney, 1986), pp. 41-2.

[2] For a brief account of this hanging see Steve Harris, Solomon’s Noose: The True Story of Her Majesty’s Hangman of Hobart (Melbourne, 2015), Ch. 10.

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.]

What’s in a Name?: Details and Data Linkage

A year in to the Digital Panopticon project we have begun record linkage with some of our key sources relating to Transportation. With several innovative iterations of initial linkage completed, thanks to Jamie McLaughlin, we have been able to trace more than three quarters of those sent for transportation from the Old Bailey, linking them to their voyage details in the British Transportation Registers. For some, we have also been able to link onwards to the Convict Indents compiled for them on board convict ships and once they arrived in Australia. This iterative process has taught us much about the nature of our different record sets, and about the complex job of connecting them together.

One of the biggest challenges in the linking process has been differentiating between the multiple cases of identical names and trials in the Old Bailey. However, with a schedule of record linkage due to connect not just our transportation datasets, but also imprisonment data and eventually civil data, such as the census and birth marriage and death information, in the coming months, the certainty of what to link and how becomes increasingly difficult.

When confronted with a sea of names, and no consistency in the recording of other contextual information between our diverse datasets, how are we to make the right choices and make sure that the correct history is connected to the right offender?

Between 1780, and 1900 there was only one Mary Ann Dring convicted at the Old Bailey she was sentenced to five years penal servitude in 1865 for feloniously uttering counterfeit coin. She had appeared in the old Bailey once previously in 1863 as a witness in the coining trial of another Woman, and twenty years later in 1885 might well have acted as a witness in a manslaughter case.

From a linkage perspective we are fortunate. In all of our criminal datasets there should only be one Old Bailey Mary Ann Dring. Indeed, this is very lucky because owing to just two lines of text for her own trial, the information we start off with in order to trace her is minimal:

Name: Mary Ann Dring

Approximate year of birth: 1817

Location: London.

Step one, is to link to the next big dataset for those who stayed in England to be imprisoned. In this case that is the PCOM 4 female licences for parole. By searching with the available information from Mary Ann Dring we took from the Old Bailey data, there is no problem in locating her licence. Those familiar with the licences will know that these documents give us the opportunity to, collect a vast amount more information on her. Confident that the right link has been made we can collect some key contextual detail that will allow us to identify Mary Ann Dring in further datasets.

Licence fields

The future datasets we link to will not, of course, contain the majority of this information. So we must utilise a few key details that will help us link to new records. For civil data we could certainly use information such as the fact that Mary Ann Drink was recorded as married with two children in 1865. She worked as a Charwoman, and had been resident in London, under her married name, since at least 1863 when she had her first conviction.

In the nearest census to Mary Ann’s Old Bailey conviction in 1865 (1861) there are 183 returns for a Mary Ann Dring born on or around 1817. If we make the not unreasonable assumption that our Mary Ann Dring was living in London for the five years prior to her Old Bailey appearance, we can rather luckily reduce that to four viable matches.  To most academic researchers or family historians, this is a small and manageable selection of information in which to choose.

MAD census entries

Yet even though we know she was married with two children, we are faced with four married women, two with two children, two with three, all living in London (and none with any occupation listed which is not unusual for a census entry with a male head of household). Given the parameters of most automated systems that might be required to make such a match, any of these census entries could be considered a valid match. Manually, it is possible for an individual researcher to reduce the choices to two viable matches. They are, from a linkage point of view, almost indistinguishable. The dates of birth for the two most likely candidates fall one year either side of 1817. Both are married, both have two children. Both are residents of London. Both have identical names.

In the 1871 census, six years from Mary Ann’s conviction and four years after her release from Prison, there are no records that would directly match to either of the entries for the 1861 census. Instead there is a choice of five women who all fall within five years of the original Mary Ann Dring’s birth year, but have notable differences in their personal information. Furthermore, depending on which links are made to census data, and what extra contextual information is added to May Ann’s case, there is the potential for relevant death records from London and the surrounding counties, spanning a fifteen year period.

The choices we would be faced with if we just looked for Mary Dring, without the middle name Ann would be several times the volume. If we looked for a Mary Smith with the same level of contextual detail we could well be faced with exploring hundreds of potential matches with no way to choose between them.

Each individual record linked to a convict has ramifications for future links. On the micro level this is the dilemma faced by every genealogist or family historian. The difficult decisions that have to be made in matching records to individuals. However, the Digital Panopticon’s task of linking almost 90,000 convicts across multiple datasets is not a micro history, nor a task that can be managed manually. The design of an automated system that can navigate and discern between multiple similar (or even identical) entries in a given dataset is essential. Or perhaps it is a question of ranking and displaying the multiple possible links in case of conflict?

It would seem that our challenge now is that of developing a suitably complex data linkage system, that can simultaneously maintain a high rate of matches that we can be confident in, and one that at the same time allow us to incorporate possible, contradictory, and conflicting data. Those with common names will no doubt prove our greatest challenge, but even someone as seemingly unique as Mary Ann Dring poses challenges about how we match, what we match, what we keep, and how to store and rank conflicting information across such a wide variety of datasets.


Bound for Botany Bay? Old Bailey penal sentences and their implementation

The opportunity to connect each Old Bailey convict from their trial, to the ship they sailed on, to the records of their lives in Australia is only one of the benefits of the huge data -linkage efforts currently being undertaken by the Digital Panopticon. However, as this process develops we are presented with a second opportunity – to see where data is missing, and to follow those who seem to disappear between datasets. So far, this has been most apparent in the case of those sentenced to transportation but who are absent from records of convict vessels, or convict arrivals.

Leading historians of transportation, such as Digital Panopticon partner Deborah Oxley have estimated that anywhere between one quarter and two thirds of those sentenced to transportation were never actually sent to Australia. Initial investigations indicate that between1782-1800 3,801 men, women, and children, were sentenced to transportation at the Old Bailey. Yet just over two-thirds of these convicts (2468) do not appear in the next relevant data set – the British Transportation Registers.

It seems clear that the road from arrest to Australia was rarely so straight forward as suggested by many contemporary and later popular accounts. Testimonies given by the officials who ran the transportation system tell us that it was predominantly those below the age of 50 years (45 years for women), and those convicted of the most severe crimes that were selected for transportation.  Historians have also provided evidence to suggest that it was not only the young, but also the practically skilled that were preferred for transportation to Australia. Yet the disparity between sentencing and implementation of transportation suggests that, at present, histories focussing on those transported tell only half of the story. For a fuller picture of how this penal process worked we now have the chance to start tracing those that were left behind.

Preliminary findings suggest that the missing convicts can be traced to three main groups.

The first group of convicts did not even make it to the secondary phase of transportation – that is detainment on the hulks or in holding prisons. Instead their ill health saw them detained in Newgate hospital ward until eventual death a few weeks or a few months after their trial. In the cramped and insanitary conditions of Newgate Gaol, fever was rife and infection spread quickly. Most of those who died were only recorded as having very generalised ailments. Coroners would regularly record a death with little detail, listing simply fever, decline, despondency or ‘natural causes.’

Inside Newgate Gaol

There are of course some exceptions that give us a little more detail. For example, forty-year old Thomas Kennedy was tried at the Old Bailey on 12 July 1797 for the theft of a silver watch. He was found guilty and sentenced to seven years’ transportation. He died in Newgate in April 1799.

Most of those who died in these vague circumstances were the elderly, at least in transportation terms.  These generic fevers, fits, and decline listed as causes of death for those in Newgate could be a myriad of infections that could be found in any of the densely populated areas of London. Sickness such as typhus, typhoid, dysentery, pneumonia, and tuberculosis spread quickly and fatally in the confines of the gaol. Those without strong immunity – especially the elderly or very young were especially at risk.

There were also other convicts who died in gaol as the result of pre-existing illness such as venereal disease, heart problems, and jaundice. Robert Fosgate was sentenced to seven years transportation in October 1787 for the theft of a large amount of clothing. After a year waiting in the gaol suffering from venereal disease, he died of its effects in November 1788. Similarly Peter Rock whilst awaiting transportation in Newgate but three months after of trial he succumbed to the effects of jaundice, and dropsy – a common symptom of heart failure.

A second group of missing prisoners were delivered on board the floating prison ships, the hulks. Some died after accidents on board the ships, others drowned after falling overboard or during escape attempts. Both occurrences could be common upon such vessels. Other men could have remained on the hulk either until the expiration of their sentence – the collection of new data regarding the hulks will allow us to more fully understand why this might have been – or some would have died from illness or infection in the hulks which were described as ‘the most brutalizing, the most demoralizing, and the most horrible’ of British penal history, and where the death rate was estimated to be twice as high as that of the English population in general. [1]

Inside Hulk

The third and final group that our initial linkage has shed light on are those who received pardons. At present our understanding of this process is limited. For women, pardons were complete, dissolving the woman’s conviction and setting her at liberty. However a pardon could come a substantial time into the sentence. Those awaiting transportation could wait years before their sentence was commuted or their crime pardoned. Hannah Findall was sentenced to seven years’ transportation in 1793.   It was not, however until September 1797 that she was pardoned. For male convicts, a partial pardon was more common than a full one. There could be several conditions attached to such freedom. Commonly this might be service in the army or on the high seas. On the level of individual cases it is impossible to say with any certainty what the criteria for pardons or commutation might have been. However, when the data linkage process is more complete, it will be possible to analyse these convicts in aggregate, and view the commonalities in their ages, crimes, sentences, and skills.

Making it from the courtroom to Australia, then, was not just about being young and healthy. It seems to have actually been about not already being sick, vulnerable to illness via age or an existing condition, and perhaps about not being useful to the state for something else. As the work of the Digital Panopticon continues, there will doubtlessly be other disposals we discover which will again change how we think of the transportation process. As the data-linkage on these records progresses we are hoping to produce more accurate proportions of sentence implementation – or failure – and will be able to visualise whether this changed over the convict period. We have the opportunity to gain some new perspectives on transportation that don’t just note numbers of those not eligible for transportation, but also give more of an idea about who they were and what fate awaited them.


[1] T. Forbes ‘Coroners’ Inquisitions on the deaths of Prisoners in the Hulks at Portsmouth England in 1817-1827’ in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (1978), 33, 3, p.358. See also B. Webb and S. Webb,  English Prison’s Under Local Government (Longmans,Green, and CO.: London), pp. 45-46.


Adventures with Data Linkage

The British Convict Transportation Registers is a database detailing the journeys of over 123,000 people transported to Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries. Compiled from British Home Office records, it contains information such as the name of each person being transported, the date they departed, and their final destination.

The early stages of the Digital Panopticon have allowed us to perform some preliminary data linkage between these registers and people sentenced to transportation in the Old Bailey Proceedings. We’ve made the links primarily by name, with a degree of tolerance for spelling. We found that many names actually matched exactly, suggesting that perhaps names were in some cases directly copied from one record to another. A further 7% of names could be matched via an algorithm known as Soundex, which attempts to identify names which sound similar when spoken, but might be (accidentally) spelt differently. A remaining handful were matched by virtue of having a small Levenshtein Distance. Levenshtein is a simple metric by which the variance between two text strings is quantified. Including matches with a very small Levenshtein Distance, where perhaps only a single letter is different or omitted, helps take account of minor clerical errors.

Percentages of names matched between the British Transportation Records and Old Bailey Proceedings, under various conditions.

Results of attempted name matching between the British Transportation Records and Old Bailey Proceedings.

In total, about 70% of the people sentenced to transportation in the Proceedings appear in the transportation records. We can be quite confident of about half of these, because in some cases the date of conviction is actually given in the transportation record. If the date and name match, it becomes very likely that we’re dealing with the same individual. For transportation records where a conviction date is not given, we have to examine five or six years worth of Old Bailey records to make sure we don’t miss a possible match. This greatly increases the possibility of a false positive, so we can be less sure about these links.

One interesting trend is that the number of exact links decreases significantly in cases where the conviction date is not given. A greater proportion of these links had to be made with Soundex or Levenshtein Distance. This suggests that the links made without a conviction date are less reliable, as we might expect. Therefore, for the time being we will discard these.

With our most reliable links in hand, we can begin looking for patterns between the details of conviction and transportation. One of the most interesting pieces of information contained in the transportation records is the destination of convict ships. An obvious question is whether convicts were directed to particular destinations based upon their offence, gender or age. One might imagine colonies having a need for people with particular skills or attributes at particular times, and the system might have attempted to address these needs. Luckily, occupation is indeed sporadically recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings.

In fact, the data shows that the overwhelming factor in deciding where a convict was sent was the particular year when they left England. Transportation was almost exclusively to New South Wales before 1831, and overwhelmingly to Van Diemens Land after 1838. There is a brief period from 1832 to 1835 where roughly equal numbers of convicts are sent to both destinations. However, even during that period, there doesn’t appear to be any correlation between the characteristics of a convict and their destination. Neither gender or age, crime or occupation seem to have made any difference. Once a person was in the transportation system, their final destination was entirely arbitrary. There was no easily identifiable tendency to send people with particular attributes to particular destinations.

Sankey diagram, showing proportions of different age groups transported to different destinations, including where the destination is unknown because a link between records could not be made.

Sankey diagram, showing proportions of different age groups transported to different destinations between 1832 and 1835, including where the destination is unknown because a link between records could not be made.

If we cannot find a pattern in where people were sent, perhaps we can find a pattern in how long it took them to be sent there. For every convict there is a period of time between when they were convicted and when they actually set sail aboard a ship. The interval between conviction and transportation is hugely variable. A few people were transported in little over a month. Some people, as we have noted, spent six years waiting to be transported.

Line graph showing the minimum, maximum and average intervals between conviction and transportation over time, 1787 - 1852.

Line graph showing the minimum, maximum and average intervals between conviction and transportation between 1787 and 1852.

The data shows that again, time was a very important factor. Transportation almost halted between 1835 and 1844, as did sentences of transportation. In contrast, the system seems to have been at peak efficiency between about 1814 and 1834, but even then there are a few outliers (represented by the green line) who still had to wait a very long time to be transported.

Detail of a scatterplot variation showing every interval between Proceedings conviction and BTR transporation, represented by horizontal bars running from conviction date to transportation date. Females are blue, males are orange.

Detail of a scatterplot variation showing every interval between Proceedings conviction and BTR transporation, represented by horizontal bars running from conviction date to transportation date. Females are blue, males are orange.

If we look at the data in more detail, we can see that a great many of those sentenced to transportation, at least early in the period, are simply waiting for the next boat to depart. Convicts sentenced at multiple sessions are stored up until, presumably, there are enough to justify a voyage. Nevertheless, there are people who seem to miss multiple voyages; people convicted at the same session as those who depart on the next boat who are, for whatever reason, left behind. Can we detect any common characteristics among these people?

It is not at all easy to find a pattern, but there may be one: Male prisoners below the age of 15 appear to be kept for longer, on average, than those who are older. It’s worth noting that the minimum and maximum intervals show no such trend; there are still people under fifteen who are transported very quickly, and people over fifteen who are held for a very long time. But in terms of the average, there is a definite increase which starts abruptly at the age of fifteen and then accelerates as prisoners get younger. In fact, on average, male prisoners under fifteen are kept for twice as long as those over fifteen.

Age plotted against minimum, maximum and average days between conviction and transportation, for males sentenced at the Old Bailey 1787-1852.

Age plotted against minimum, maximum and average days between conviction and transportation, for males sentenced at the Old Bailey 1787-1852.

This is a finding which we can begin to investigate and verify. Certainly, the pattern is not repeated for female prisoners, whose average transportation time remains remarkably consistent regardless of age. As the project gathers more data and continues its initial investigations, we hope to be able to explore this possible trend in more detail.

This is the very first linking exercise we have done, and there is undoubtedly scope to refine the process. Every dataset we add will help us to evaluate our findings more thoroughly and ask more detailed questions. The next step may be to try and link the Old Bailey and Transportation Registers to the Convict Database, which contains information such as height, and prisoner health. These may well be important factors in determining the treatment of prisoners and providing further clues as to the nature of a journey through the eighteenth century criminal justice system.