The voices of the Old Bailey: ‘Data Sprint’ workshop, University of Sussex

‘I beg for mercy; I am sorry for what I have done’

‘I was very heavy in liquor; I got this tankard and I did not know how’

‘It was extreme distress drove me to do it’

‘I declare myself righteous between God and myself’

‘I did not know my first husband was alive, as he had left me seventeen years’

‘I don’t know what to say’

Words like these are partly what makes the Old Bailey Proceedings such a unique historical resource. Through them, we hear the voices of ordinary individuals as they stood in court, describing moments of crisis and of the everyday.

Digital Panopticon has been building a dataset of the words uttered at the Old Bailey. On 10th May, Tim Hitchcock led a workshop at the University of Sussex Humanities Lab to explore how researchers might use and interpret this rich mine of speech data. Historians, linguists and computer programmers all came together to share ideas.

Digital Panopticon’s Sharon Howard introduced what’s been done so far in the project’s ‘Voices of Authority’ theme. She set out some key questions: does a prisoner’s speech in the Old Bailey have a bearing on what happened to them later? What makes prisoners’ defences effective (or not)? Sharon also shared some of her visualisations of the data, which raised still more questions: why were silent prisoners more regularly acquitted than those who spoke? Is there a correlation between the length of a trial and the verdict?

Ben Jackson (Sussex Humanities Lab) demonstrated how he is recreating Old Bailey trials off the page, combining 3D modelling of the courtroom with text-to-speech technology.

David Weir, Julie Weeds, Jeremy Reffin and members of the Text Analysis Group (University of Sussex) explained how software can be used to compare the words and phrases of different categories of speaker. For example, what happens if we compare the language of defendants found guilty with the language of those found not guilty?

And Justyna Robinson and Charlotte Taylor (University of Sussex) and Fraser Dallachy (University of Glasgow) used corpus linguistics tagging tools to show that speech varied according to gender and legal training.

The workshop raised some intriguing questions, and it’s clear that interdisciplinary collaboration will be important in trying to answer them. The voices of the Old Bailey hold clues to how the judicial system functioned and changed during the 18th and 19th centuries – and they give an exciting insight into the lives of the ordinary Londoners who passed through the courtroom.

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