A panoramic view of English criminal law

Image of the country-house Oog in AlAs a child and teenager I visited weekly the branch of the public library in Utrecht in the old country-house Oog in Al, beautifully situated along the Leidsche Rijn. Reading books on all kind of subjects in a library with its round tower offering a wide view of its surroundings is a great source of inspiration to look around you as widely as possible. Everard Meyster (1617-1679), the nobleman who had built Oog in Al in 1666, gave a very particular name to his manor. Oog in Al means panorama, a spot with a 360 degree view of things. Meyster wanted to have a good look at his project for the extension of Utrecht with new suburbs. He also launched a plan to build a canal connecting Utrecht with the former Zuiderzee, now the IJsselmeer. Some of his more funny projects earned him the nickname “De Dolle Jonker”, the mad nobleman.

Logo The Digital Panopticon

Being able to view things from every direction is a dream of historians, too. Creating a histoire totale, a complete history of persons and events, aims at transcending the traditional borders of academic disciplines by posing questions from several angles, and by using not just one method to approach problems. The name The Digital Panopticon was chosen on purpose for the ambitious project to look in more depth and detail than ever before at British criminal history. The subtitle of the project, The global impact of London punishments, 1780-1925, shows the two focus points, local history on one side, global history at the other side. Five universities, four in the United Kingdom and one in Australia, cooperate in this four-year project (2013-2017).

The Digital Panopticon is at the heart of this post. The project itself is connected with a number of other digital projects which will figure here, too. Sharon Howard (University of Sheffield), the project manager and webmaster of The Digital Panopticon, has more cards up her sleeves. She has created a whole range of websites and blogs which merit attention here if only already for their own quality and range. Legal history might not always be the main subject of these initiatives, but you can benefit indeed from them for doing legal history.

Looking at The Digital Panopticon makes you think about other subjects in legal history as well. How about creating projects for other countries and fields of law following this example? Do current or past projects exist which resemble The Digital Panopticon in some aspects? These questions deserve an answer, but if I added my first thoughts about them this post would simply get too long.

Getting a complete view

The global nature of The Digital Panopticon is not something you can take for granted. You might as well guide your efforts solely to an analysis of the data available at the website of the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online 1674-1913, the core of this project. By choosing a narrower period, 1780 to 1925, the project can deal in particular with those convicts sent into exile to Australia, hence the global dimension alluded to in the subtitle. The project team has developed three central questions touching first on the role and position of digital data for scientific research, secondly on the impact on people of incarceration and involuntary transportation, and thirdly on the impact and implications of digital history on public history and its ethics. These questions are being researched for seven main themes, starting with searching for patterns within digital data; noting the voices of men, women and children in the surviving testimonies; the relations between punishments and the course of ordinary life, the difference between convicts, free men and their offspring in committing offences; the interplay between nutrition, the general health situation and individual height and body mass and other factors dealt with by biometrics; the ways of representation of the criminal past in museums and in those institutions catering for a kind of dark tourism and heritage industry at former prisons and other places of the judicial system, and last but not least the ethics behind the massive digital presence of data concerning persons who lived in past centuries.

Linguistics, biometrics, the history of health, sociology and criminology are clearly present in the approaches and themes chosen for this major research project. As a legal historian I am glad the testimonies given by ordinary people get attention, too. Research into intergenerational patterns of behavior sounds also very interesting, as does research into the impact of offences and punishment on life course events. Giving attention to dealing with data sets with sometimes very personal information about members of still existing families links the past with the present where freedom of information, the access to personal files, and the protection of this information form a vital part of current public debate in many countries.

Logo First Fleet

However rich this variety of themes and subjects already is, you can probably do even more. For example, some time ago Frederik Pedersen (University of Sheffield) wondered about seasonal variations in litigation in ecclesiastical courts in the sixteenth century, more precisely in the York Cause Papers, but you can also ask this question for seasonal variations in punishments. The sheer mass of data in the Old Bailey Proceedings offer an opportunity to ask such questions. One of the obvious things to ask is which trends, variations or invariable outcomes you can distinguish when comparing offences for which people were not banished from England with those offences that led to other punishments. Even when you assume the punishments prescribed by laws or statutes did not change over long periods, the actual verdicts might have changed considerably. Can we detect change in judicial regime? What about the various prisons in London and their inmates? People sentenced by the Old Bailey formed only a minority of the people shipped to Australia. In December 2013 Sharon Howard wrote ‘Thinking about dates and data’,  a posting on the blog of The Digital Panopticon in which she reflects on the possibilities of using the various data sets to get a reliable picture of the people exiled to Australia, in particular those coming with the First Fleet in 1787.

It is easy to gather from the summary of the main research themes that researchers obviously can use resources which are already more or less ready for use. For example, at the University of Giessen a digital text corpus has been created from the data of the Old Bailey Proceedings which makes it possible to do linguistic research within the proceedings. Research into the health of convicts transported to Australia is facilitated by the project Founders & Survivors: Australian life courses in historical context, 1830-1920 created by historians, demographers, genealogists and population health researchers.

The Convict Transport Registers Database, accessible at the portal Connected Histories, contains 123,000 records of a total of 160,000 persons transported to Australia between 1787 and 1867 from the registers in the HO 11 series kept at the National Archives, Kew. An online research guide provided by the National Archives gives you guidance to a lot of relevant resources, some of them online. A second guide helps you specifically for researching people transported to Australia. You can either access London Lives 1690 to 1800 – Crime, Poverty and Social Policy in the Metropolis at its own website or use it through the portal Connected Histories. In the research guide for themes around and sources on crime and justice at this splendid portal the London bias of the resources is rightly pointed out. The digital resources of British History Online which do redress this imbalance to some extent, can be searched at Connected Histories, too. In the section Connections of Connected Histories you can find fine examples created by users of the way you can combine data on persons and connect the resources assembled at this portal. Its sheer size and variety, even after noticing some resources only to be used at subscribing institutions, is stunning, and I am hard pressed to find any digital history portal elsewhere with at least some of its contents and qualities. Linking records to a particular person depends on correct identification of people, and this makes research at Connected Histories not a straight forward affair.

One of the resources recently added to Connected Histories brings us to the very title of The Digital Panopticon. The transcriptions created by the crowdsourcing project for the papers of Jeremy Bentham, a part of the Bentham project at University College London, will become available here, too. On my blog I have written in 2011 a post about the Transcribe Bentham project. Bentham coined the use of the term panopticon for his famous model of a prison in which all prisoners can be seen by their guards from one point. However, in this new digital panopticon things seem almost reversed. You can look at prisoners from more than just one central perspective! By the way, some of the seven themes of the project have been the subject of postings here. In 2012 I wrote a post about museums and legal history in which I did question the way the history of punishment has been transfigured at some historical spots into a kind of morbid tourist attraction.

A constellation of websites

The Digital Panopticon is heavily dependent on digital data already accessible thanks to earlier projects. One of the most amazing and powerful facts about this interdependence is the role and position of Sheffield historian Sharon Howard. She was the project manager for the digitization of the Old Bailey Proceedings and she had the same function for the portal Connected Histories. For The Digital Panopticon she is again the project manager and also webmaster. No doubt things are sometimes much easier thanks to her knowledge of vital information about the data at these earlier projects and the ways they have been digitized or harvested. Last October I mentioned Sharon Howard briefly in another posting here. I recalled immediately the title of that post, ‘The galaxy of French humanism‘, when I looked at her digital presence in the second part of today’s post.

Logo Early Modern

The personal website of Sharon Howard is a veritable portal to her websites, blogs and the projects she is involved with. Early Modern history is her main research period. Legal historians will look in particular to her Early Modern crime bibliography. What this bibliography with some 500 titles maybe lacks in content is redeemed by her portal Early Modern Resources (EMR) and her blog aggregator Early Modern Commons (EMC). EMR is a treasure trove for anyone looking for historical resources for British and European history between 1500 and 1800. You can follow any particular theme or enter a free text search with always most valuable results which at the very least offer you food for thought, and more often the inspiration for and first guidance on new roads to go. A third abbreviation, EMN, stands for Early Modern Notes, Sharon’s Early Modern history blog. The websites and the blog will get a new form at the Early Modern Hub which Howard currently is constructing.

The section on blogging of Sharon Howard’s personal portal is perhaps its very heart. You can choose here from four blogs and four blog aggregators. As an aficionado of medieval history I would like to mention Medieval Broadside, a blog aggregator about medieval history, with of course a blog roll of the blogs included. The Broadside is not a website about broadsides and pamphlets, but a website which is to some extent its modern equivalent, an aggregator for messages posted by historians on Twitter about history. The New Newgate Calendar is another blog aggregator with a fine blog roll, this time as you would guess from its title dealing with news about research on the history of crime and punishment. A look at the blogs included here gives you a good idea of the wide variety of current subjects and methods in this field. The website for the original Newgate Calendar gives you the stories of English criminals imprisoned in the Newgate prison between 1700 and 1900. I leave it to you to look at the blogs and the blog aggregator with the word “Carnival” in their titles. You might do this during the coming carnival days!

In the projects section we have met already some of the projects for which Sharon Howard worked. Of the other projects I will only mention Manuscripts Online: Written Culture 1000 to 1500, a portal for online research on medieval manuscripts, and Locating London’s Past, the project connecting John Rocque’s 1746 map of London with texts, artefacts and information about the streets and buildings of eighteenth-century London. Is it by now still a surprise Sharon Howard has done research for an online course on Data Management for Historians?

If you are not yet satisfied with the variety and quality of the digital presence of just one researcher I can send you to two other sections of Howard’s portal. The fourth section deals with Fun, but actually some websites which started as a kind of virtual playground are not just play. Anyone thinking about creating an online – or printed – bibliography can benefit from her Zoterowiki, a guide for the popular digital bibliographic tool Zotero. You might need it when you contemplate contributing to her Early Modern crime bibliography! Based on the Old Bailey Proceedings Howard has created a tool to visualize the frequency of crimes and punishments in this data set. Her steps into visualizing hashtags used in tweets by historians brings me to the last section where she offers just links to her Tumblr blog, EMN and her own tweets. The Digital Panopticon can be followed, too, on Twitter (@digipanoptic).

If The Digital Panopticon is about viewing crime and punishment and the people involved from as many perspectives as possible, you might characterize the digital presence of Sharon Howard as a kind of virtual omnipresence! I cannot do better than express my admiration and salute the unflagging efforts of a historian doing so much to bring digital information together for the benefit of historians and anyone interested in history and law. At the end of this post I am sure you will bookmark some of the websites and blogs mentioned here or at Howard’s marvellous portal.

Inspiration for more research

At the end of this post feel mightily impressed with The Digital Panopticon and with the fleet of blogs and websites created by Sharon Howard. Comments, questions and criticism are always possible, and I have commented on some features and hinted at some questions indeed, but my main impression of The Digital Panopticon is positive, The eleven researchers of five universities cross borders in geography, time and themes. Can legal historians boast or at least remember similar projects on a vast scale? When you look around carefully and watch out for new or past projects you will surely find something which equals the scale and scope of The Digital Panopticon. Today the combination of a website, a blog and social media is common practice for many ranges of modern life.

The project that will dwarf earlier projects might well be present already, perhaps not yet visible in English or not spotted easily even by the most used web search engine. This week I have been searching for the website of an international project launched in 2013, but somehow I failed to track it with search engines. Not knowing the exact title of the project did hamper my online search severely. Luckily in the final stage of writing this post I remembered I created a bookmark in my web browser for it. History and the Law: Exchanges of Economic, Legal and Political Ideas aims at becoming a project bridging ages and continents. You can actually visit two websites presenting this project, one at Cambridge University, the other at Harvard. The presence of a webmaster in the team of any large-scale research project using digital tools is surely an essential element of its success and visibiity.

A postscript

In September 2015 the website Convict Voyages has been launched, one of the results of ongoing research at The Digital Panopticon.

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