Author Archives: Tim Hitchcock

Voices of Authority: Towards a history from below in patchwork

This post is intended to very briefly describe a project I am about halfway through – that seeks to experiment with the new permeability that digital technologies seem to make possible – to create a more usable ‘history from below’, made up of lives knowable only through small fragments of information.

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This particular project is called ‘Voices of Authority’, and is a small part of a larger AHRC funded project – The Digital Panopticon – that is seeking to digitise and link up the records reflecting everyone tried in London between around 1780 and 1875, and either sent to prison, or else transported to Australia.  This small element of the wider project is bringing together a series of different ways of knowing about a particular place, time and experience – the Old Bailey courtroom from around 1750-1850, and the experience of being tried for your life and for your liberty.  The conceit behind this project, is really a suggestion that building something in three dimensions, with space, physical form and performance, along with new forms of analysis of text; can change how we understand the experience of the trial process; and to allow a more fully empathetic engagement with defendants; along with a better understanding of how their experience impacted on the exercise of power and authority.

This is only half completed project – so this is very muchy a report of ‘work in progress’.  But, in essence, what seeks to do is bring together three distinct different forms of ‘data’ and to re-organise those data around indivudual defendants.

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First, it takes the text of the Old Bailey Proceedings – the trial accounts of some 197,745 trials held between 1674 and 1913, and recognises them as comprising two different and distinct things – a bureaucratic record of the trials themselves (names, verdicts, punishments); and at the same time, one of the largest corpora of recorded spoken language created prior to the twentieth century – some 40 million words of direct, recorded testimony for the period under analysis.

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These understandings of the Proceedings are, of course, built on projects of much longer duration; including the OldBailey Online, and more particularly, on Magnus Huber’s additional linguistic mark-up of the Proceedings, which allows ‘speech’ to be pulled from the trial text, and to identify the speaker along the way.  This is available via the Old Bailey Corpus.

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The project also builds on text and data mining methodologies – including direct counting of word and phrase distributions, and the application of a form of explicit semantic analysis, that allows us to look at the changing character of language used in witness statements over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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In other words, the first element of the project is the text and speech, crimes, punishments and dates provided by the Old Bailey Proceedings.

The second element is the body of the criminal – the physical body of the individual  men and women involved.  The broader project is creating a dataset of some 66,000 men and women – with substantial and detailed information about their lives, both before and after transportation or imprisonment – reflecting the inter-relationship between the people who became defendants and criminals with the systems of a global empire. And this material provides a huge amount of data about bodies – to add to the words individuals spoke to power.  Height, weight, eye colour, tattoos among a range of other aspects of a physical self.  Suddenly, we know if a collection of words was spoken by a ten stone, 5 foot two inch woman with brown hair and black eyes, and a withered left arm; or by a six foot man with an anchor tattoo on his left arm, and a scar above squinting blue eyes.

To think about it another way, this bit of the ‘project’, allows us to worry about the ragged boundary between the ‘physical’ as recorded in a set of numerical and standardised descriptions, and the ‘textual’ – the slippery and ambiguous content of each witness statement.

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In relation to ‘history from below’, this allows us to put together the lives of people like William Curtis, who as a 16 year old, in the summer of 1843, had a perfectly healthy tooth pulled, before stealing the dentists’ coat.

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And Sarah Durrant, who was convicted for receiving two banks notes worth 2000 pounds. It all allows us to know their words (their textualities), and at the same time to see them as part of a different kind of truth – of place and body.

The aspiration is to essentially code for the variabililties of body type at scale, to add a further dimension to both the records of the bureaucracy of trials (charge, verdict punishment), and the measurable content of the textualities of those same trials.

And finally, we are adding one additional dimension – space –  a ‘scene of trial’.

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For this we are first of all building on a project called Locating London’s Past, which among other things, maps crime locations on to the historic landscape of London.  And to this we are adding a reconstruction of the courtroom, where all these trials took place.

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Simply using Sketch-up, we have made most progress on the George Dance’s building, finished in the late 1770s and providing the main venue for the relevant trials for the next hundred years – basing the models on the architectural plans from which it was built.

In the process of creating this model, huge amounts of imformation about trial procedure has been revealed, including the changing layout of the court, and the relative position of the different speakers.  The design itself reflects a hitherto unacknowledged transition in the character of how witnesses and defendants were divided in this evolving space, evidencing a new story of the evolution of the criminal trial.

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The architecture itself, suggests that there was a clear transition from a situation in which witnesses and victims stood in a similar relation to the judge and jury (both facing the judge, relatively close to one another); to one – like a modern anglo-american courtroom  – where the judge and witnesses are on one side, and the defendant on the opposite side of the courtroom.  In other words, the character of the adversarial relationship at the core of the adversarial trial was re-defined, with the witnesses and victim re-located on the either side of the argument, and the judges role, redefined as arbiter between them.  At some level, in the process community resolution was replaced by court judgement.

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If you want to explain why conviction rates at the Old Bailey rose from under 50% in the mid eighteenth century, to over eighty percent at the end of the nineteenth century, starting from precisely the moment when the courtroom was rebuilt, this ‘fact on the ground’ needs to be part of the story.

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What has also been revealed is the importance of levels – with lawyers speaking upwards to the judge, jury, witnesses and defendant, from a cock-pit several feet below their eye level.  Like a theatre audience, the judge, jury and defendant looked down on the stage below.  In other words, what was created, at least for a short time (70 years), was the real feel of a ‘theatre’ in which, as a barrister, you were forced to perform to the gods.

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Looking forwarding to the next stage, this particular sub-project is seeking to move from the ‘art’ of making and performance, through a humanist and historical appreciation of ‘experience’, towards the tools of social science and informatics – seeking to combine the close reading of a single desperate plea, with the empathy that can only come with physical knowledge, with that macroscopic image of all the similar words spoken over a hundred years – how that one plea fits in a universe of words and bodies.  And all of this, is in turn, being undertaken in pursuit of a more nuanced and empathetic engagement with the lives of working people – both for its own sake, and as part of a new analysis of the workings of power ‘from below’.

With luck, this will allow us to move beyond a simple analysis of the courtroom, and the ‘adversarial trial’ – to an analysis through which we can see the whole system from the defendants’ perspectiv.

In other words, the next step is about creating a history of the British criminal justice system, and of transportation from an experiential perspective on a large scale – contributing to a history of common human experience, evidenced from the distributed leavings of the dead, analysed with all the approaches available to hand, from all the perspectives available.

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