Tag Archives: data

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.

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.


Transportation Under the Macroscope

Computers are brilliant microscopes. They make it easy to find needles in haystacks. Want to find references to the famous lawyer William Garrow amongst the millions of words in the printed reports of trials held at the Old Bailey, for instance? A keyword search produces the results in less than a second. Without computers it would take months. Likewise, as I explained in a recent post, through the techniques of data visualisation computers can be used to spot (what would otherwise be largely imperceptible) errors within the massive datasets that we are drawing upon in the Digital Panopticon project.

But computers are also fantastic macroscopes — today’s powerful digital technologies allow us to stand back from our sources and view them in their entirety. We can see the big picture, presenting complex and large-scale patterns in simple but effective ways. Microscopes allow us to see the infinitely small. Telescopes reveal the infinitely great. Macroscopes, meanwhile, peer in to the infinitely complex, allowing us to explore combinations, relationships and interactions between multiple elements.

By visualising the information recorded in the British Convict Transportation Registers, I’ve recently put penal transportation to Australia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries under the macroscope. This has produced some interesting insights into the relationship between Australian penal colonies, terms of transportation and how these changed and interacted over time.BCTR

The British Convict Transportation Registers database provides information on more than 123,000 offenders who were transported to Australia between 1787 and 1867. It’s a fantastic resource, and it will be at the heart of the Digital Panopticon project’s efforts to chart the criminal lives of London convicts sent to Australia. In charting these lives, we need to address some overarching starting questions. How many London convicts were actually transported to Australia for their crimes? Which parts of Australia were they sent to? How many years abroad did they face according to their sentences? Did this change over time, and what was the relationship between these different elements? Visualisations can help us to explore these questions across the long term and a large scale.

The total number of London convicts transported to Australia fluctuated greatly over the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as Graph 1 below demonstrates. Relatively few convicts were transported in the years 1793–1804 when the Revolutionary War monopolised Britain’s shipping resources. With the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815 there were however large and rapid increases in the numbers of London convicts sent to Australia, reaching a massive peak in the 1830s. Thereafter, numbers gradually fell until the eventual abandonment of penal transportation in the 1860s. Interestingly, this pattern reflects a wider inverse relationship between the numbers of convicts transported and the years in which Britain was engaged in war throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.Graph 1

What Graph 1 doesn’t reveal is that the places in Australia where convicts were sent to changed over time. The individual penal colonies to which London convicts were sent operated at different times. As Graph 2 below shows, New South Wales was the first penal colony in Australia, and was later used alongside the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land between the late 1820s and 1840, when transportation to Australia was at its peak. Following this, Van Diemen’s Land was used almost exclusively, until the 1850s, when Western Australia was the sole transportation location in Australia.

Graph 2

If the locations of penal transportation to Australia changed over time then so too did the lengths of time which offenders were sentenced to abroad. Between 1787 and the virtual abandonment of New South Wales as a penal colony in the late 1830s, as Graph 3 highlights, offenders were sentenced almost without exception to a term of 7 years, 14 years or life. Between 1840 and 1850, when Van Diemen’s Land was used exclusively, terms became more varied, with greater use of 10 and 15 year sentences. And especially after 1853, when Western Australia became the sole destination for transportees, an even greater variety of terms were put to use. This more nuanced tariff in transportation sentences was likely introduced to make transportation more favourable to penal reformers who increasingly viewed the practice with concern.

Graph 3

These changes in penal colony and terms of transportation were intimately linked, and the interaction between the two is clearly captured in Graph 4. The colonies operated at different times, and the law which underpinned them and the terms of transportation which could be imposed also changed in accordance. In short, the convicts who found themselves on the shores of New South Wales were primarily one of two kinds: either those sentenced to 7 years transportation; or those sentenced to a whole life abroad. By contrast, London convicts landing some 2,000 miles away on the shores of Western Australia and on the eve of transportation’s demise in the 1850s would each have had subtly different terms to serve out.

Graph 4

Through the macroscope of computer-generated visualisations, we can see these complex patterns and interactions in their entirety, spanning the breadth of Australia and the length of a century, taking in the lives of tens of thousands of individuals along the way.

Visualising Life-Grids and Narrating the Lives of Convicts

One of the great opportunities presented by the Digital Panopticon project (and one of the most exciting in my opinion) is in uncovering more about the processes of crime and punishment by placing thousands of offenders, and their offences, back within the context of their own lives.

Tracing offenders through the records has been a preoccupation of several groups of historians and criminologists (for example Barry Godfrey, Heather Shore, Pam Cox, David Cox, Helen Johnston, Zoe Alker, Joanne Turner, and Stephen Farrall) in the last decade. On account of the laborious nature of record linkage those studies which have focussed on tracing groups offenders through civil as well as criminal datasets have been able to examine a few hundred offenders at a time. Those pioneering this methodology have taken the collected information and sorted it into ‘lifegrids’ which chart life events and changes for each individual. Lifegrids might typically include details of birth marriage and death, family evolution, employment and residential addresses, and offending and punishment history. Of course, the depth and breadth of documents and information available on different groups of, or individual offenders, dictates how much material can be recorded in each life grid.

Other than life-grid format, there are a number of ways that this information can be presented and communicated. Even the simplest visualisations are able to show the role that offending had in any one person’s life. This might be through indicating what proportion of an individual’s life was spent in custody, or how many offences were recorded against them at what stage of their life. It is possible to chart how someone’s offending accelerated and decelerated. From an institutional perspective it is possible to indicate how an individual’s weight and health changed over time, or how their behaviour and privileges impacted upon their experience of punishment. The myriad of ways in which this fascinating and complex data can be presented has some exciting potential for how others see, interrogate, and engage with this fantastically rich data.

To begin to explore these possibilities, we have been working with an example offender: Patrick Madden (one of a number of offenders included in Johnston, Godfrey and Cox’s ESRC funded research on ‘The costs of imprisonment’).

P Madden

Born and raised in Sheffield, Patrick began offending around the age of sixteen. Although often motivated by property, Patrick’s offences were primarily violent in nature. Madden had 15 offences recorded against him over an almost thirty year period. Each of these was committed either in Sheffield or other close-by northern towns such as Wakefield and Doncaster. It was in these locations that he was incarcerated, accept for one occasion of penal servitude when he served seven years of penal servitude in London, and the south of England. It does not appear as if Patrick ever married or had children, nor that he managed to establish a life for himself that did not involve repeat offending for long before dying at the age of 52.


Patrick Maddens lifegrid, of course, contains much more information than this brief overview might suggest. Patrick’s civil and penal records allow us to know about many elements of Patrick’s life right down to his familial relationships and sexual preferences. However, even if we take the most ‘bare bones’ approach to Patrick’s life narrative, it is possible to start creating some interesting visualisations based on his experiences and offending history.

DataHero Patrick Madden years of imprisonment in life course (1) DataHero Patrick Madden type of offending over life course


DataHero Weight over period of imprisonment line DataHero Penal class over time of imprisonment


Yet the size and scale of the research being undertaken by the Digital Panopticon means that we are faced not just with presenting Patrick Madden’s life, but instead the lives of all of the ‘Patricks’ that went through the old bailey between the late 18th and early 20th centuries. This poses two distinct challenges which we will face in presenting the mass of information traditionally held in lifegrids.  First is that the range of records being linked together for each offender is unprecedented. Some records are well known to our researchers and relatively straightforward to visualise, such as criminal registers that allow us to examine date, place and type of offence. Others such as the changing picture of family life that might evolve from three successive census entries, or the seemingly random personal or professional information that can be carried in a newspaper report, are far more difficult to quantify and visualise. This first problem will become clearer and hopefully less significant as more records are collected and linked. It should be fairly straightforward to identify the information which can be presented easily, and to adapt that which cannot. The second challenges we must meet is that of potentially presenting to other researchers and the public tens of thousands of individual life and offending histories. What we need to work on is finding a way of presenting a range of different information about our offenders both individually and in aggregate so that it is possible for users to access information about an individual they are interested in, but also to see how such an individual compares and contrasts with others in the study – something which enables researchers to identify how typical an individual’s experience was.

BG offered some initial ideas of how we might best achieve this when we met in Oxford. By creating ‘strand’ visualisations which present a mass of offenders by a few ‘key values’ –  for example the year of their first recorded offence, nature of offence, or length of offending career – and then allowing users to further restrict what strands are shown to them by other values – for example sex and location- it would be possible to access information about a single individual, whilst getting a sense of how they match up to their contemporaries.

BG visualisation

We hope that this will prove an excellent starting point as we work to develop future visualisations and methods of presentation which will allow the Digital Panopticon team, fellow researchers, and members of the public to explore, understand, and get the most from the fantastic wealth of data at our fingertips.