Tag Archives: life narratives

The Challenge of Visualising 100,000 Convict Lives

The Digital Panopticon project is linking together a wide variety of criminal justice, genealogical, and biometric records to trace thousands of convict lives from birth to death.  Each story will start with a birth date anywhere from the mid eighteenth century to the mid nineteenth century, and will include a variety of events including convictions for minor offences, one or more Old Bailey trials and punishments, possible subsequent convictions, marriage, children, census records, and death.  We are calling these life archives, though many will only present fragments of lives, depending on the amount of evidence available.  One such fragment we have already assembled is that of John Davis, born in about 1817, convicted of stealing some clothes and other items from a dwelling house in 1836, incarcerated for a month on the hulks, and transported on the ship Moffatt to New South Wales, where he arrived several months later.

John Davis

Life Archive for John Davis

How do we summarise 100,000 stories like this?  How can we find common patterns among all the individual narratives?  The project is exploring a variety of visualisation techniques in order to summarise this evidence without, as much as possible, obscuring the complexity of the individual stories.  We have already used visualisations to assess levels of missing evidence and detect errors in the Old Bailey Proceedings (Men as Wives: Visualising Errors in the Old Bailey Proceedings Data and Seeing Things Differently: Visualising Patterns of Data from the Old Bailey Proceedings), and to identify patterns in individual datasets (Transportation Under the Macroscope); and Open Data and the Digital Panopticon). But how do we use visualisations to document relations between datasets?

There is a bewildering array of visualisation formats available, as this Google Images screenshot indicates. Which one should we choose?

Which visualisation?!

Which visualisation?!

The choice obviously depends on the nature of the information to be displayed. Our most successful record linkage so far is between the records of sentences (from the Old Bailey Proceedings) and the records of punishments experienced (primarily execution, transportation, and imprisonment).  You may be surprised to read that there was a considerable discrepancy between the punishments judges dictated to convicts in the Old Bailey courtroom and the actual punishments they received.  Following their sentences, many convicts received reduced punishments as a result of pardons, other decisions taken by penal officials, and ill health or death.

Most useful to us for representing these patterns are Sankey diagrams, which depict flows in many to many relationships. Individual lines trace individual journeys, but where the same paths are followed by many people they are brought together as thicker lines, the thickness of the line denoting the volume of the flow.

Old Bailey sentences vs actual penal outcomes, 1790-99

Old Bailey sentences vs actual penal outcomes, 1790-99

For example, this diagram traces the convicts’ experiences in the 1790s, focusing on the two main sentences of that decade, death and transportation.  We can see from this that only a proportion (28%) of those sentenced to death were actually executed, with many others being transported (following a conditional pardon), and a few experiencing other outcomes such as going into service in the army or navy (during the French wars) or death.  Only around two-thirds of those sentenced to transportation, similarly, were actually transported, with the remained ending up in the hulks (and then presumably discharged after a period), or having a small number of other outcomes.

The advantage of presenting the information in this way—as opposed to, for example, a table—is that it is readily understandable without obscuring the variety of the possible outcomes.  Moreover, the patterns which stand out pose questions for further research, such as how and why did so many potential transportees manage to evade this punishment–and what determined which punishments they actually received?  These are issues we are currently investigating.

But what happens when the variables become more complex, and the number of stages prisoners might go through multiplies?  This is the problem we are working on now.  As noted, our multiple datasets include information about a variety of different types of events in convict lives.  Sankey diagrams should be able to help, as they can show multiple paths through several stages, which is what we want to do with convict lives.  Each life history can be a line in a Sankey diagram, which, when 1000s of lives are included, would reveal general patterns.  But how do we manage the large number of events, taking place at different times?  A problem here is that we want to introduce a time element to the variables (the actual dates of events), which makes it too complicated for a normal Sankey diagram.

There is no off-the-peg solution to this problem.  But here is a crude mock up using Excel of what we hope to achieve.  Eventually we will develop visualisations like this using D3, a JavaScript library for producing data visualisations.

Twenty-four convict lives from birth to punishment

Twenty-four convict lives from birth to punishment

This is based on twenty-four convict lives where we currently have eight or more records, including their birth, previous conviction (if any), Old Bailey conviction, and punishment (periods of incarceration in the hulks or a prison and subsequent release, or transportation, or execution).

It is hard to draw conclusions from the rather inelegant presentation, but you can start to see some interesting patterns.  A flat line means little time elapsed, while a steep line connotes a longer period.  We can see how many convicts had previous convictions, and how these often occurred years before the Old Bailey conviction which led to the punishment displayed.  In terms of punishment, we can see significant changes over time in the nineteenth century: crudely a shift from incarceration in the hulks followed by transportation; to prisons followed by transportation; to prisons leading to a prison licence.  What will happen when we replicate this format with tens of thousands of cases?  Will patterns become clearer, or will it just be a mess?

Convict lives by age at which events occurred

Convict lives by age at which events occurred

In fact, this visualization is in some respects already too complicated to interpret easily.  If we remove the date variable and just use the age at which events occurred, it simplifies things.  Here different patterns emerge: the wide age range of previous convictions (many first convictions took place at a young age), the wide age range of those convicted at the Old Bailey; the relatively short time gaps between conviction and commitment on the hulks, and between incarceration on the hulks and transportation (usually); the longer times spent in prison before transportation or licence; and the older ages of those sentenced to prison.

Obviously, this is work in progress, and we have a lot more work to do to create accessible and fine-tuned visualisations providing these types of information, while including thousands more cases. We hope that what we come up with will be of use not only to this project, but also to researchers in other fields who want to create visual representations of vast amounts of complex data in accessible formats.

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.

Stealing one’s Heart: The story of Samuel Haslam and Elizabeth Ann Fernley

Samuel Haslam's First two Indictments

The beginning of a long day in court for Samuel Haslam and Elizabeth Ann Fernley (http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/images.jsp?doc=184202280123).

On 12th August 1839 Samuel Haslam pleaded guilty to embezzlement. For this offence the eighteen year old was sentenced to four months in prison. These are the only details we have of the trial; evidently, the case was open-and-shut and the reporter wasted no time documenting superfluous information.

The reporter was much busier, however, on 28th February 1842 – on this date Samuel Haslam faced no fewer than three separate trials. In the first of these, he again pleaded guilty to embezzlement. His victim was his master John Ord, from whom he stole 27 pounds.

Following this verdict Haslam remained in the dock. He was charged with conducting a burglary that took place on 4th December 1841. The crime was carefully conceived and a surprising amount of goods were taken from the home of Joseph Rawlings – this included:

1 hat; 1 pair of boots; 2 rings; 2 candlesticks; 2 cups; 2 saucers; 4 jars; 20 thimbles; 4 pencil-cases; 1 brooch; 1 cloak; 2 coats; 1 waistcoat; 1 miniature-case; 1 table-cloth; and 19 spoons’ .

Some of the stolen goods were recovered in a later police search of his house. As a result, Haslam was found guilty. However, he was not the sole defendant in this case – alongside him at the stand were several members of the Fernley family, including his partner Elizabeth Ann Fernley. Twenty-three year old Elizabeth Fernley and Haslam rented the Bethnal Green house where the goods were discovered together ‘as man and wife’.

Fernley was not charged with the burglary itself. Instead, she faced the lesser charge of receiving stolen goods. Four pawnbrokers testified against her; each claimed that she had pawned a portion of the stolen goods in their shops under the name ‘Bennet’. This alias was regularly used by the couple – it was the name under which they rented their house and it was used by Haslam when confronted by a police officer. The testimonies of the pawnbrokers convinced the court that Fernley was intimately involved and she too was found guilty. Incidentally, all the other defendants in the case were not convicted.

Before Fernley and Haslam were sentenced they were indicted for a final time. The similarities between this case and the previous one are striking. Haslam was convicted of burglary and taking a large number of household possessions, while, after the testimony of a pawnbroker, Fernley was found guilty of pawning the stolen goods. Once again she was using the name ‘Bennet’. The same Fernley family members were also indicted but again were found not guilty. Fernley received a sentence of 14 years transportation for her two offences; Haslam was to be transported for life for his role in these burglaries and his two previous charges of embezzlement.

Samuel Haslam and Elizabeth Ann Fernley worked together to carry out these burglaries. They were no Bonnie and Clyde, although they do seem to have been very much in love. Before the final verdict was delivered Haslam made an emotive defence of the couple’s actions:

It was intimated in the last case, that I and Elizabeth Fernley lived together as man and wife, it is false; I had been acquainted with her for some months, and the property brought into the cottage, I brought there; she placed the greatest confidence in me, and thought I came by it honestly; we were short of money at times, and I told her to pawn the things; I took the cottage myself, with the idea of our being married, but the rooms being small, and not liking it, we said we would wait some time, and take another…

Haslam’s statement was meant to encourage the court to exercise leniency. In particular, it emphasizes Fernley’s innocence – he stresses that she was unaware that the goods were stolen and that she pawned them at his instigation. The burglaries, according to Haslam, were motivated because the couple did not have the funds to marry or afford a better house. In short, he suggests that his crimes were motivated by love.

There is evidence that Elizabeth Fernley also protested the verdict. She filed a petition to the court pleading for mercy. This was an appeal which tried to persuade the court to reduce the length of her sentence or overturn it completely – for more information about petitions see the stories of Elizabeth Morley and Robert Jones. Although a record of Fernley’s petition being filed survives (and if you have a subscription to Find My Past you can view it here), sadly the petition itself no longer exists. It seems likely that this petition too would have pulled on the court’s heartstrings and focused on the romantic motives behind the crimes.

Both convicts were transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania); Fernley arrived in September 1842 and Haslam two months later in November. The course of their relationship in Australia is difficult to follow. If the couple married as convicts both would have needed the permission of the local authorities. However, in a search of the convict marriage permissions database, which covers records from 1829-1857, no results were found for either Samuel Haslam or Elizabeth Ann Fernley. Neither Fernley’s nor Haslam’s conduct records suggest that there were any informal liaisons between the pair.

While these crimes may have been committed for love, it appears that this passion fizzled out once both convicts reached Van Diemen’s Land. In all likelihood external circumstances intervened; the couple may even have been separated for the rest of their lives. Here the British penal system extinguished a young couple’s love. In every sense then, this is a case of stealing one’s heart.

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.

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.


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.