Tag Archives: Old Bailey Proceedings

PhD Work in Progress: Policing and the Identification of Offenders in Metropolitan London, 1780-1850

My PhD research explores changing policing strategies, and how these affected who was arrested, and why. The period between 1780 and 1850 witnessed extensive changes to the English criminal justice system, and London was at the forefront. The Metropolitan Police force was established in 1829, and is viewed by many as the first recognisably ‘modern’ police force. However, the older local policing systems such as the night watch, parish constables, the Bow Street Runners and magistrates changed considerably over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in response to the needs of the communities that they served. This is why I repeatedly refer to ‘policing agents’, a term which encompasses not only the new Metropolitan police officers, but also watchmen, constables, marshals, patrols, and the officers attached to magistrates’ courts.

I am also particularly interested in those who were arrested by these policing agents. The idea that a subset of society was responsible for the majority of criminal activity; a ‘criminal class’, was emerging as a powerful contemporary perception in late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century London. Historians have examined how contemporary commentators expressed and shaped this idea, but there has been little focus on the roles that policing agents played by choosing who to arrest and re-arrest. My research examines the relationships between policing agents and the communities that they policed, and how these changed according to different policing agents and strategies.

As a case study, I have been using the Old Bailey Proceedings Online to examine ‘proactive’ arrests made by policing agents. The majority of trials at the Old Bailey between 1780 and 1850 did not feature policing agents at all, and of those that did, policing agents were mainly responding to information given to them. Proactive arrests were those made based upon the suspicion that an offender had, or was about to commit a crime. I developed a searching strategy to find a collection of these cases, searching terms for policing agents in combination with terms relating to the reasons for arrest. So far, I have identified a collection of 680 cases featuring policing agents in proactive roles; I am continually adding to this collection as I find more cases.

Fig. 1 Rowlandson the Old Bailey

Fig. 1: Thomas Rowlandson, The Old Bailey, from Microcosm of London (1808) © London Lives

The vast majority of offenders in the dataset are male – (90%), higher than the proportion of males in all the Old Bailey trials in this period (78%) (see fig. 2). This confirms my supposition that those who were viewed as ‘suspicious’ by those who policed the streets of London were disproportionately male.

Fig. 2 Gender in my dataset and OBP overall

Fig. 2: bar chart showing proportions of male and female defendants in the Old Bailey Proceedings overall, 1780-1850, and in my collection of cases

The age profile of my set of offenders is broadly similar to the age profile of defendants in the Old Bailey Proceedings overall, with the majority aged 18, and the next most commonly-occurring ages clustered around that (16, 17, 19 and 20). Comparing the recorded ages in my cases with the recorded ages of defendants for all Old Bailey cases, it is clear my collection of cases contains a disproportionate number of offenders aged between about 15 and 21 (see fig. 3). Young men, therefore, were disproportionately viewed as suspicious by policing agents.

Fig. 3 updated defendant ages OBP overall and my dataset

Fig. 3: bar chart showing the ages of defendants (grouped at 3-year intervals) in my dataset, compared with the ages in all cases in the Old Bailey Proceedings (number of cases divided by 100 to scale)

The vast majority of cases in my set are trials for theft, since theft was probably the most straightforward crime for policing agents to detect and notice on the streets. For example, the policeman who arrested Lazarus Hart in 1830 stated ‘the prisoner had got a bundle, and I thought it my duty to see what he had’.[1] Merely carrying a large or unusual-looking object was sufficient grounds for a policing agent to stop and question a suspect, and often to make an arrest. Offenders were stopped for carrying stoves, firkins of butter, sides of bacon, and even a tart stolen from a pastry shop.[2] However, clearly not all goods being carried were stolen; so other factors contributed to the suspicious appearance of these individuals. Not only were young men disproportionately suspicious, but their behaviour, or the circumstances they were found in, could arouse suspicion.

Policing agents were generally expected to know the residents of the area that they policed, and knowledge of a defendant was often used to explain the arrest. Metropolitan Police Constable John White stated at the trial of Lydia Prior, Martha Eldridge and Mary Davis in 1846 that ‘I have seen the prisoners associating together before’, and so ‘suspected’ and watched them until Eldridge came away from a shop with a print concealed under her apron.[3] Policing agents often explained they knew defendants because of their bad character; in the trial of Robert Ransom in 1813, a constable stated that ‘knowing the prisoner to be a reputed thief, I followed him’.[4]

Even if the policing agent did not know the prisoner, they often made arrests because they saw them behaving ‘suspiciously’. This was often either because they believed that the offender had recently, or was just about to commit a crime. For example, John Christmas was arrested by Henry Crocker, a Bow Street patrol in 1794, who stated that ‘if I see a man lurking in the fields, I always go to him’.[5] He discovered some iron next to the prisoner, and took him into custody to investigate.

Suspicious behaviour was sometimes exacerbated by the time of day at which it took place. A constable saw Edward Lowe and William Jobbins in a passage at an ‘unseemly hour’ in 1790, and explained that ‘it would have been decent in the day, but at night there was no such necessity’ for them to be there; he took them into custody and they were later found guilty of arson. Loitering, running, or carrying objects late at night was viewed as more suspicious than if these activities were carried out during the day, when they could be part of legitimate working practices.

Fig. 4 Rowlandson Arrest of a Woman at night

Fig. 4: Thomas Rowlandson, Arrest of a woman at night, ©The Courthauld Gallery

Policing agents who proactively arrested those whom they recognised and saw behaving suspiciously, fostered and shaped the emerging contemporary perception of a criminal class. Although it was not explicitly expressed in such terms until the mid-nineteenth century, the young men whom policing agents arrested and re-arrested were clearly viewed by them as a distinctive and ‘suspicious’ group. The majority of policing agents’ work involved investigating and arresting offenders based on information provided to them by witnesses or victims, but proactive policing of ‘suspicious’ persons, albeit a small proportion of the total number of arrests, had important implications for policing, criminal justice, and individual offenders. In the rest of my PhD research, I will examine these themes in different sources, including newspaper reports, and use case studies of particular repeat offenders to explore their relationships with policing agents over time.


[1] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 10 June 2016), May 1830, trial of LAZARUS HART (t18300527-6).

[2]OBPO, December 1827, trial of JOHN ALDGATE HENRY JOHNSON (t18271206-76); OBPO, October 1796, trial of JEREMIAH VANDESPUNCH, alias VANDERPUMP (t17961026-27); OBPO, September 1836, trial of RICHARD HARDY (t18360919-2134); OBPO, April 1830, trial of JAMES JONES CORNELIUS HAYES (t18300415-50).

[3] OBPO, May 1846, trial of LYDIA PRIOR MARTHA ELDRIDGE MARY DAVIS (t18460511-1175).

[4] OBPO, January 1813, trial of ROBERT RANSOM (t18130113-52).

[5] OBPO, January 1794, trial of JOHN CHRISTMAS (t17940115-32).

Short bibliography:   

John Beattie, The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750- 1840 (Oxford; New York, 2012)

Gregory J Durston, Burglars and Bobbies: Crime and Policing in Victorian London (Newcastle, 2012)

Andrew T Harris, Policing the City: Crime and Legal Authority in London, 1780-1840 (Columbus, 2004)

Elaine Reynolds, Before the Bobbies: the Night Watch and Police Reform in Metropolitan London, 1720-1830 (Basingstoke, 1998)

Heather Shore, London’s Criminal Underworlds, c. 1720-c.1930: A Social and Cultural History (Basingstoke, 2015)

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.


Bound for Botany Bay? Old Bailey penal sentences and their implementation

The opportunity to connect each Old Bailey convict from their trial, to the ship they sailed on, to the records of their lives in Australia is only one of the benefits of the huge data -linkage efforts currently being undertaken by the Digital Panopticon. However, as this process develops we are presented with a second opportunity – to see where data is missing, and to follow those who seem to disappear between datasets. So far, this has been most apparent in the case of those sentenced to transportation but who are absent from records of convict vessels, or convict arrivals.

Leading historians of transportation, such as Digital Panopticon partner Deborah Oxley have estimated that anywhere between one quarter and two thirds of those sentenced to transportation were never actually sent to Australia. Initial investigations indicate that between1782-1800 3,801 men, women, and children, were sentenced to transportation at the Old Bailey. Yet just over two-thirds of these convicts (2468) do not appear in the next relevant data set – the British Transportation Registers.

It seems clear that the road from arrest to Australia was rarely so straight forward as suggested by many contemporary and later popular accounts. Testimonies given by the officials who ran the transportation system tell us that it was predominantly those below the age of 50 years (45 years for women), and those convicted of the most severe crimes that were selected for transportation.  Historians have also provided evidence to suggest that it was not only the young, but also the practically skilled that were preferred for transportation to Australia. Yet the disparity between sentencing and implementation of transportation suggests that, at present, histories focussing on those transported tell only half of the story. For a fuller picture of how this penal process worked we now have the chance to start tracing those that were left behind.

Preliminary findings suggest that the missing convicts can be traced to three main groups.

The first group of convicts did not even make it to the secondary phase of transportation – that is detainment on the hulks or in holding prisons. Instead their ill health saw them detained in Newgate hospital ward until eventual death a few weeks or a few months after their trial. In the cramped and insanitary conditions of Newgate Gaol, fever was rife and infection spread quickly. Most of those who died were only recorded as having very generalised ailments. Coroners would regularly record a death with little detail, listing simply fever, decline, despondency or ‘natural causes.’

Inside Newgate Gaol

There are of course some exceptions that give us a little more detail. For example, forty-year old Thomas Kennedy was tried at the Old Bailey on 12 July 1797 for the theft of a silver watch. He was found guilty and sentenced to seven years’ transportation. He died in Newgate in April 1799.

Most of those who died in these vague circumstances were the elderly, at least in transportation terms.  These generic fevers, fits, and decline listed as causes of death for those in Newgate could be a myriad of infections that could be found in any of the densely populated areas of London. Sickness such as typhus, typhoid, dysentery, pneumonia, and tuberculosis spread quickly and fatally in the confines of the gaol. Those without strong immunity – especially the elderly or very young were especially at risk.

There were also other convicts who died in gaol as the result of pre-existing illness such as venereal disease, heart problems, and jaundice. Robert Fosgate was sentenced to seven years transportation in October 1787 for the theft of a large amount of clothing. After a year waiting in the gaol suffering from venereal disease, he died of its effects in November 1788. Similarly Peter Rock whilst awaiting transportation in Newgate but three months after of trial he succumbed to the effects of jaundice, and dropsy – a common symptom of heart failure.

A second group of missing prisoners were delivered on board the floating prison ships, the hulks. Some died after accidents on board the ships, others drowned after falling overboard or during escape attempts. Both occurrences could be common upon such vessels. Other men could have remained on the hulk either until the expiration of their sentence – the collection of new data regarding the hulks will allow us to more fully understand why this might have been – or some would have died from illness or infection in the hulks which were described as ‘the most brutalizing, the most demoralizing, and the most horrible’ of British penal history, and where the death rate was estimated to be twice as high as that of the English population in general. [1]

Inside Hulk

The third and final group that our initial linkage has shed light on are those who received pardons. At present our understanding of this process is limited. For women, pardons were complete, dissolving the woman’s conviction and setting her at liberty. However a pardon could come a substantial time into the sentence. Those awaiting transportation could wait years before their sentence was commuted or their crime pardoned. Hannah Findall was sentenced to seven years’ transportation in 1793.   It was not, however until September 1797 that she was pardoned. For male convicts, a partial pardon was more common than a full one. There could be several conditions attached to such freedom. Commonly this might be service in the army or on the high seas. On the level of individual cases it is impossible to say with any certainty what the criteria for pardons or commutation might have been. However, when the data linkage process is more complete, it will be possible to analyse these convicts in aggregate, and view the commonalities in their ages, crimes, sentences, and skills.

Making it from the courtroom to Australia, then, was not just about being young and healthy. It seems to have actually been about not already being sick, vulnerable to illness via age or an existing condition, and perhaps about not being useful to the state for something else. As the work of the Digital Panopticon continues, there will doubtlessly be other disposals we discover which will again change how we think of the transportation process. As the data-linkage on these records progresses we are hoping to produce more accurate proportions of sentence implementation – or failure – and will be able to visualise whether this changed over the convict period. We have the opportunity to gain some new perspectives on transportation that don’t just note numbers of those not eligible for transportation, but also give more of an idea about who they were and what fate awaited them.


[1] T. Forbes ‘Coroners’ Inquisitions on the deaths of Prisoners in the Hulks at Portsmouth England in 1817-1827’ in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (1978), 33, 3, p.358. See also B. Webb and S. Webb,  English Prison’s Under Local Government (Longmans,Green, and CO.: London), pp. 45-46.


Men as Wives: Visualising Errors in the Old Bailey Proceedings Data

In a recent post I talked about some of the ways in which data visualisations have helped me to see patterns in the information recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings on things such as crimes, verdicts, punishments and the ages of defendants, patterns that might otherwise have been missed if using traditional methods of representing data such as tables. Here I just want to give a brief update on my analysis of the Proceedings, particularly the recording of defendant occupations and social status in the Proceedings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Again, visualisations have been extremely useful, especially in identifying errors in the data.

As with the recording of defendant ages, it might well be the case that information on the occupation/social status of those tried at the Old Bailey in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could be useful to us on the Digital Panopticon project in tracing offenders across different sets of records. Just as an age or a birth date might allow us to establish whether the “John Smith” tried at the Old Bailey and the “John Smith” transported to Australia was indeed the same person, likewise information on occupation or social status can help us to prove/disprove such name matches across records. But as with ages it depends on how extensively, and in what manner, such information on occupation/social status is recorded in our sources. And to this end, as with information on defendant age, the techniques of data visualisation can be useful.

Searches of the Proceedings for defendant occupation/social status can be carried out using the “custom search” page of the Old Bailey Proceedings Online.

Searches of the Proceedings for defendant occupation/social status can be carried out using the “custom search” page of the Old Bailey Proceedings Online.

However, whereas with defendant ages I was able to use the “statistics search” function of the Old Bailey Proceedings Online to generate numbers for analysis, this wasn’t possible in the case of defendant occupation/social status. In the process of digitising the original trial reports, defendant occupation was indeed tagged as a distinct category of information, and thus it can be searched for systematically in the “custom search” page of the Old Bailey Proceedings Online. But this can’t be used to quantitatively analyse the recording of defendant occupations in the Proceedings. In order to do this I needed to look at the website’s underlying data file of defendant information.

This is a large file which includes numerous fields of tagged information relating to all the defendants tried at the Old Bailey and reported in the Proceedings. Since much of this information is in the form of text rather than numbers, software such as Excel isn’t very useful in analysing the data. Instead I turned to Tableau Public, a free, web-based tool that is powerful but still easy to use. There are numerous other data visualisation tools available which are ideal for novices. All need to be used with caution, but used carefully they can be invaluable. (I’m going to talk in more detail about the actual process of using tools such as Tableau to undertake crime history in my next post, so watch this space.)

By running our file on Old Bailey defendant information through Tableau I’ve been able to create some fairly simple but nonetheless useful visualisations. For the data on defendant occupation and social status this has revealed two things in particular.

Pie chart demonstrating frequency of recording defendant occupation

Pie chart demonstrating frequency of recording defendant occupation

First of all, it has highlighted how little information we actually have on the occupational and social status of Old Bailey defendants from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Across the entire publication history of the Proceedings between 1674 and 1913, occupation or social status is recorded for only 11% of all the defendants put on trial. In the years 1755 to 1834, occupation/social status is recorded for 15% of defendants, but between 1834 and 1906 virtually no defendants’ occupations were recorded. On the whole, therefore, we have occupation information for only a small proportion of defendants, and none at all for our specific period c. 1787-1875.

The sheer variety of occupations that are recorded in the Proceedings were also made clear by visualising the data. The bubble chart below for example give an indication of this, and the relative frequency with which different categories are recorded. One of the problems is that the same occupations were recorded in the Proceedings in slightly different ways (“servant” and “servants”, for example) or with variant spelling (such as “taylor” and “tailor”). If we wanted to utilise occupation or social status labels to verify name matches across sets of records this suggests that we would need to use sophisticated forms of keyword searching.

Bubble chart showing categories of defendant occupation

Bubble chart showing categories of defendant occupation

Bubble chart of defendant occupations by gender

Bubble chart of defendant occupations by gender

But visualisations have been especially useful in highlighting some of the errors in the recording of occupations within the Old Bailey Proceedings data. One of the things that I wanted to find out was how occupation labels varied according to the gender of the defendants tried at the Old Bailey. In order to do this I used Tableau to create the following bubble chart of the most common forms of recorded occupations/social status for male and female defendants in the years when we have significant amounts of information on this. One of the things that really struck me in this bubble chart was the amount of men whose occupation label is recorded in our Proceedings dataset as “wife”. This clearly seemed to be an error in the data, but I wanted to know what the source of the problem was so I went back to the original data file and filtered it for male defendants with the occupation/social status label of “wife”. And I then looked at the trial reports in the Old Bailey Proceedings for these cases.

Trial report in the Old Bailey Proceedings in which the husband of a female defendant has been tagged with the social status of “wife”

Trial report in the Old Bailey Proceedings in which the husband of a female defendant has been tagged with the social status of “wife”

It turns out that many of these cases were due to errors in the digitisation process which resulted from the unusual nature of the trial reports themselves. The cases were actually ones (such as this example below) in which a female defendant had been named in the trial report as the wife of her husband, and thus the automated tagging process used to digitise the Proceedings had recorded both the husband and the wife as defendants and assigned them both the role of “wife”. This practice in the Proceedings of naming the female defendant as the wife of her husband largely disappeared in the nineteenth century, and therefore most of these errors in the data file tend to come from the eighteenth century. By identifying these kinds of anomalies, visualisations therefore allow us to find errors in the data. Such errors can then be rectified. This leaves us with a much “cleaner” dataset, and thereby increasing the chances of successful record linkage.

Historians of crime (particularly the history of crime in Britain) have been quick to exploit the plethora of digitised criminal justice (and associated) records that are now available online. We all make us of resources such as the Old Bailey Proceedings Online, Eighteenth-Century Collections Online and digitised newspapers. But whilst we have been quick to take advantage of the benefits offered by these digitised records – such as keyword searching to find needles in haystacks – we have been less ready to understand the full effects of the digitisation process for how we study our sources and the information that we extract from them. By using data visualisations we can better understand the implications of digitisation, including the ways in which the actual process of turning a paper record into a digital format might result in errors (relatively rare, it should be said, in the case of the Old Bailey Proceedings Online) in the information we compile.

Seeing things differently: Visualizing patterns of data from the Old Bailey Proceedings


An edition of the Old Bailey Proceedings

The Old Bailey Proceedings are a rich historical resource, almost unimaginably so. They constitute the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published. Words alone can’t quite do justice to the magnitude of the Proceedings – 197,745 accounts of trials covering 239 years (1674-1913); some 127 million words of text (at an average reading rate of 250 words per minute, this would take eight hours’ solid reading every single day for nearly three years to get through!); details of some 253,382 defendants, including name, gender, age and occupation, as well as details of 223,246 verdicts passed by the juries and 169,243 punishments sentenced by the judges.

The Proceedings clearly contain a huge amount of information, but they don’t record everything – like any historical source, they are selective in what they document. The amount of information that was recorded in the Proceedings on crimes, verdicts, punishments, defendants and so on also varied over time. And whilst the digitization of the Proceedings by The Old Bailey Online has revolutionised the way in which we search and use this rich historical resource, this also has its limits. The marking-up of the text of the Proceedings (assigning tags to particular pieces of information in the text – such as name or crime – so that this information can be systematically searched) makes it possible to undertake sophisticated statistical analysis. Crimes, verdicts, punishments, defendant age and defendant gender can all be counted at the click of a mouse. Nevertheless, marking-up inevitably involves choices (about what information to tag and the level of detail that is tagged), and those choices limit the ways in which the Proceedings can be studied using computers.

Statistical searches of the Proceedings can be carried out through The Old Bailey Online

Statistical searches of the Proceedings can be carried out through The Old Bailey Online

The question that we might ask, then, is what are the limitations of the Proceedings as a source of data on such things as punishments, defendant age and gender? Taking the Proceedings in their entirety, what are the limits in terms of the information that was recorded in the original trial reports? How frequently, for example, was the age of the defendant recorded? And what are the limits in terms of what we can actually search for systematically using digital technologies? Can we, for instance, systematically determine the lengths of imprisonment which offenders were sentenced to?

These are crucial questions for us because the Digital Panopticon will rely so heavily on the Proceedings as a source: in our effort to trace the life histories of offenders who were sentenced to transportation or imprisonment at the Old Bailey between 1787 and 1875, the Proceedings will obviously be a vital source of information. After identifying those who were sentenced to transportation or imprisonment recorded in the Proceedings we will then try to trace such individuals both before and after their conviction by linking the Proceedings with other sets of records.

In trying to better understand the limitations of the Proceedings as a source of data for the Digital Panopticon project, I have recently been making use of data visualization (‘dataviz’) – using computers to create visual representations of numbers. This includes the traditional graphs and pie charts that we are all familiar with, and which I will be talking about here. But it also includes more complex forms of visualization which I will be looking at in future posts (watch this space!).

Since the Proceedings contain such a vast amount of information, manual counting and tables are therefore inadequate in making sense of the data. Turning the raw numbers into a visual form makes it much easier to see overall patterns in the data. Here I give just a brief example of how dataviz has helped me to see the Proceedings differently, to appreciate the limits of this immense historical resource, and to think about how information from the Proceedings can be used most effectively in the Digital Panopticon project.

A data visualisation of the length of trial reports in the Proceedings over time, created by The Datamining with Criminal Intent project

A data visualization of the length of trial reports in the Proceedings over time, created by  William J. Turkel as part of the Datamining with Criminal Intent project (created using Mathematica 8)

One of the key things we want to know on the Digital Panopticon is how useful age data might be in helping us to link offenders recorded in the Proceedings with individuals documented in other sets of records (such as the convict transportation registers or census records). In the first instance, links will be made through name searches of the different types of records. But how can we be sure that the John Smith recorded in the Proceedings is the same individual as the John Smith recorded in the prison parole registers, for example? Age data might help us here. If John Smith is recorded as being 24 years’ old in the Proceedings at the time of his sentence to two years’ imprisonment at the Old Bailey, and the John Smith recorded in the parole registers is stated to be 26 years’ old, then we can be confident that this is indeed the same person. By the same token, if the John Smith recorded in the parole registers is said to be 60 years’ old, this would suggest not.

Ages could then be extremely useful, but it depends on how extensively, and how accurately, age data is recorded in the Proceedings (and our other sets of records). By visualizing the results of quantitative searches of the Proceedings we can get a clear sense of this, far more so than through the use of text-heavy tables which can be hard to “read” for patterns. A statistical search using The Old Bailey Online reveals that 171,168 defendants are recorded in the Proceedings in the years 1755-1870. Of these, age is recorded for 101,364 (59.3%) of them. So for the entire period of our study, we have age data for just over half of all the defendants at the Old Bailey.

Further digging into the data and visualisation of the findings reveals some of the deeper patterns in the age data. In the first instance, the recording of ages only began in the year 1790 for defendants found guilty, and from the 1860s for those found not guilty, as shown in the graph below. In the 1790s, we have age data for 65% of guilty defendants, increasing to 90% and above thereafter. By contrast, age data for the not guilty is missing until at least the 1850s, and in earnest until the 1860s.

Visualisation demonstrating the extent of age recording over time and by verdict

Visualization demonstrating the extent of age recording over time and by verdict

This gives a sense of how extensively ages are recorded in the Proceedings over time, and according to which categories of offenders. By visualizing the patterns of recorded ages we can also get a feel for how ages were actually recorded. The graph below, for instance, suggests that there was a tendency to revise the defendant’s recorded age up or down slightly to match a round figure. The numbers of defendants whose ages are recorded as 30, 40, 50 and (to a lesser extent) 60 are all significantly above the number we might expect according to the moving average (in other words, when the yellow bar goes above the green line in the graph). By contrast, ages just either side of these figures (such as 29, 31, 39, 41 and 51) are systematically below the average (when the yellow bar is below the green line). It may well also have been the tendency for those in their early twenties to have their recorded ages revised down to 18 or 19, since these two ages are also well above the expect number. In short, many more defendants were recorded as being 30 rather than 31, or 40 rather than 41, and the scale of the difference suggests that this resulted from a deliberate policy of revising the defendant’s age up or down to match the nearest round figure.

Visualisation demonstrating the “bunching” of recorded ages at 30, 40, 50 and 60

Visualization demonstrating the “bunching” of recorded ages at 30, 40, 50 and 60

Together this suggests that age data in the Proceedings will be of much use to us in the Digital Panopticon, particularly for the defendants found guilty and subsequently sentenced to transportation or imprisonment. In this instance we have extensive amounts of age data from 1790 onwards. In the case of our not guilty control group, however, we have no age data available in the Proceedings to work with before the 1860s. In this instance we will be reliant on other categories of information to link the not guilty defendants across datasets. And in light of the seeming tendency for recorded ages to be rounded up or down, this suggests that when we use age data to link individuals across datasets it would be more effective to work within age ranges rather than trying to compare specific numbers.

From these early explorations it seems clear that visualization will be invaluable in helping us to identify the overall patterns in the data of the Proceedings. The first step in this is identifying some of the limitations in terms of the information recorded in the Proceedings. Traditional forms of visualization are useful to this end. But there are also potential benefits in going beyond this, by using more complex forms of visualization to uncover deeper patterns in the data – patterns that would be difficult to detect through simple graphs or charts. This is what I will be turning to next.