Maria Dawson, PCOM2 Prisoner Photograph Albums.

Biometrics refers to the measurement of biological characteristics, such as fingerprints, DNA, the iris of the eye, human stature, weight and other bodily dimensions. Such measurements assist in uniquely identifying individuals. Anthropometrics uses body measurements to understand human welfare.

Making the Carceral Corporeal

When England moved away from punishing felonies promptly with death, and instead embraced penal transportation and incarceration, it created a need to identify criminals under longer-term punishment. This drove a new stage in record keeping as discussed here under another research theme. The Convict Indents and Conduct Registers are some of the earliest documents to record hair and eye colour, complexion, distinguishing physical characteristics like birth marks and acquired tattoos, and importantly, height, with some considerable degree of accuracy. As modern prisons emerged they likewise started keeping Prison Registers which recorded these personal descriptions, some recording weights as well as heights, both on entering and leaving prison, and weight change inside can be revealing. Even more salient are the Prisoner Photograph Albums from Wandsworth House of Correction in Surrey, which invite the viewer to gaze beyond the staged settings, to look upon children who look too young and small for their age, at adults who look too old and thin for theirs (see Maria Dawson, right). Offenders on long-term sentences rotating through different prisons were accompanied by whole files recording repeated measurements, as can be seen in the UK Licences for the Parole of Convicts. Correct identification of individuals was nowhere more critical than for police and the Metropolitan Police Register of Habitual Criminals was part of a national system for recognising and monitoring recidivists, while in Australia the Police Gazettes performed a similar function.

Records that needed to identify individuals leave history with a particularly personal legacy. Convicts and prisoners from the past become more tangible, more immediate, when we read of their ‘Distinctive marks and peculiarities’, visage/facial shape, colouring, and build. Our minds draw pictures. Biometrics are about individuals’ measurements; taken together heights and weights tell bigger stories still, of distribution, health, ageing, and gender inequality in the past.

Biometrics for Beginners

Human stature offers a powerful analytic tool. For an individual, attained adult height combines parental inheritance with conditions experienced from conception to maturity. Particularly influential is nutritional intake (quantity and quality). Balanced against this are the outtakes that consume calories. These are the demands placed on the body through physical effort (work, learning, even play); keeping warm when the climate is cold, the heating is off and clothing meagre; trying to breathe when the atmosphere is polluted and lungs compromised; stress responses when adrenaline hormones are released under fight-or-flight threat. All burn calories. Another huge burden is imposed when fighting disease. Nothing depletes the body’s reserves quite like diarrhoea, for example, or a fever. And nothing promotes illness like cramped overcrowded housing.

When less is consumed and absorbed than is needed that shortfall in ‘net nutrition’ means the body fails to thrive. Calories otherwise spent are unavailable for growth. Prolonged exposure to deprivation leaves a child under-sized. Without good conditions offering ‘catch-up’ the adult self is likewise stunted. Conversely, good net nutrition permits strong and rapid growth and the fulfilment of biological potential. Every human body tells the story of its accumulated net nutrition over the growing years. Today, height-for-age and weight-for-age are widely used to gauge child development and to spot when intervention in an individual case might be required.

Height & History

Female Waaler surface and 19th century prison women.

Height is also a barometer of society’s welfare. As well as being useful for studying individual child health, the same measures are used to understand population health. When studying a large sample, or even a whole population, individual variation arising from parental influence is minimised and the environmental conditions are emphasised. That is, the diet, the disease burden, age at starting work, housing, clothing, etc. are the factors captured by amassing many individual heights. Patterns of child growth, average adult height, changes in average stature over time, and differences between groups in society, all reveal much about the standard of living and are sensitive to distributional inequality.

Take, for example, the reversal of fortune in the UK. In the nineteenth century, the Scots were the tallest, followed by the Irish, then the English and Welsh – Londoners were especially short, suffering significant urban disamenities. Today, England’s people stand above the others, Londoners in particular. Height and health now follow the pound sterling – even within London (see Lives on the Line).

This sensitivity is a strength: wealth and poverty map onto tall and short. It also means analysis must be alert to who is included in a sample (‘sample selection bias’). For example, soldiers were uncharacteristically tall because of minimum height standards. Were criminals exceptionally short? There was no entry requirement for crime, but if crime clusters among more disadvantaged communities, then criminals might be shorter than the average. On the whole, levels of literacy and numeracy and range of trades point in the direction of criminals being in the lower part of the urban working classes, the majority of whom were semi-skilled and unskilled workers, often in precarious employment. Recidivists, however, pose a particular problem. It is sometimes observed that male recidivists were short. (Does this arise from short people being more criminal, or disadvantaged areas being more policed?) On the other hand, female recidivists (more likely among prostitutes) tended to be taller. Either way, repeated measurements of the same individual can distort results, and on the whole it is best to limit analysis to one occurrence of an individual.

Anthropometric historians have used convict and prisoner data to reflect on: the impact of the Industrial Revolution on human welfare; gender disparities within families; the macro- and micro-nutrient value of regional diets; the consequences of urbanisation and disease; the importance of family size and local labour markets; colonial growth and distribution; the wellbeing of girls and boys.

Height, BMI & Health

Male Waaler surface and 19th century prison men.

In recent decades, the value of human stature for understanding past and present populations has inflated further, and this is because of a growing awareness of how height is an input affecting outcomes, such as productivity, employment and pay, education and cognition, success in the marriage market, and importantly, health and longevity (for a discussion, see Floud, Fogel, Harris and Hong 2011).

Height can be combined with weight to give body mass (kg/m2). While height reflects cumulative net nutrition, weight can vary and is a measure current nutritional status. Weight and body mass thus become very direct measures of how households allocated resources, and how decision making was influenced by labour market opportunities, to the favour of some and detriment of others. Perhaps most compelling is the relationship between height, weight, and health. The Barker Hypothesis ties in utero and early life conditions to later life health outcomes including death: early nutritional insults can compromise organs and induce epigenetic changes with long-term ill-consequences. And so we see ‘Mount Waaler’: risk of morbidity and mortality rises for those too thin, too fat, and especially, too short. The diagrams depict 3D Waaler surfaces based on modern Norwegian life-course data. Included are the height-weight dimensions of mid-19th century prisoners from Houses of Correction in Wandsworth, London, and Paisley, Scotland, illustrating how risk falls with gains in height and weight. Note how gender inequality, fostered by large families and poor working opportunities for women in London, left middle-aged Wandsworth women short, thin and at elevated health risk.

Sample page from Metropolitan Police Register of Habitual Criminals 1881-1925.

Digital Panopticon

Several series on stature are included in the Digital Panopticon. The most significant are the Convict Indents and the Metropolitan Police Register of Habitual Criminals. Information on weights as well as heights can be found in the UK Licences for the Parole of Convicts.

There are some very important outstanding questions in 19th century British history. One is about the position of women. Industrialisation and the rise of the male breadwinner family had not been unequivocally good news. On the contrary, female claims on household resources dwindled when their external economic roles contracted. Bigger families meant women’s share had to go further. At some point, did modernisation restore the welfare of women?

A second pressing questions is, when exactly did the world save Britain? This question is prompted by the growing hunger of the 19th century. Energy cost accounting exercises, household budgets and institutional dietaries, along with trends in human stature, all suggest that the 19th century was rather bleak for many. The ‘Hungry 40s’ were felt across the Kingdom. In Ireland this tipped over into famine, a million people perishing, another million departing. From a peak in 1770, the available food per head of the population dropped by around 1,000 kcal a day (Meredith and Oxley, 2014). It was not the failure of farming – it was in a ‘Golden Age’ – but population growth outstripped the gains, urbanisations meant dependency on markets, and unequal distribution squeezed those at the bottom most of all. Not until the world produced enough wheat, meat and other foodstuffs to sell on the international market, did Britain have the chance to recover. Conquering food scarcity would take time. There was some increase in food trade in the 1870s, but did real improvement have to wait till after 1890, perhaps even the 20th century?

Just when did heights improve for those at the bottom of the pile? Did it improve for girls as well as boys? Habitual criminals might well be taken as a measure of the disadvantaged, and they include female as well as male offenders. The Metropolitan Police Register of Habitual Criminals (MEPO) offers answers to our questions.

The MEPO dataset comprises 65,535 entries, mostly men and boys (92%) but not exclusively so. All were born between 1850 and the end of the century, and ranged in age from 65 down to just 8 years old, the bulk 18 years to mid-40s. Larceny was the most popular of their criminal pursuits (around 45% of them) while burglary, housebreaking, and shop-breaking followed well behind: larcenists outnumbered each of these other offences around a rate of 10:1. The nature of the record entails much double counting. There are, for example, 233 George Smiths. Not all are the same man – this was a common name and there were at least 100 different George Smiths – and quite a few repeat appearances (distinguishing individuals by year and place of birth).

Comfortingly, the MEPO stature matched up pretty well with another slightly earlier set of prisoners, from the House of Correction in Surrey, who overlap for those born in the 1860s (Horrell 2007). This suggests the data are reliable. The trends in adult stature (aged over 22 years) are given in the figure above, ordered by decade of birth. There are two panels. On the left, men and women are displayed together on the left axis. On the right, men are plotted on the left axis, and women on the right, but amplifying their relative trends. The story they tell is intriguing. The first thing to note is how short these men and women appear to our modern sensibilities. Today, the average man is around 69 inches tall, the average women 63. Food shortfalls, poor health, hard work, along with urban disamenities and inter-generational disadvantages, all contribute to our historical population being short – especially as these were habitual criminals who might be expected to be somewhat disadvantaged even by contemporary standards.

Second, women grew taller at an amazing rate. Indeed, by the end of the century they were not much more than an inch behind 21st century women: men languished around 3 inches in deficit. While male stature reveals very little evidence of nutritional improvements filtering through, female heights made tremendous gains, first in the later 1860s, and again for those born in the last decade of the century.

Possible reasons women responded in such a pronounced manner include their earlier disadvantage – women appear to have been at the bottom of the heap when families distributed resources, unless they worked in well-paid jobs, which few did. Perhaps women had more need to catch up.

Heights of habitual criminals in England.

A significant part of the story was probably education. Schooling had been made compulsory in 1870, effectively so within a decade. Children born in the 1860s would find themselves in a school room rather than a factory workshop. Girls perhaps benefited most. The mechanism would be that school liberated them from (at least some) of the double burden of paid work and household tasks. Factory girls earlier in the 19th century were much more stunted than boys, and this is thought to arise from combined excess demands on their small frames (Horrell and Oxley, 2016). Gradually, family structure was also starting to change (towards smaller family size) and this was likely to be good for girls. Reduced demand on nutrition, fewer mouths between which to share it, and maybe (but not clearly) more food to go round, contributed to improving welfare of girls as the 19th century wore on.

Of course, there is always the possibility that something happened that changed the composition of women identified as habitual offenders, but investigations have furnished no evidence to support this.


Send offenders to a penal colony, or lock them up in prison – as soon as you create a subject population they become the focus of enquiry. The 19th century made criminals a locus of study, documenting, describing, measuring, even photographing them. Alphonse Bertillon classified their ever feature. Cesare Lombroso, author of L’uomo Delinquente (1876), was allowed to examine Italian prisoners and his observations led him to believe criminals were a breed apart, ‘atavistic’ throw backs to an earlier stage of evolution. Others – like Charles Goring in The English Convict (1913) – disputed this and argued that inequality imposed deprivation. Meanings can nearly always be contested. The Digital Panopticon continues this tradition of studying criminals. Here, by employing anthropometric analysis, is a lens through which to focus attention on welfare, health and gender inequality in Britain's past.

Further Information

Works on health and height

Barker, D.J.P., ‘The fetal and infant origins of adult disease’, British Medical Journal 301.6761 (1990)

Floud, Roderick, Kenneth Wachter and Annabel Gregory, Height, health and history (CUP 1990)

Floud, Roderick, Robert W. Fogel, Bernard Harris, and Sok Chul Hong, The Changing Body (CUP 2011)

Fogel, Robert William, The escape from hunger and premature death, 1700-2100 (CUP 2004)

Hatton, Timothy J. and Bernice E. Bray, ‘Long run trends in the heights of European men, 19th-20th centuries’, Economics and Human Biology 8 (2010)

Nicholas, Stephen, Robert Gregory and sue Kimberley, ‘The welfare of Indigenous and White Australians 1890-1955’, in John Komlos and Joerg Baten (eds.), The biological standard of living in comparative perspective (Franz Steiner 1997)

Waaler, Hans Th., ‘Height, weight and mortality: The Norwegian experience’, Acta Medica Scandinavica Supplementum 679 (1984)

Works using convict and prisoner records

Gandevia, Bryan, ‘A comparison of the heights of boys transported to Australia from England, Scotland and Ireland, c.1840, with later British and Australian developments’, Australian Paediatric Journal 13 (1977)

Horrell, Sara, David Meredith and Deborah Oxley, ‘Measuring misery: Body mass, ageing and gender inequality in Victorian London’, Explorations in Economic History, 46 (2009), 93-119

Horrell, Sara and Deborah Oxley, ‘Bringing home the bacon? Regional nutrition, stature and gender in the Industrial Revolution’, Economic History Review 65 (2012)

Horrell, Sara and Deborah Oxley, ‘Gender bias in nineteenth-century England: Evidence from factory children’, Economics and Human Biology 22 (2016)

Inwood, Kris, Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, Deborah Oxley, D. and Jim Stankovich, 'Growing incomes, growing people in nineteenth-century Tasmania', Australian Economic History Review 55.2 (2015)

Jackson, R.V., Daughters of the Poor (Australian Scholarly Publishing 2005)

Johnson, Paul and Stephen Nicholas, ‘Male and female living standards in England and Wales, 1812-1857: Evidence from criminal height records’, Economic History Review 48 (1995)

Meredith, David and Deborah Oxley, ‘Food and fodder: Feeding England, 1700-1900’, Past and Present 222 (2014)

Meredith, David and Deborah Oxley, ‘Blood and bone: Body mass, gender and health inequality in 19th-century British families’, The History of the Family 20.2 (2015)

Nicholas, Stephen and Peter R Shergold, ‘The heights of British male convict children transported to Australia, 1825-1840’, Australian Paediatric Journal 18 (1982)

Meinzer, Nicholas J., ‘The Western Australian convicts’, Australian Economic History Review 55 (2015)

Nicholas, Stephen and Richard H. Steckel, ‘Heights and living standards of English workers during the early years of industrialization, 1770-1815’, Journal of Economic History 51 (1991)

Nicholas, Stephen and Deborah Oxley, ‘Living standards of women during the industrial revolution, 1795-1820:’, Economic History Review 46 (1993)

Nicholas, Stephen and Deborah Oxley, ‘Living standards of women in England and Wales, 1785-1815: New evidence from Newgate prison records’, Economic History Review 49 (1996)

Nicholas, Stephen and Richard H. Steckel, ‘Tall but poor: Living standards of men and women in pre-famine Ireland’, Journal of European Economic History 26.1 (1997)

Oxley, Deborah, ‘Living standards of women in pre-famine Ireland’, Social Science History 28.2 (2004)

Oxley, Deborah, ‘The seat of death and terror’: Urbanization, stunting, and smallpox’, Economic History Review 56 (2003)

Author Credits

This page was written by Deborah Oxley, with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.