By the late nineteenth century, tattoos had developed a notorious reputation amongst Victorian observers. Tattoos, according to criminologists and social investigators including Henry Mayhew and Cesare Lombroso, were part of a criminal argot, a discrete code shared amongst the notorious criminal classes of Victorian London. But research recently undertaken by Professor Robert Shoemaker and Dr Zoe Alker as part of the British Academy/ JISC Digital Research in the Humanities Award scheme has shown that tattooing had little to do with expressions of a criminal fraternity, but in fact grew in popularity and acceptability over the period. More importantly perhaps, they reveal the identities, emotions and fashionable sentiments of ordinary, working people in England and Australia in the 'long' nineteenth century.
The datasets in the Digital Panopticon contain descriptions of the largest number of tattoos ever recorded: 75,688 descriptions of tattoos, on 58,002 convicts in Britain and Australia from 1793 to 1925. Physical descriptions of convicts were recorded in detail by the British judicial authorities from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries as a system of record-keeping that developed in response to fears over reoffending and the apparent existence of a clearly delineated criminal class (Shoemaker and Ward, 2017). Within these records lie detailed evidence of convict tattoos, buried amongst information on their physical characteristics (eye colour, weight, etc.), bodily infirmities (scars, etc.), and personal details (age, gender, ethnicity, etc.). Using data-mining techniques we extracted information on tattoos from the broader descriptive fields of criminal records and linked this information with extensive evidence about the personal characteristics and backgrounds of our subjects. In order to make sense of the variety and complex meanings of tattoos, we used data visualisations to identify patterns across the datasets.
These records allow us to see -- for the first time -- that historical tattooing was not restricted to sailors, soldiers and convicts, but became a growing and accepted phenomenon in England over the course of the nineteenth century. A form of "history from below", tattoos provide an important window into the lives of the working classes, whose voices are often obscured from the historical record, giving us an intriguing opportunity to understand the identities, fashions and sentiments of ordinary, working people in Victorian London.
The practice of tattooing has been present throughout human history. One of the earliest tattoos was discovered on the preserved body of Otzi the Iceman, dated from as early as 4,000 BC, and early Christians bore tattoos that expressed religious devotion in the middle ages. Contrary to the claim that a resurgence in tattooing in the west in the late eighteenth century was the result of Captain Cook and his sailors’ interactions with the tattooed inhabitants of Tahiti and Polynesia in 1769, Jane Caplan’s research has shown that tattooing had, in fact, long been present in Europe, was widespread by the nineteenth century, and commonly drew upon non-Western stylistic influences (Caplan 2000, xvi-xvii). Studies of nineteenth-century tattoos have commonly drawn upon institutional records due to the rich detail available within the physical descriptions. Histories of the tattoos worn by transported convicts have shown the importance of ‘giving access to the convict voice’ while also noting the rich variety in sentiments expressed through a wide range of designs (Kent 1997; Bradley and Maxwell-Stewart, 1997; Maxwell-Stewart and Bradley, 1998, Rogers, 2004).
Tattooing in the nineteenth century was viewed amongst social observers and commentators as evidence of savagery and criminality, fuelled by their belief in the existence of a threatening criminal class (Bradley 2000: 137-39). In particular, five dot tattoos were often aligned with criminal activity in the popular imagination. Despite the preoccupations of social observers, criminologists and journalists that tattoos were evidence of criminal character, there is little to suggest that they frequently expressed criminal allegiances. In the 1820s, there was a period of intense fears over the apparent existence of ‘a gang of no less than 40 juvenile delinquents... known as the "Forty Thieves", on all the metropolitan roads, where they subsist by their plunder on the coaches and passengers..[and who could be identified by] by five blue spots on the hand, which was made by gunpowder,’ (The London Standard, 3 January, 1829). Henry Mayhew and John Binny also noted the presence of the 5 dot tattoo amongst convicts in Millbank prison: ‘Most persons of bad repute’, said the prison warder, ‘have private marks stamped on them -- mermaids, naked men and women, and the most extraordinary things you ever saw. They are marked like savages, whilst many of the regular thieves have five dots between their thumb and forefinger, as a sign that they belong to ‘the forty thieves’, as they call it’ (Mayhew and Binny, 1862).
While there is some evidence of the "five dots" described by Mayhew, our data has allowed us to debunk this popular historical myth. Five dots was certainly a popular tattoo in the nineteenth century, but appeared to have little to do with identification with a criminal gang. The tattoo appeared on 23 convicts in the 1820s, but grew in popularity over the next 50 years, and it was frequently found on female convicts transported to Australia. Although it’s possible that some convicts wore this tattoo to express gang allegiance, 378 convicts wore the 5 dots tattoo between 1820 and 1880, suggesting that links between the tattoo and gang membership are unlikely.
A closer examination of the demographics of the convicts within our dataset also challenges the notion of a distinct criminal class. The spread of occupations amongst tattooed convicts demonstrates that many convicts worked in highly skilled non-manual occupations as well as low-skilled manual labourers. Such evidence suggests that, far from being members of a criminal class, the convicts were ordinary working Londoners living ordinary lives before and after release.
When we examine the range of subjects split by gender, it’s clear that men and women broadly shared the same tastes in tattoo design, highlighting love and lovers, family members and friends, religion, self-decoration, and, as the century progressed, national identity, nature and new fashions and inventions. Women were less likely to get tattoos than men. In addition, they wore a narrower range of designs that prioritised love and romantic partnerships. Men’s tattoos, by contrast, were more complex and variable than female convicts.
You can use the search page to explore relationships between tattoos and convicts’ characteristics, including their religion, occupation, and place of birth.
Convicts, in fact, appeared to wear tattoos for much the same purpose as today -- commemorating their loved ones and family and the pleasures of working-class everyday life. The multiple subjects of their tattoos ranged from images of British and American identity and astronomy and to pleasure, religion and sex. Among the most popular were expressions of love and naval themes, including anchors and mermaids, like David Robertson, and other related astronomical symbols such as the sun, moon, and stars, like Jonas Dobson. But the most popular forms of tattoo were written names and sets of initials, which are present in 56% of all tattoo descriptions. Names and initials tattoos often identified lovers and family members, and were much more likely to refer to members of the opposite sex, such as John Clarke who wore ‘jpc right arm and moon and stars on same wc laurel branch jeceb heart ec ec and anchor on left arm’.
With the exception of names and initials, the dot was the most common form of tattoo, found in almost a third of tattoo descriptions. As the simplest tattoo to create, dots were hugely popular, and over twenty thousand convicts wore one or more dots on their arms, an even faces, such as George Wilkins, who wore a ‘dot on each side of his face’. Dots were often used for purely decorative purposes, like rings and bracelets. These tattoos were a form of working-class jewellery (Bradley, 2000) that was cheap and easy to administer. Convicts often wore dots in the shape of bracelets, like Phelix Pace who wore a ‘bracelet pricked on each wrist’, but dots were more commonly worn as a wedding ring on the third finger of the left hand, like Thomas Swift, who wore a ‘ring pricked on ring fr left hand’.
In addition to love, 5% convicts marked their bodies with meanings of pleasure. Commemorations of coming-of-age celebrations, such as the sixteenth birthday which was marked with bottles, and tattoos referring to alcohol and smoking were popular. John Payne wore tattoos that included, ‘small scar under rt side of under jaw moon stars fetters above elbow joint woman anchor pipe & other marks left arm bottles glasses pipes 2 rings pricked middle & ring frs left hand ring pricked ring fr rt hand crucifix sun inside rt arm moon & stars abov)’. Sex was also a theme within convict tattoos and many included images of naked men and women, worn on visible parts of the body, such as William Reynolds who wore, amongst other designs, ‘naked man inside right, naked woman inside left forearm’.
Most marks were on 'public' parts of the body (those not routinely obscured by clothing), indicating that there was little stigma towards wearing tattoos in spite of the views of social observers, journalists and commentators. Tattoos were primarily located on the upper body, particularly on the hand and forearms, indicating they were intended to be seen. Relatively few were located on the back, the buttocks, or the thighs, and while this hints at the plausibility that most tattoos were self-administered before introduction of commercial tattooing in the late 1880s, this may be to some extent an artefact of record-keeping practices (we don’t know how often convicts were fully naked when they were examined, as opposed to being only stripped to the waist). You can explore and visualise patterns in body placement using the search form (click on add more search criteria) and look at some example visualisations in the visualisation gallery.
Despite contemporary beliefs that tattoos were unrespectable our evidence shows that tattoos designs evoked a range of positive emotions, particularly love. As the century progressed, there was an increasing number of tattoos of recent inventions and fashions, including hot air balloons, bicycles, and propellers. A notable concentration of Buffalo Bill tattoos appears in the data from the late 1880s onwards. The Buffalo Bill tattoo was often placed next to images of women, indicating that visitors would see his travelling show with loved ones and commemorate the event with tattoos. Charles Wilson wore tattoos that included, ‘two hearts (one pierced), clasped hands and an anchor’ on his right forearm and a bust of Buffalo Bill and the word MAGGIE in capital letters in a scroll on his left forearm.
The subjects of tattoos became more variable over time, suggesting their growing popularity and acceptability in Victorian working-class culture. As the heatmap visualisation shows, the distribution of subjects became more even over time, as some popular early subjects -- notably naval, jewellery and astronomy -- declined and there were more tattoos depicting religion, nature and national identity. As material culture surrounding death and mourning developed over the nineteenth century, death was commonly commemorated on the body through images of tombstones and wreaths, and ‘RIP’ or ‘In Memory’ next to the name of a loved one.
It is not clear how the fashion for tattooing spread from marginal to mainstream society in the nineteenth century, but the prevalence of tattooed men and women in travelling exhibitions and the widespread attention given to the Tichborne Claimant may have spread awareness of the practice. Notable cases document the fashion amongst elite groups that included Queen Victoria’s son, Edward, Prince of Wales and Prince Albert Victoria. It was facilitated by professional tattoo artists and the tattoo parlours that opened across London in the 1890s following the popularity of Sutherland Macdonald’s parlour in 76 Jermyn Street, Soho in 1889. By the turn of the century tattooing was well-established in many parts of British society.
The diverse range of designs and subjects suggests that tattoos were very much embedded in the wider culture of England in the 'long' nineteenth century, while the demographic spread of the tattooed and the public location of most tattoos suggests that there was not much stigma associated with having a tattoo. Further evidence from popular culture is necessary to show the popular nature of tattooing outside of the individuals documented institutional records, but this data demonstrates that tattoos grew in popularity, and, rather than express membership of a distinct criminal class, convict tattoos were used to express a range of positive and fashionable sentiments, not unlike today.
For further information about the tattoos datasets, see Tattoos, 1793-1925.
Beier, A. L. "Identity, Language, and Resistance in the Making of the Victorian 'Criminal Class': Mayhew's Convict Revisited". Journal of British Studies, 44.3 (2005).
Bradley, J. and H. Maxwell-Stewart. "'Behold the Man': Power, Observation and the Tattooed Convict". Journal of Australian Studies, 12.1 (Summer 1997).
Frost, L. and H. Maxwell-Stewart (eds.). Chain Letters: Narrating Convict Lives. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, (2001).
Kent, D. "Decorative Bodies: The Significance of Convicts’ Tattoos". Journal of Australian Studies 53 (1997).
Maxwell-Stewart, H. and I. Duffield. "Skin Deep Devotions: Religious Tattoos and Convict Transportation to Australia". In J. Caplan (ed.), Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. London: Reaktion Books, (2000).
McGowen, R. "Getting to Know the Criminal Class in Nineteenth-Century England". Nineteenth-Century Contexts: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 14.1 (1990).
Rogers, H. "'A Very Fair Statement of His Past Life’: Transported Convicts, Former Lives and Previous Offences". Open Library of Humanities, 1.1 (2015).
This page was written by Zoe Alker, with contributions by Robert Shoemaker.