The Digital Panopticon and GCSE History

'Ground Plan of the Pentonville Prison for 520 Prisoners on the Separate System (1844). LMA Noble Collection:SC/GL/NOB/C/043-043/3 Pentonville C.43 P.1844.

A key theme often addressed by GCSE modules is the changing purpose of punishment in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Students need to comprehend the shifting roles played by execution, transportation and imprisonment in the UK legal system. The WJEC Eduqas syllabus expects students to complete a site-specific case study of crime in the East End of London (assessment years 2018 and 2019) or the settlement of convicts in New South Wales (assessment years 2020 and 2021). This page highlights some of the Digital Panopticon's resources that can help meet these educational needs.

Student Engagement

In addition to the broad learning objectives, described in The Digital Panopticon for Schools, the Digital Panopticon is ideally placed to support specific learning outcomes in "Crime and Punishment" as an established area of GCSE study. A wide range of UK GCSE modules complement the historical themes explored by the Digital Panopticon website, including:

Classroom Activity: 'How did the most Common Forms of Punishment Change over Time?'

Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827). 'Arrest of a Woman at Night' (c. 1800). The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Teachers can use the Digital Panopticon visualisation, 'How did the most common criminal sentences change over time?' and historical background page on 'Punishments, 1780-1925', to lead a session on how sentencing in London changed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Teachers can use this visualisation to select key historical dates in UK crime and punishment legislation and then assess with students the impact of this legislation on the forms of punishment sentences received by offenders. Key dates and events which impacted on sentencing patterns in this period include:

If the visualisation is used to contrast two periods of approximately fifty years, such as 1780-1829 and 1860-1909, it should be effective in demonstrating to students shifts in punishment sentences during this period, such as the transformation from an emphasis on transportation to the predominance of imprisonment by the beginning of the twentieth century.

Please note that the data for this visualisation is derived from the sentences handed out by the judges at the Old Bailey. The actual punishments convicts received often differed from those originally prescribed. It was by no means inevitable that convicts would suffer the specific punishment(s) that they had been sentenced to by the courts. Through the pardoning process, many convicts had their initial sentence commuted to a lesser punishment (a conditional pardon), or were even granted absolution from the crime without any further sanction (a free pardon), as an exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy.

Historical Case Study: Crime in London's East End in the Late Nineteenth Century

If students need to construct a case study of crime in London's East End in the late nineteenth century, the following Digital Panopticon resources will be useful. Most of the Digital Panopticon historical background pages provide information about the history of London. The historical background page on 'London, 1780-1900' is particularly pertinent. Convict lives that students might wish to explore include Benjamin Barrett and Emily Gilard. A visualisation that can be discussed and analysed as part of researching this topic is: 'Where were most crimes committed in the Old Bailey?'

Suggested classroom activity: Choose the convict life story of either Benjamin Barrett or Emily Gilard. What would you say about the social, economic, political and legal conditions of your chosen convict's life in London at the time of their offending and punishment? Create a visual illustration, such as a Venn diagram of the social, economic, political and legal conditions that your convict faced in their everyday life. How did the historical circumstances of your convict's life potentially impact on their patterns of offending and punishment?

Students can complete this task individually or in groups. A group work approach to this activity facilitates accompanying flip-chart presentations and class discussion of the historical factors which shape patterns of recidivism and desistance.

Historical Case Study: Convicts in New South Wales in the Late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

If students need to construct a case study of Botany Bay and the settlement of convicts in New South Wales in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the following Digital Panopticon resources will be useful. These include the historical background pages on 'Australia, 1787-1901' and 'Transportation'. Convict lives that students might want to explore include: James Gardner, William Bright and George Viginton, James Joiner, Elizabeth Jones, Mark Jeffery, George Lincoln, James McAllister and Charlotte Walker. A Visualisation that can be discussed and analysed as part of researching this topic is: 'What ages were most commonly recorded when convicts arrived at the colony?'

Suggested classroom activity: Choose the life story of one of the transported convicts listed above. How did your chosen convict respond to the punishment of transportation? Did they reform or re-offend? How does this relate to what historians know about life and punishment in the penal colonies?

Students can discuss their responses to these questions in groups or answer them as an individual written response.

Criminal Lives, 1780-1925’ – Schools Pop-up Exhibition and Support Materials for Schools

Photograph of Frederick Richardson. The National Archives UK ref. PCOM2/291/417

To provide a discussion point and a series of activities to meet these educational needs, the Digital Panopticon team have developed a 'Criminal Lives, 1780-1925' pop-up banner exhibition and pack of supporting materials for schools. This exhibition uses historical images and archival documents to explore eight convict lives from the Digital Panopticon Archive. Brief biographies of Frederick Richardson, John Ebenezer Martin, Lydia Lloyd and Sarah Durrant are presented to explore the impact of UK imprisonment, while the lives of Charlotte Walker, Isaac Solomons, Thomas Griffin and Thomas Limpus are offered to consider the life pathways of convicts who were transported to Australia. Each of these lives can be further explored on the Digital Panopticon website.

The pop-up exhibition comes with a pack of supporting materials for schools. This pack includes introductory reading, a student worksheet, a timeline and a further reading list. The supporting materials are designed to suit the needs of GCSE students. The schools pop-up exhibition is available now, following its inclusion in the Criminal Lives, 1780-1925: Punishing Old Bailey Convicts exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives (11 December 2017 – 16 May 2018).

The exhibition is free to hire for schools and colleges and the University of Sheffield will cover courier costs to your venue and back to the University. We envisage exhibition runs of between one and two weeks. However, we are also willing to consider alternative time-frames depending on the needs of your school. Please let us know your proposed exhibition dates and we will try and accommodate them.

To find out more about how to hire the pop-up exhibition and to request a free copy of the supporting materials pack, please contact Outreach Activities Officer, Edd Poole:

Other Resources

Teachers on these GCSE courses might also find the education pages that are available on The Old Bailey Online helpful. Although somewhat out of date, the Old Bailey website contains a range of information pages and suggested educational resources for GCSE teaching and learning about patterns of eighteenth and nineteenth century crime and punishment in Britain. Educational resources on 'Crime and Punishment' and 'A Victorian Prison' are also available from The National Archives website.

Digital Panopticon PhD student, Emma Watkins has developed a set of activity sheets which show secondary school students how to use records linked in the Digital Panopticon website to reconstruct the personal histories of convicts transported to Australia. Follow this link to find out more and access the computer based classroom activity 'Using Digital Records to Reconstruct the Lives of Transported Convicts'.

Author Credits

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