The Digital Panopticon in University Teaching

The Digital Panopticon is a useful resource for higher education lecturers, tutors and students studying a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate modules in history, criminology, and related subjects. It is particularly appropriate for primary source-based modules and for independent student projects such as dissertations.

The website’s most obvious application is as an interactive searchable repository of primary sources on criminal lives and as a provider of historical background reading for history modules on crime and punishment in the period, 1780-1925.

In addition, it can function as a case study of ‘doing history’ through the digital humanities, providing a working example of the power (and limitations) of computerised data record linkage in practice. Equally, it can be used alongside examples of eighteenth and nineteenth-century convict, settler and Aboriginal culture to explore the opportunities and limitations offered by the ‘colonial archive’.

From the perspective of other disciplines, criminologists can use the data contained in the Digital Panopticon to reconstruct individual life histories or to create new visualisations which can trace patterns of recidivism and desistence over time. Equally, the fragments of individual life histories found in the Digital Panopticon can act as starting points for creative writers to imagine and re-imagine the Anglo and Antipodean criminal past.

Examples of the Use of the Digital Panopticon in University Teaching

Since its launch in September 2017, The Digital Panopticon website has been a central part of undergraduate modules offered by Professor Robert Shoemaker to second years at the University of Sheffield and by former Digital Panopticon researcher, Dr Zoë Alker to third years at the University of Liverpool.

Shoemaker’s module, Digital Lives of London Criminals, 1750-1850 (click here to download pdf of module handbook) was one of a number of ‘document options’ offered by the History Department. A second-year core requirement, document options are primary-source based and designed to teach students source criticism skills to prepare them for their third-year special subjects and dissertations. In this case, the module aimed to teach students skills in the critical use of digital resources which provide access to primary sources. After an introductory session discussing the website’s principal features, seminars cover the foundational primary source, the Old Bailey Proceedings and then move through the criminal justice system from the records of crime to sentencing, pardons, and punishment (transportation and imprisonment), before concluding with examinations of the characteristics of convicts (age and gender) and patterns of recidivism.

Alker’s module, Panopticon and the People: Digital Approaches to the History of Crime and Punishment (click here to download pdf of module handbook), is a third-year module for undergraduates in Liverpool’s Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology. 'Panopticon and the People' examines how contemporary issues in crime and justice, including persistence and desistance, youth crime, female offending and gang crime, have been treated historically from the eighteenth century. Taking advantage of online historical datasets including Digital Panopticon, the module introduces students to innovative digital techniques alongside the critical interpretation of historical records. Students on Alker’s course get ‘hands on’ with basic digital humanities methods, including manual record linkage and data visualisation, to examine the social patterns of crime and punishment in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 2018, this module won Alker a University of Liverpool Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences Award for engaging learners with teaching materials in new and imaginative ways.

The interactive format of the Digital Panopticon website facilitates innovative forms of assessment. Alongside more conventional modes of undergraduate assessment, both the Shoemaker and Alker modules ask students to reconstruct the life of a convict, through the use of the Digital Panopticon and other primary and secondary sources, as part of the assessment process. Shoemaker’s module asks groups of students to research and orally present a biography of a criminal from the period 1750-1850 (17% of final mark); while the Alker course requires a 1,500 word blog post that details a convict life (30% of final mark). In addition, the second assessment for Alker’s course, a 2,500 word online essay (70% of final mark), encourages students to produce and analyse their own data visualisations.

Sample Seminars

The two sample seminars featured here are from Shoemaker’s second-year History module at the University of Sheffield, ‘HST 2043: Digital Lives of London Criminals, 1750-1850’ and Alker’s third-year Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology module, ‘SOCI 328: Panopticon and the People, Digital Approaches to the History of Crime and Punishment.’ These sample seminars provide good examples of how the Digital Panopticon website can be used in second and third-year undergraduate teaching.

Sample seminar 1: The Pardoning Process

This one hour seminar is given in week six of Shoemaker’s twelve-week module, ‘HST 2043: Digital Lives of London Criminals, 1750-1850’. As part of the trajectory of the course, which takes students through the judicial process from the criminal trial to punishment, it follows a lecture which explains how sentences of convicted criminals were determined, and raises the problem of explaining the large discrepancy between the sentences convicts received and the actual punishments they experienced. The focus of this seminar, provides the best evidence available of the decision-making process which changed judicial sentences into actual penal outcomes. Positioning this issue in light of secondary work by Douglas Hay and Peter King, the seminar invites students to consider the role of discretion, class, and the characteristics of convicts and their crimes in determining penal outcomes.

Core Reading

Additional Reading

Primary Sources

Seminar Plan

The seminar starts with the visualisations to get a sense of overall patterns and then drills down to individual cases.

First, we discuss the visualisation, What actually happened to convicts sentenced to death?, noting that most of those sentenced to death were not hanged, and considering how actual punishments varied by the nature of the offence. Then we look at the visualisation of those transported to Van Diemen's Land and note the wide range of original sentences of those who were actually transported. Finally, we do a similar exercise for those imprisoned in Millbank.

Second, students form small groups, with each group discussing one of the convicts listed under 'primary sources'. Each is asked to explain why their convict was pardoned, or not.

Finally, after reassembling as a group, we discuss first, the limitations of the evidence available (particularly the Judge's Reports, which are abstracts rather than transcriptions), and second, the different explanations for how decisions for pardons were made in the readings by Douglas Hay and Peter King. We discuss which argument is best supported by the evidence we have looked at, noting 1) this is evidence from London, not provincial England which is the subject of Hay's article, and 2) Hay's article largely depends on types of evidence which would not be found in the Digital Panopticon.

In sum, students should have learned from this session both about the wide range of factors which shaped pardoning decisions, and the limitations of the records available for studying this topic.

Sample Seminar 2: Nineteenth-Century Offenders and the Life Course – Using Record Linkage and Prosopography in the Digital Age

This two-hour seminar is given in week three of Alker’s twelve-week module, ‘SOCI 328: Panopticon and the People’. In it students reconstruct the lives of offenders who were tried at the Old Bailey and sentenced to imprisonment or transportation during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Students use the Digital Panopticon and other online datasets available from Ancestry, British Library Newspapers Online and FindmyPast in order to complete this task. This is a useful set of readings and seminar activities for tutors who want to explore critically how to use online sources to reconstruct the historic lives of criminals with their students.

Core Reading

Additional Reading

For more information, please consult A Guide to Researching Family History and the Criminal Justice, 1780-1925 historical background page on the Digital Panopticon website.

Key Activities and Discussion Points to Structure this Seminar

Preparation: Students need to have complete the ‘core reading’ as well as engaged with works from the ‘additional reading’ list. They should also have familiarised themselves with the Digital Panopticon website.

Historians and genealogists previously had to dig through a myriad of historical resources to construct a criminal life history in a process known as nominal record linkage. But the digitisation of civil as well as criminal records has now made it possible to unlock the life histories of Hanoverian and Victorian offenders on a grand scale. Piecing together disparate fragments of offenders' lives from census data, births, marriages, and death registers, military records, work records and any other civil or criminal information can be an arduous task. But the Digital Panopticon has used a series of complex algorithms that match or ‘link’ information including name, age, and trial date, of offenders to create a cradle to grave ‘life’ across multiple datasets that chart their lives from city to courtroom to colony. This technique, called ‘record linkage’, has resulted in tens of thousands life histories on the site.

In this seminar, students will reflect on the advantages and limitations of digital record linkage and consider the information that is highlighted within the life archive as well as what is obscured. Students will complement the criminal information recorded in the Digital Panopticon resource by utilizing record linkage skills to trace offenders' personal and social lives and explore the importance of informal social controls in reducing or exacerbating offending. By searching for names and refining search criteria, including ages, or crime and trial dates, within related databases including Ancestry, London Lives, British Library Newspaper Archive, and Trove students will be able to collate this information into grids. In doing so, students will look to the works of life course criminologists including Godfrey et al. (2007, 2010, 2017) to examine the extent to which offenders were more than the sum of their convictions. They were often ordinary people living difficult lives before and after release.

Part 1: Record Linkage and Creating Life Grids

In part 1 of the seminar, students will synthesise information on offenders into life grids. Life grids allow us to examine the formal controls (arrests, punishments, forms of victimization) against the informal social controls (marriage, employment, family formation, residential stability) that may have impacted on their recidivism or desistance. Each life grid provides a cradle to grave narrative of their lives and charts social and personal information about them including their marriages, births of children, deaths of relatives, employment, and their addresses. In addition, any recorded crimes are included with details of the offences and subsequent punishment. You can see an example of a life grid on pages 52 and 53 of Barry Godfrey, Pamela Cox, Heather Shore and Zoë Alker’s book Young Criminal Lives: Life Courses and Life Chances, 1850-1920 (Oxford University Press, 2017).

1. Locate a repeat offender in the Digital Panopticon by using appropriate search criteria.

2. Look for more information on your chosen offender by searching for them on complementary sites including Ancestry, Findmypast, British Library Newspapers Online and Trove. Much like the Digital Panopticon algorithm you will ‘link’ data by matching specified criteria across different record sets to ensure that you are looking for the correct person. Do the names, ages, names of associates, addresses, dates of crimes and trials, for example, match? The challenge in being a ‘Digital Detective’ is ensuring that the data matches.

3. Enter the information into a life grid template, specifying:

Part 2: Questions

In groups of four, answer the following questions:

Student Responses to the Digital Panopticon

The Digital Panopticon has also been incorporated into other University syllabi. For example, Dr Helen Rogers’s second-year BA English module, ‘Prison Voices’ at Liverpool St. John’s University directly incorporates student searching and reporting of findings from the Digital Panopticon into its pedagogical methodology. As part of its assessment, this module involved students producing their own blog of their research findings (a sample can be found here).

When students from the ‘Prison Voices’ module were surveyed and asked how the Digital Panopticon had enhanced their understanding of past convict lives and the history of crime and punishment, responses from individuals included:

“Being able to see how a person’s life developed over a period of time from a conviction is fascinating.”

“It was fascinating to track the ‘afterlife’ of a convict.”

“I was able to look into the lives of convicts who interested me, which many other websites would not have given me the opportunity to do.”

These responses suggest that undergraduate students appreciate the level of detail about the lives of historic individuals offered by the Digital Panopticon. It also suggests that they like the option of doing research on the website, tailoring their studies to their own interests.

Further Information

If you are new to teaching this subject area and require a basic ‘how to’ guide to searching for convict lives through the Digital Panopticon, please view this online tutorial (forthcoming soon).

Author Credits

This page was compiled by Larissa Allwork, with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team. Sample university syllabi were provided by Robert Shoemaker and Zoe Alker.