‘Staggeringly huge’ number of convict records available on new free history website

By Rosemary Collins, 14 September 2017 - 1:25pm

The Digital Panopticon project allows researchers to access thousands of records relating to convicted criminals

Users of the Digital Panopticon can search thousands of convict records

The stories of convicted criminals, including those sentenced to transportation, can now be uncovered on a new free history website.

Digital Panopticon launched at a conference in Liverpool this week as part of a project by the University of Liverpool, University of Sheffield, University of Oxford, University of Sussex and University of Tasmania in Australia.

Named after an 18th century theoretical prison where all the inmates can be watched by one guard, it includes information on the lives of 90,000 individuals convicted of crimes at the Old Bailey between 1780 and 1925, many of whom were transported to Australia.

The project lead Professor Barry Godfrey, a social historian at the University of Liverpool, called the project “a resource the likes of which we have never had before” with a “staggeringly huge” amount of information.

“It is one of the largest genealogical resources and one of the first to catalogue in chronological order so users can follow the whole life of a person”, he added.

Digital Panopticon is based on over four million records from The National Archives and record collections in Australia, some of which are available on subscription family history sites Findmypast and Ancestry

The website is aimed at a variety of users, including family historians, teachers, crime writers and academics. They can search Digital Panopticon for information such as offenders’ names, sentences, dates and places of birth and even hair and eye colour, and have the opportunity to view indexed information from the records and even create data visualisations of the search results.

In addition, the website features background information on the records, biographies of the criminals, and information on the historical context in which they lived.

Professor Bob Shoemaker of the University of Sheffield said the website “combin[ed] extraordinarily rich records with the latest digital humanities methodologies” and had “clear relevance to contemporary penal regimes”.

Tim Hitchcock, professor of digital history at the University of Sussex, said: “The Digital Panopticon helps us understand history from below in a new way – from the perspective of the hundreds of thousands of working people caught up in a global system of policing, punishment and empire.”

Among other discoveries, the researchers found that:

• Many convicts originally sentenced to transportation never left Britain
• Transported convicts tended to stop offending once they married and had children
• Children born to transported convicts were healthier and taller than the children of British convicts

Researchers carried out the data assembly, record linkage, and website creation needed for the project at the Digital Humanities Institute at the University of Sheffield.

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