Research reveals history of convicts’ tattoos

By Rosemary Collins, 19 December 2019 - 12:01pm

Digital Panopticon researchers analysed criminal records to reveal how our ancestors' tattoos changed over time

Convict tattoos
An image of a tattooed criminal from Criminal Man, According to the Classification of Cesare Lombroso (1911) (Credit: The Internet Archive)

The hidden history of convicts’ tattoos has been revealed by new research.

Digital Panopticon, a free criminal history website, uses data analysis of records from the Old Bailey, now held at The National Archives, to reveal the lives of criminals – some of whom were transported to Australia.

Researchers have now found that 58,002 convicts in the records, which date from 1793 to 1925, had tattoos.

They used data analysis to identify trends in the tattoos.

Visualisations of the data are now available on the Digital Panopticon website.

Writing in The Conversation, Professor Robert Shoemaker and Zoe Alker, who led the project, said: “These records allow us to see – for the first time – that historical tattooing was not restricted to sailors, soldiers and convicts, but was a growing and accepted phenomenon in Victorian England.

“Tattoos provide an important window into the lives of those who typically left no written records of their own.

“As a form of ‘history from below’, they give us a fleeting but intriguing understanding of the identities and emotions of ordinary people in the past.”

The data reveals that the most popular subjects for tattoos from 1821 to 1920 were naval, religion and love, and the least popular were America, justice and punishment, and sex.


This graphic shows the most popular tattoo subject by decade (Credit: Digital Panopticon) 

In a set of records from the 1830s, 7943 male convicts during this period had tattoos, compared to just 326 women.

The most popular tattoo subject was names and initials, which were found on 44% of the men and 79% of the women.

The second most popular subject was naval for men (19%) and love for women (7%).

In another set of records, the most popular location for a tattoo was the arm (7050 convicts), followed by the elbow (452).

Between 1800 and 1840, convicts born in London were most likely to have tattoos, followed by those born in Birmingham and Liverpool.

The tattooed convicts are all listed on the Digital Panopticon website, revealing glimpses of their stories.

For example Robert Jones, a seaman born in Scotland and aged 30, was tried at the Old Bailey in 1797, accused of treason and piracy.

He had a mermaid tattooed on his arm with the initials RMN and RC.

The outcome of his trial is unknown.

Another tattooed convict, John Radford, was sentenced to transportation in 1830.

He had a ring tattooed on the mid finger of his right hand.

He was sent to Van Diemens Land, where he served his sentence and was ultimately freed in 1844.

Later that year he applied for permission to get married.

 

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