New website to reveal convict history

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Was your great, great London-born uncle imprisoned for being a Chartist, or your great grandmother transported to Australia for petty theft? You’ll soon be able to find out at the click of a button, thanks to a new website which will bring together the records of 66,000 people sentenced at the Old Bailey.

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Collating census information, health and employment records and family data, the website will allow visitors to reconstruct the lives of Londoners sentenced to either imprisonment or transportation from 1787 to the 1920s.

The searchable, free-to-access website, currently being built by the University of Liverpool, will use digital technologies to bring together existing and new genealogical, biometric and criminal justice datasets held by different organisations in the UK and Australia.

The Digital Panopticon, which involves the Universities of Oxford, Sheffield and Sussex in the UK and the University of Tasmania in Australia, has been made possible by a £1.7million Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) award.

The website will be rolled out in stages between September and December 2014.

Dr Drew Gray, a senior lecturer in the history of crime at the University of Northampton, told historyextra: “Historians are interested in seeing how people fall into a pattern of crime, or not, and in attempts to reform them.

“The digitisation will give more richness to the picture of the lives of individuals caught up in the criminal justice system. This may also give legislators of today food for thought – we can perhaps draw lessons.

“Thousands of people were transported to Australia for relatively petty property crimes – for example, pickpockets and shoplifters – or people who were protesting, such as Chartists and Luddites.

“For people sentenced to transportation to Australia it was like being sent to the moon today, because you could not imagine it. It was a completely different world.

“Then, a 14-year-old boy being sent to Australia for theft was often considered a good thing. It was better than him falling further into crime, or being sent to prison where he would meet older criminals and learn bad habits.

“It is unimaginable today”.

Dr Gray continued: “When people begin to use this website to research their family tree, I expect there will be tears like those you see on Who Do You Think You Are?

“If the team creates the website like Ancestry or Old Bailey Online, which are accessible and easy to navigate, it could be very user-friendly. I know many of the individuals involved in this project and I trust them to produce something really good.

“It’s potentially a terrific resource.

“For someone like me who teaches crime during the exact period covered by the digitisation, I can use it directly in my lessons.  And for researchers, it allows them to work more quickly.

“And in terms of the wider readership, people who read your magazine will be able to use the website to explore their interest in crime and punishment.

“Meanwhile for genealogists and people researching their family tree it’s yet another resource to being history out of the archives and into the living rooms of ordinary people.”

Dr Deborah Oxley, a lecturer in social history at the University of Oxford and one of the recipients of the AHRC grant, said: “The Digital Panopticon represents the very forefront of historical research.

“By uniting and supplementing existing large data sets – the Old Bailey Online, and Founders and Survivors – we can reconstruct lifecourses.

“That means we can now penetrate the past to discover life-time consequences of individual human actions and frequently experimental government policies.

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“In particular, the Digital Panopticon will allow us to examine the long-term consequences of different penal strategies – for individuals, for criminal justice, and for their societies.”