The humble petitioners of 18th-century London

The petition of Ester Cutler (1715). LL LMSMPS501460090; LMA MJ/SP/1715/07

The petition of Ester Cutler (1715)

I’ve spent the last couple of months on a mission to find petitions in the Sessions Papers of London Lives. The outcome of that quest is just over 10,000 petitions which I’ve made available under a Creative Commons licence, with full documentation, on github:

The London Lives Petitions Project

But this is hopefully just the beginning of a project to explore the London Lives petitions in more depth. I’ve long been a fan of the humble early modern petition addressed to local  magistrates, documents to be found in vast numbers in local and legal archives. Petitions were instigated by institutions and by individuals, by elites and by paupers, and all sorts of people in between. They were used by convicted criminals to beg for the royal pardon; by officials and contractors to claim expenses for government work; by private individuals to complain about abusive behaviour by neighbours, employers, apprentices, husbands or local officials; by parishes to appeal official decisions about paupers and vagrants; to claim exemptions from local office or taxes; and more.

Petitions like the one above, addressed to Middlesex magistrates in 1715 by Ester Cutler, a ‘Weddow woman’ with ‘nothing to live apon but what she can gitt out of selling a few herbs’, and requesting an exemption from paying poor rates. Ester Cutler’s petition is perhaps unusual in some ways. Apart from the typically deferential language of “your humble petishnor”, it does not quite follow many of the formal conventions of petitions in the Sessions Papers, to be seen in the petition below, from the parish officers of St George Botolph Lane in 1693, which has a much more elaborate opening address (‘To the Right Honoble. Sr . John Fleete Knt Lord Maior of the City of London…’) and the usual line ‘And they shall Pray Etc’. This type of petition is much more formulaic and generally adheres to more elaborate d structural and linguistic conventions.

LMSLPS150040205Ester’s spelling is also unusual: in the 10,000 London Lives transcriptions, I can find just one other petitioner who writes ‘petition(er)’ with the spelling ‘sh’. The spellings ‘gentellmen’, ‘consederacion’, ‘weddow’, ‘apon’, ‘gitt’, ‘desiers’ are all equally unusual, or nearly so. The spelling of even high status petitions is much less standardised than in modern writing (and full of abbreviations), but by the early 18th century their variations are smaller – ‘poor’ vs poore’, ‘relief’ vs ‘releif’, etc.

It looks as though Ester wrote her own petition (the hand including signature is the same throughout), and that too is probably quite uncommon (though another question that warrants further investigation). Ester’s writing ability, for all her non-standard spellings, suggests that even if she really was as poor as she claimed to be in 1715, she probably came from more affluent origins. Perhaps her claims of poverty should not quite be taken at face value; she’s a rate payer, not a pauper. But she might well have been on a social descent towards that fate, and that was an experience of ageing and widowhood that was far from unusual in 18th-century London. Widows like Ester were frequent petitioners.

In 1713, Mary Donne of St Giles Cripplegate was another petitioning for exemption from parish rates. She too emphasised her continuing efforts to make ends meet but

now being reduced to great Poverty by reason of her Age and hard Labour, Whith the loss of one of her Eyes, and a great dimness in the other, that she is uncapable of doing any manner of Work for a livelyhood except Knitting.

And Rachell White, the widow of a London tradesman, petitioned the magistrates in 1721 at ‘about 70 years of age and by Long Sickness very infirme’, to complain about her treatment by local officials and demand the restitution of a parish allowance which enabled her to live in the ‘Coopers alms house’ (with the warning that if she could no longer stay there she would become a much greater expense for the parish). The magistrates ordered the parish to pay her a weekly allowance of 1 shilling.

Wherefore yor. poor petitionr most humbly Implores yor Honrs in yor Tender Compassion & timely Consideration; would be pleased To order the said parish to allow her a Competent mentanance The Small allowance She had being taken away by Mr. Masters the present Churchwarden; his pretence being that she doth not want any parish allowance, by Reason She is att present in the Coopers alms house; The Master with Sr. Peter Eton who put her in Seeing her great poverty will Certainly turn her out ffor they Say they will not Suffer any their to be Starved to Death without the parish she belongs unto will allow her a mentainance She Shall not be their to Dissgrace the Company but must be wholy put upon the parish wherefore She most humbly Beseeches yor Honours timely Relief.

The petition of Rachell White (1721)

The petition of Rachell White (1721)

Further reading

London Lives, The Poor Law and Charity and Pauper Letters

Jonathan Healey, Petitions of the People? (many headed monster)

Thomas Sokoll, ‘Writing for relief: Rhetoric in English pauper letters 1800-1834‘ (pdf)

Posted in Academic Work, Digital History, Early Modern, Plebeian Lives | Leave a comment

History Carnival 151

Welcome to the History Carnival for November 2015. It’s more than five years since I last hosted the Carnival and nearly 11 years since I first hosted it. In fact, I managed to miss its 10th anniversary in January altogether. So, this is a rather belated opportunity to reflect on the last decade-and-a-bit of the history blogosphere. Other history-related blog carnivals have come and gone since then; many of the blogs and bloggers of 2005 and even of 2010 are now inactive or moved away or defunct. We used to lament the passing of history blogs; and yet it seems to me now that there is something cyclical in their very nature. They reflect the changing needs and priorities of their authors; the blog that endures has been the exception.

But is that changing? There is a whole new history blogosphere that is institutionally approved, sometimes even mandated, which can feel quite odd to those of us who remember “Ivan Tribble” (google it, and marvel). The motives behind these developments may be viewed by older blogging curmudgeons like me with a degree of cynicism (at least in the UK where our academic leaders’ enthusiasm for “impact” frequently has more to do with generating REF case studies and funding imperatives than the joy of communicating research to the great unwashed masses). But nonetheless, blogging has gained a new degree of  legitimacy and with it, new cohorts of academic bloggers of greatly varying shades of enthusiasm.

And I think one key trend in this context has been the rise of the group blog, including the project blog, the departmental/faculty blog, the scholarly society or journal blog, and the less institutional subject blog. Group blogs are far from new, of course; and, conversely, even though it has been supplanted somewhat by Facebook and Twitter et al, the personal academic blog is still going strong (and has yet to be tamed by the bureaucrats). But there is something a bit different about many of these younger group blogs. The very fine Notches blog, on the history of sexuality, may typify the genre: a small core of editors, a large floating circle of guest bloggers, and a tight academic focus. (Compare this to something like Crooked Timber: more mixed and informal content, but I think a much stronger group identity.) As such, they provide new opportunities for academics who don’t want to blog regularly, and may well have a longer lifespan than the average personal blog and even the older style group blog.

I discovered some blogs that were new to me in the course of hosting this edition, as well as revisiting some very old friends, and I hope there will be new finds for readers too. I’m grateful to those who sent nominations, and to all who share their knowledge and ideas with us via blogs, of whatever kind.

And so, enough preambling!

Things That Go Bump In The Night (source: British Library)

Things That Go Bump In The Night (source: British Library)

History beyond the Academy

Two cracking posts from the History Matters blog on a favourite topic of mine, the relationship between history and historical fiction: Historical fiction and alternative truths and Historical Fiction and Fictional History.

Online Journalism Blog: How The Telegraph liveblogs historical anniversaries

Reluctant Internationalists explore connections between past and present, history and policy: Mnemonic battles on 23 October: the 1956 revolution and the refugee crisis in political discourse

Do You Have a Cherokee in Your Family Tree? Gregory Smithers at HNN examines why many Americans believe they do, even when it flies in the face of the facts.

Digital History

Can we date revolutions in the history of literature and music? Ted Underwood looks at some big claims and crunches a few numbers of his own.

At dh+lib, Thomas Padilla and Matthew Lincoln discuss the potential of Data-Driven Art History: Framing, Adapting, Documenting

Edwired reflects on a decade of teaching digital history: Back to the Future

Crime, Rebellion and Punishment

At the many-headed monster, Mark Hailwood on 500 years of rebelliousness in Cornwall and the south-west of England: West Country Rebels

The Prosecution Project blog: Alcohol abuse and criminal offending

A family historian explores her own ancestors’ experiences in the history of riot and popular protest (Victorian Supersleuth): My Relative was a Swing Rioter

Juvenile offenders transported to Australia as ‘apprentices’ in the mid-19th century (Carceral Archipelago): Juvenile Immigrants: An Experiment in Convict Labour?

David Churchill in the Social History journal blog traces the changing relationship between social historians and criminologists over the last half century in Rediscovering Historical Criminology

Black History

October was Black History Month in the UK and there has been some great blogging to mark the event.

The University of Nottingham’s UoN Blogs posted an extensive series of posts, including Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners and Going global: restoring agency to black history

Launching the new Runaway Slaves in Britain project: Runaway Slaves

National Museums Liverpool: Forgotten? Black Soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo

Ryan Hanley reconsiders his role as a history of slavery and abolition at the RHS blog.

At the Notches blog, on using Tumblr in teaching the history of gender, race and empire: Teaching with Tumblr: Building a Digital Archive of Gender, Race & Empire

Women’s History

October saw the release of the film Suffragette, which got plenty of attention from the media and film critics.

History Today: Suffragette: Film Review

At Woman and Her Sphere, a more historical take in one of a series of Suffrage Stories: ‘Shooting Suffrage’: Films That Suffrage Activists Would Have Seen

Ana Stevenson critiqued ongoing analogies comparing suffragettes to slaves: The suffragettes were rebels, certainly, but not slaves

At the many-headed monster, Amanda Herbert provided us with a History of Femininities Reading List.

It’s harvest time! Women’s Work in Early Modern England: Workers of the Week: Autumnal Gatherers and Cider Makers

Georgian Gentleman introduces us to Hester Bateman, a brilliant silversmith, clever in business

Material Bodies

Yvonne Seale discusses the intricacies and significance of medieval nuns’ clothing: Clothes Make the Premonstratensian Sister

Sarah E. Bond, a new discovery for me, is that rare thing: an ancient history blogger. I could have chosen one of several splendid recent posts, but went with this one: Code Switching: Courtesans, Clothing, and Crossdressing in Antiquity

JHI Blog brings us A Case of Androgynous Gender-Bending in Early Modern Radical Religion

Joanne Begiato: How Stuff Helps Make a Man

I love pies. And Doing History in Public is Thinking with pies (mince pies, to be exact). Food for body and mind. Yum.

At Airminded, one of those very old friends: The peril in the air. Not the usual peril in the air, though: this is about airborne germs and lurid Edwardian advertising.

Conciatore on a late 16th-century book of recipes, including some you definitely don’t want to try: The Duke’s Mouthwash

Magic and Mysteries

Medieval Manuscripts Blog:Things That Go Bump in the Night

Public Domain Review: The Key of Hell: an 18th-Century Manual on Black Magic

Enchanted Histories: Malleus Maleficarum

streets of salem: Turnip Ghosts

Turbulent Priests: How to deal with a vampire attack

Art and Architecture, Mainly: Lasseter’s Gold: fool’s errand or con artistry?


A tribute to Lisa Jardine by Kate Maltby; and see the latest Whewell’s Gazette

John Bossy

Sheldon Wolin

David Cesarini

In addition, although this news is a few months old, I didn’t want to end without a mention of Ralph Luker, who died in August. He will be an unfamiliar name to many newer bloggers (he retired from blogging a few years ago), but he was a pioneer in, and advocate for, history blogging who supported the History Carnival from its earliest infancy.

The Future

Will the History Carnival still be around in another 10 years? I have no idea, but I can tell you that the next edition will be at Hatful of History on 1 December. Usual nomination form.

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The History Carnival is coming back to EMN!

It’s been a loooong time, so I’m pleased to say that I’m hosting the History Carnival right here on 1 November.

But if you’re asking, what is the History Carnival? Well:

a monthly showcase of blog writing about history, usually held on the 1st day of the month. It’s hosted at a different blog each month to provide a variety of approaches and perspectives.

All you have to do to contribute is nominate your favourite history blog posts in the last month or so, which you can do in a number of ways: in the comments on this post; send a tweet to @sharon_howard; or via the simple nomination form provided by the Carnival.

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‘she was soe stuborn that she would give me noe answer’

The many headed monster is running an online symposium on the Voices of the People (and see #voxpop2015 on Twitter) which is well worth your attention, and Anna Jenkin posted a number of responses on Twitter, musing on how the themes related to her research on early modern female killers. Between them, I found myself dusting off one of the more extraordinary cases from my PhD research (which I have mentioned here on the blog at least once before).

In March 1686, two women stood trial for murder by poison at the Denbighshire Great Sessions (NLW GS 4/33/3). Jane Foulke was accused of killing her husband; Lettice Lloyd of killing her son-in-law. The two trials were separate but the cases were closely connected, since Lettice had supplied Jane with the arsenic, and the poisonings happened less than two weeks apart.

Jane had considerably more to say for herself than most defendants accused of murder in the Denbighshire files. Not only was she examined twice (once by the coroner [excerpt 1] and once by local JPs [2]), but there is also a letter from her to the coroner (something I don’t recall seeing in any other 17th- or 18th-century Denbighshire homicide case) [3]. She admitted freely to having adminstered the poison to her husband; her words are mostly employed in exonerating herself (successfully: she was acquitted) and blaming Lettice for her predicament: “being brought into it by ye alurments of a wicked woman”.

Lettice, on the other hand, refused to say much at all. The coroner was so annoyed by her obstinacy that he made a specific note of it (again, extremely unusual): she “would give noe answer but that shee was mutch wrongd and was soe stuborn that she would give me noe other answer” [4].

We do however have some reports of her words from other witnesses, not least from Jane. “Lettice Lloyd tould [Jane] shee heard yt [Jane’s] husband was an angry cross man & that this [arsenic] would make him a little sick & make him vomitt & in a short tyme after make him better in condicion or better humor’d”. But perhaps the most startling was that of Lettice’s own daughter, Barbara, widow of her victim, creating an image of a monstrous mother-in-law: “[Lettice] said what doe you cry for, you shall have your choise of a husband if he dyes but you shall have noe mother but me, & thou shalt be a widow before a yeare comes about” [5]. Lettice was convicted and hanged.

There is really too much that could be said about this case. But if we’re thinking about ‘voices’ and ‘silences’ in the historical records: Do we really know more about Jane, who so willingly gave her version of events, than we do about Lettice, who ‘stubbornly’ refused to do anything of the sort? Jane portrayed herself as a dutiful wife who had been duped by a ‘wicked woman’ into unwittingly killing her husband; but she had obvious reasons to construct this narrative (and the extremely unusual interventions of the coroner as encouragement). Why did Lettice believe she had been so wronged; and what to make of her mental state of mind? More than a decade after I first encountered it, I still find the case equally fascinating and disconcerting.

(Interested? You can find my transcriptions here. Key excerpts below.)


[1] Examination of Jane Foulkes before John Mathews (coroner), 20 January 1686

[Jane Foulkes of Wrexham Abbot, widow] sayth that shee knoweth Lettice Lloyd by sight but sayth that shee never had any familiarity with her and that shee did not shee her this twelve month agoe shee saith that shee bought two penworth of poyson at widow Cheeveleys shop in Wrexham and that it is about a month agoe since shee bought one penworth of it and the other penworth shee bought this day fortnight (shee telling me that shee had it in her howse there upon I sent her with one of the constables forth, but shee could not finde it) but sayth that a woeman in the markett this day seven night did imploy her to buy the sayd two penorths of poyson but shee doth not know the woeman neither did the woeman any time after call for the poyson though shee had left two pence for that use with her and shee sayth that shee never bought noe poyson in her life time before shee sayth that the twelveth even her husband came whome from Mr Jones of Havod y Bwlch and comlayned to this examinant that he was not well and that he thougt he had an ague and shee absolutely denyeth to be noe time in company with Lettice Lloyd for a twelvemonth last past, shee sayth that her husband in the time of his sicknes complaint of his head and his syde and about his stomacke and hart…

[2] Examination of Jane Foulkes before three JPs, 28 January 1686

[Jane Foulks] saith yt on Tuesday night the fift day of January anno domini 1685 [1686] her husband Richard Foulks fell sick & so continued untill the Thursday night next following about eight a clock, at which tyme the said Richard dyed & being asked what shee gave him dureing his sicknes, shee confessd yt upon Wednesday morning, shee gave him about halfe three farthings worth of ratts bane (which shee had grinded small betwixt two stones) in a cupp of small beere, which causd him to vomitt, & on Thursday morning shee gave him three halfe peny worth of medridate & yt made him purge; & that night about eight a clock he dyed. Shee further confesseth, yt shee bought ye said three farthings worth of ratt’s bane of widow Cleaveley on Monday ye fourth of January instant & yt shee gave the aforesaaid ratt’s bane to her husband by ye advice of one Lettice Lloyd of Morton Anglicorum, & ye said Lettice Lloyd tould her shee heard yt her husband was an angry cross man & that this would make him a little sick & make him vomitt & in a short tyme after make him better in condicion or better humor’d & on ye said Thursday on which her said husband dyed, the sayd Lettice Lloyd came to her & shee tould ye said Lettice shee had given her husband ye poyson & yt he was very sick & was afrayd yt he would dye & had a minde to buy some sallett oyle for him, but the sayd Lettice Lloyd disswaded her from it; & tould her there was noe danger for it would onely make him purge & vomitt & ye said Jane Foulkes further confesseth yt ye said Lettice Lloyd on ye said seaventh of January did desire her to buy one peny worth of ratts bane for her; being ye day on which her husband dyed, and shee bought a peny worth of ratts bane & gave it to ye said Lettice Lloyd but ye said Lettice did not declare to her what shee intended to doe with it…

[3] Jane Foulkes to John Mathews, 26 February 1686 [note: Jane signed both her examinations with a mark, so she probably did not write the letter herself]

The bearer heerof telles yt you desir to know what the discourse was beetween Lettis lloyd & mee it was after this maner I mete with hir one Munday in ye chourtch yard & after renewing of our ould aquantanc shee asked mee how my husband did & shee said yt shee was glad yt hee was comen whom [home] if it wear for good for shee hard yt hee was very wicked & rude & I said yt hee was not soe but yt hee was as ceevell as most men but onely when hee had dranke too mutch strong drink & then shee asked mee what colling did hee follow when hee was in london & if hee had brought monies with him whom and I said hee brought noe monie with him but only what had borne his charges home then shee asked mee if hee were in good healath & if hee had noe distemper with in him self & I said hee had none but only hee did comeplain yt hee had mutch paine in his head & in his bones & limbes & could take littel rest in ye night by reason of these paines which hee had got by beeing a feeld keeper & lying out in ye could most nightes but I tould her yt hee was harty & could eat his meat well & shee said yt was nothing & yt hee would grow wors & wors in his distempers unless hee were purdged & vomitted & I said hee would take noe fizike then shee said yt shee had a freind yt had directed hir to a way with out mutch cost & yt it would doe him mutch good & make him more temprat and fare better in health & conditiones & I asked hir what it was shee said it was but a small matter & yt I might buy for one penie as mutch as hee had need of then shee named it & I said I shall not remember yt name & shee bad mee aske for a whit thing which was wont to bee put in yt which thay doe yus to give to rats & I said how can I aske for yt & yt I had noe ocation for any such thing & shee said I might aske it as for some freing in ye countree & I said I ame afraid it will doe my huband harme & shee said yt it would not but would doe him mutch good & yt shee had made triall of it one hir former husband & yt it had done him mutch good as long as hee lived after upon these hir eavell speetches to mee not any way thinking it would doe my husband any harm I thought to have had but half a peniworth of it but thay would not make a haperth of it soe I had three farthinges worth of it I did not yus it all I gave but part of it in some small drink god doth know I did not think it would doe him any harme but good according to hir speetches to mee I gave it to him one ye Wednesday morning & one ye Thirsday morning following hee was very sick wher upon I was mutch afraid I mete with hir yt Thursday in Wrexham & I wept to hir mutch & I said to hir yt I was affraid yt shee had caused mee to give yt to my husband which would doe him mutch harm & shee said was I soe simple to think yt hee must not bee sicke beefore it could worke & cleer his body & shee said hir life for hime it would doe him noe harm but good this is ye justest account yt I can give desiring your help & asistance in this my great trouble & affliction being brought into it by ye alurments of a wicked woman I rest a poor afflicted prisoner Jane Foulkes

[4] Examination of Lettice Lloyd before John Mathews, 19 January 1686

Lettice Lloyd being extamined to the perticulars that was sworn against her would give noe answer but that shee was mutch wrongd and was soe stuborn that she would give me noe other answer

[3] Examination of Barbara Morris, widow of Hugh Morris, before a JP, 2 March 1686

[Barbara Morris] sayth yt shee being with her mother Lettice Lloyd alias Lewis in the house at Gevellie about ye eleventh day of November last past, her said mother did discourse her about poyson & did then aske ye said Barbara what kinde of a thing poyson was, & would it swell being taken, ye said Barbara reply’d, shee did not know & asked her said mother why shee putt such questions unto her, ye mother reply’d agayn yt shee thought when poyson was taken by any one yt person would not possibly live, the said Barbara stayd with her mother at yt tyme till her husband came to her who stayed then there with his wife two nights, & on ye third day he went thence with his wife to Llangollen faire which was about ye said eleventh day of November aforesaid & yt morning being up before day his mother in law (called Lettice Lloyd alias Lewis as aforesaid) made him a possett of which hee did eate, leaveing some remaynder, but in ye way as he & his wife were rideing to ye said faire, he complayned to his wife yt he was not well & ye said Barbara sayes yt shee things shee did eate about two spoonfulls of ye remaynder of ye said possett & that shee was very ill after it and ye said Barbara further saith yt to ye best of her rembrance about ye beginning of Christmas last past shee being in her said mothers house, her mother asked her if anybody had tould her, her fortune ye said Barbara replyd (why) ye mother said there was a man yt tould me thy fortune, ye said Barbara answered how could yt be I being absent, ye mother so I tould thy age, & thereby thy fortune was tould me & further her mother asked her doest thou love[?] to be a widow upon yt ye daughter cryed then her mother said what doe you cry for, you shall have your choise of a husband if he dyes but you shall have noe mother but me, & thou shalt be a widow before a yeare comes about & upon ye eighteenth day of January last past the husband of ye said Barbara dyed

Posted in Crime/Law, Early Modern, Wales, Women/Gender | Leave a comment

Our Criminal Past special issue in Law, Crime and History journal

A very quick post to note that I have an article in this volume, based on my presentation at the first Our Criminal Past event in 2013. But there’s plenty more there for crime historians to be interested in.

Posted in Academic Work, Crime/Law, Digital History, Old Bailey Online | Tagged , | Leave a comment

New Year, Old Stuff, Revamped: things in progress

1. Meet the new project, which also happens to be just about my oldest project: Gender and Defamation in York 1660-1700

The core of this is research I did way back in 1999 for my MA dissertation. It was the first archival research for which I had the use of a laptop, and I spent a couple of months transcribing cause papers in the old Borthwick Institute in the city of York (it nowadays has a much more modern home at the University of York), and creating a “database” of my 100 or so causes using the cutting-edge technology of 5 x 3 index cards.

The standard of the transcriptions was, well, about what you might expect of a student working for the first time in 17th-century legal archives, with a few months of beginners’ Latin and palaeography under her belt, and this put me off doing anything online with them for a long time. But I’ve been thinking about it on and off since the launch of the York Cause Papers Database in 2010 and subsequent mass digitisation of images. I’ve tinkered with the material from time to time, but not made much progress.

So rather than continue to keep it all under wraps until some mythical time in the future when it would be “ready”, I’ve decided to practise what I’ve been known to preach – put it online as a work in progress, and document revisions as I go along . Let’s see if putting it out there unfinished will help motivate me to get on with it at a slightly less glacial pace…

I’ve been following Michelle Moravec’s great ‘Writing in Public’ projects and her commitment ‘to making visible the processes by which history making takes place’. Well, the creation of historical data and digital resources is a process too, one that’s often obscured by the practice of launching finished projects with a great fanfare after months or years under wraps. Over in my paid job on the Digital Panopticon that’s something we’re aiming to avoid (watch this space…). So here goes!

The first stages of the project have involved making a useful resources: putting the causes into a database, linking through to the YCP database, keyword tagging, cross-referencing, and adding some links to background information. I’ve also put the data for the database and those crappy transcriptions on github.

Next steps:

  • get the uncorrected transcriptions into the database
  • start checking/correction (for those that have images available)
  • add more background resources (and integrate my existing defamation bibliography)
  • look at converting the thesis itself into a more web-friendly format, or perhaps turning it into shorter essays

Apart from finally sharing data I created such a long time ago, I hope this little project can do a number of useful things: showcase the York cause papers as a source, provide a useful resource for research into early modern defamation, slander, gossip and reputation, and encourage other researchers to do similar things with their old research stuff.

Posted in Crime/Law, Digital History, Early Modern, Women/Gender | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Record Linkage: project workshop and work in progress

We’re holding an afternoon workshop on record/data linkage in Sheffield on 4 November. The aim is to explore the challenges and rewards of applying automated nominal record linkage to large-scale historical datasets, with all their variability, fuzziness and uncertainties, but we’d also very much welcome participants and insights from all fields concerned with data linkage including social sciences, health sciences and computer science. In addition to presentations about our work in progress on 90,000 19th-century prisoners and convicts, we have guest speakers who will bring extensive experience of historical record linkage projects to the discussion. It’s free to attend and anyone with an interest, at any stage of their academic career, is welcome (I’d particularly love to see plenty of PhD students!). More info can be found on our website here (and there’s also a programme to download).

Record linkage is really at the heart of the Digital Panopticon project’s goals to explore the impact of the different types of punishments on Old Bailey Online defendants between about 1780 and 1875 (along with working on data visualisations for exploring, presenting and communicating the data and research findings). Our research questions include: How can we improve current record-linkage processes to maximise both the number of individuals linked across different datasets and the amount of information obtained about each individual? What is the minimum amount of contextual information needed in order to conduct successful large-scale record linkage of data pertaining to specific individuals?

I’ve blogged in the past about problems associated with historical record linkage where you don’t have handy unique IDs (like, say, National Insurance numbers): names are often crucial but are highly problematic, and problems with a source like Old Bailey Online that tells us about sentences but not actual punishments. Those are among our biggest headaches with Digital Panopticon.

There are a lot of missing people when we link OBO to transportation records, and a lot of possible reasons for linking to fail. There might be errors in the data created at almost any point between the making of the original source and our production of a specific dataset to feed to the computer: eg, if you’re extracting a London-only subset from a national dataset and you’re not careful, you might also end up with records from Londonderry. Oops. (“You” there is an euphemism for “I”. )

Then there are problems caused by spelling variations in names, or the use of aliases and different names. And the problem of common names. As I blogged before: “How do you decide whether one Robert Scott is the same person as another Robert Scott, or someone else altogether?” But that gets much worse when the name in question is “Mary Smith”.

And the fails that are due to the gaps in our data: Were they pardoned? Did they die in prison or on the hulks before they could be transported? And so we are on a quest to track down sources that can tell us these things and fill the gaps (not all of which have been digitised; some of which have probably not even survived, especially from the 18th century).

Irreconcilable conflicts can emerge between different sources (eg, different trial dates and places). At this point we have to turn to the specialist knowledge of the project team on how, when and where particular sources were created so we can attempt to rate the relative reliability of two conflicting sources. But how are we going to handle those weightings when we’re dealing with  thousands of people and the links are all probables anyway? (Just because source A is generally more reliable for a certain piece of information than source B doesn’t mean A is always right and B is always wrong if they’re in conflict.)

So there will be plenty to discuss at the workshop and for the next three years!

For tasters of what we’ve been getting up to so far:

Posted in Academic Work, Conferences, Crime/Law, Digital History, Digital Panopticon | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Repost: Tyburn’s Martyrs

[Originally posted here, November 2007]

The criminals went to the place of execution in the following order, Morgan, Webb, and Wolf, in the first cart; Moore in a mourning coach; Wareham and Burk in the second cart; Tilley, Green, and Howell in the third; Lloyd on a sledge; on their arrival at Tyburn they were all put into one cart. They all behaved with seriousness and decency. Mary Green professed her innocence to the last moment of the fact for which she died, cleared Ann Basket, and accused the woman who lodged in the room where the fact was committed. As Judith Tilley appeared under terrible agonies, Mary Green applied herself to her, and said, do not be concerned at this death because it is shameful, for I hope God will have mercy upon our souls; Catharine Howell likewise appeared much dejected, trembled and was under very fearful apprehensions; all the rest seemed to observe an equal conduct, except Moore, who, when near dying, shed a flood of tears. In this manner they took their leave of this transitory life, and are gone to be disposed of as shall seem best pleasing to that all-wise Being who first gave them existence.*

In my research sources before I came to Sheffield, capital punishment appeared fairly infrequently, briefly and usually in the future tense: typically, the marginal note ‘suspendatur’ (abbreviated to sur’ or sr’), ‘to be hanged’. Even those terse notes of an event 300 years old, which quite possibly didn’t happen anyway (as many of those sentenced were reprieved), always disturbed me slightly.

I read the records of homicides and coroners’ inquests – murders, gruesome accidents, negligence and cruelty – and they are distressing and disturbing, yet they don’t evoke quite the same sense of culture shock as do the accounts of executions and ‘Last Dying Speeches’. We aren’t simply talking about the execution of murderers here: in the 18th century burglars, robbers, pickpockets, horse thieves, sheep- and cattle-rustlers, forgers and counterfeiters could all face slow, horrible deaths, in most cases public strangulation, and this was regarded by most people as perfectly normal and civilised. (Indeed, there were those who thought that hanging was not punishment enough.)

In my new job, I’ve spent some time reading Ordinary’s Accounts, which are one of the many sources we’re digitising. These are rich and fascinating sources, full of stories of the lives of common people. But they are also stories of death, and they give me the willies – not least because ordinary, decent, intelligent people in the 18th century had no problem with the idea of pickpockets, shoplifters, burglars, sheep rustlers, forgers and counterfeiters, receiving exactly the same punishment as murderers.

So, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Andrea McKenzie, since she has written an entire, densely detailed book about the subject and the source: Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England 1675-1775. She must be a tougher soul than me.

In fact, at the very beginning of the book she mentions some of the bemused reactions she received from people learning what her research topic was, including the gentleman who suggested that she should study “something pleasant, like great battles”. Continue reading

Posted in Crime/Law, Old Bailey Online | Tagged | 1 Comment