Women, gender and non-lethal violence in Quarter Sessions petitioning narratives

Cleaned-up and slightly extended version of a paper presented at the conference Gender and Violence in the Early Modern World (University of Cambridge, 23 November 2019).


In 1594 Allys Whittingham, William Bealey and Margery his wife petitioned Cheshire Quarter Sessions, setting out the many abuses and outrages perpetrated against them by Anne Lingard.1

She had had unjust warrants against them, claiming to be afraid of “bodily harm”. This was “greatly astonishing” to the petitioners, who were “well known never to have disturbed her majesties peace” or threatened Anne herself.

Anne had come to Allys’s house early one morning and sneakily “convaye[d] her selffe into the house to doe some outrage upon” Allys, and finding her alone,

did assault and treade her the sayd Allys (beinge an aged woman) under feete and would her have murdred or otherwayes fouly intreated yf she hadd not bine prevented by [Margery] whoe hearinge the crye came imediatly…

This was “a matter soe shamfull and unnaturall, as the lyke by anie woman hath seeldome bine offred in anie [christian?] cuntrey or towne”. Further, Anne was a frequent disturber of the peace, causing many “unseemly” brawls and affrays, and upsetting the “best sort” of the town’s inhabitants.

As a result, Allys could “not be at peace within her owne house” and was “much affrayd” of further attacks; and so they prayed both to be released from Anne’s warrants against them and for the authorities to take action against Anne.

Some elements of the case are really unusual: the language – “shamfull and unnaturall… the lyke by anie woman hath seeldome bine offred” – as well as their demand for the magistrates to “brydle the outragousnesse of the sayd Anne Lingard”. There’s nothing quite like this in any of the other petitions.

Nonetheless it reflects a number of common themes in petition narratives by victims of violence:

  • a background context which includes malice and vexatious litigation, disordered behaviour (versus the quiet law-abiding victim);
  • at least one central, murderous, assault on weak, defenceless victims;
  • fear of further attacks and therefore the urgent importance of bringing the offender under control.

Continue reading Women, gender and non-lethal violence in Quarter Sessions petitioning narratives

WHM18: Women’s heights in the Digital Panopticon

I’ve recently been working on the Digital Panopticon, a digital history project that has brought together (and created) massive amounts of data about British prisoners and convicts in the long 19th century, including several datasets which include heights for women. Adult height is strongly influenced by environmental factors in childhood, one of the most important being nutrition. So,

The height of past populations can thus tell historians much about the conditions that individuals encountered in their formative years. Given sufficient data it is possible to glimpse inside households in order to piece together a history of the impact that declining wages, rising prices, improvements in sanitation and diminishing family size had on mean adult stature.

However, many studies of height and nutrition in 18th- and 19th-century Britain focused on military records and therefore had little to say about women. The turn to  using the rich records of heights for men and women (and children) in 19th-century penal records has been more recent.

Today’s post is going to look at height patterns in four Digital Panopticon datasets, mainly using a kind of visualisation that many historians aren’t familiar with: box plots. If you’ve seen them and not really understood them, it’s OK – I didn’t have a clue until quite recently either! And so, I’ll start by attempting to explain what I learned before I move on to the actual data.

A box plot, or box and whisker plot, is a really concentrated way of visualising what statisticians call the “five figure summary” of a dataset: 1. the median average; 2. upper quartile (halfway between the median and the maximum value); 3. lower quartile (halfway between the median and minimum value); 4. minimum value; and 5. maximum value.

Here’s a diagram:

The thick green middle bar marks the median value.  The two blue lines parallel to that (aka “hinges”) show the upper and lower quartiles.  The pink horizontal lines extending from the box are the whiskers. In this version of a box plot, the whiskers don’t necessarily extend right to the minimum and maximum values. Instead, they’re calculated to exclude outliers which are then plotted as individual dots beyond the end of the whiskers.

So what’s the point of all this? Imagine two datasets: one contains the values 4,4,4,4,4,4,4,4 and the other 1,3,3,4,4,4,6,7. The two datasets have the same averages, but the distribution of the values is very different. A boxplot is useful for looking more closely at such variations within a dataset, or for comparing different datasets, which might look pretty much the same if you only considered averages.

These are the four datasets:

  • HCR, Home Office Criminal Registers 1790-1801, prisoners held in Newgate awaiting trial (1226 heights total, 1061 aged over 19)
  • CIN, Convict Indents 1820-1853, convicts transported to Australia (17183 heights, 14181 over 19)
  • PLF, Female prison licences 1853-1884, female convicts sentenced to penal servitude (571 heights, 535 over 19)
  • RHC, Registers of Habitual Criminals 1881-1925, recidivists who were under police supervision following release from prison (12599 heights, 12118 over 19)

For each dataset, I only included women who had a year of birth, or whose year of birth could be calculated using an age and date, as well as a height. (I say “heights” above because I can’t guarantee that they are all unique individuals; but nearly all of them should be.) In all the following charts I’m including only adult women aged over 19.

Here’s what happens when you plot the heights for each birth decade in RHC.

(This is generated using the R package ggplot2 , and it looks a little bit different from many examples you’ll see online because ggplot has a nice feature to vary the width of the boxes according to the size of the data group.)

The first thing I look for is incongruities that might suggest problems with the data, and on the whole it looks good – the boxes are mostly quite symmetrical and none of the outliers is outside the realms of possibility (the tallest woman is 74.5 inches, or 6 foot 2 1/2, and the shortest is 48 inches), though I’m slightly doubtful that there were women born in the 1800s in this dataset, which gets going in the 1880s; still, they’re a very small number so unlikely to skew things much overall. Since the data seems to be OK on first sight, the interesting thing to note here is that from the 1850s onwards, the women are getting taller, and those born in the 1890s are quite a lot taller than the 1880s cohort. This is fairly consistent with Deb Oxley’s (more fine-grained) observations of the same data.

Here’s CIN:

Again, we have a reasonable spread of heights and fortunately very small number of slightly questionable early births. (It happens to be the case that this data was manually transcribed, whereas RHC was created using Optical Character Recognition – but on the other hand, the source for RHC was printed and much more legible than the handwritten indents.) Ignoring for now the very small groups before the 1770s, the tallest decade cohort of women in this data is those born in the 1790s and thereafter they get consistently shorter.

Let’s put all four datasets together! (click on the image for a larger version)

I’ve filtered out women born before 1750 and after 1899, because the numbers were very small, and some extreme outliers (more about those later…). Then I added a guideline at the median for the 1820s (the mid-point), as I think it helps in seeing the trends.

It might seem surprising at first that the late 18th-century women of HCR are taller than any subsequent cohorts until the 1890s. Yet the trends here are broadly consistent with the pioneering research by Roderick Floud et al on British men and boys between 1740 and 1914. They argued “that the average heights of successive birth cohorts of British males increased between 1740 and 1840, fell back between 1840 and 1850, and increased once again from the 1850s onwards” (Harris, ‘Health, Height and History’). The British population was less well-fed for much of the 19th century (as food resources struggled to keep up with rapid population growth), and it got smaller as a result. Our women’s growth after 1850 may be slower than for the men (until the 1890s) though; perhaps it took longer for women than men to start growing again.

Finally, though, I have to put in a big caveat about the HCR data. I mentioned that I excluded some extreme outliers from the chart above. HCR was by far the worst offender, and if you look closely at the 18th-century cohorts covered by HCR, the boxes aren’t quite as symmetrical as the 19th-century ones. If we visualise it using a histogram (another handy one for examining the distribution of values in a dataset), we can see more clearly that there’s something up. A ‘normal’ height distribution in a population should look like a “bell curve” – quite tightly and symmetrically clustered around the average. CIN and RHC are close:

But this is what HCR looks like. This is not good.

If we’re lucky, much of the problem could turn out to be errors in the data which can be fixed. After all, it’s at least roughly the right kind of shape! The big spike at 60 inches (5 feet) rings plenty of alarm bells though. It looks reminiscent of a problem we have with much of the age data in the Digital Panopticon, known as “heaping“, a tendency to round ages to the nearest 0 or 5 (people often didn’t know their exact dates of birth). The age heaping is very mild in comparison to this spike, so I think it could well be another issue with either the transcription or the method used to extract heights. But if it turns out that’s not the case, this could be pretty problematic. We’re assuming the prisoners were properly measured, but we don’t know anything about the equipment used. For all we know, it might often have been largely guess work. In the end, we might find that HCR simply isn’t reliable enough to use for demographic analysis. There’s very little height data for women born in the 18th century, so this is a potentially really important source. But what if it’s not up to the job?

Data on Github.

Further reading

John Canning, Statistics for the Humanities (2014), especially chapter 3.

Introduction to Statistics: Box plots

The Normal Distribution

H Maxwell-Stewart, K Inwood and M Cracknell, ‘Height, Crime and Colonial History’,  Law, Crime and History (2015).

Deborah Oxley, David Meredith, and Sara Horrell, ‘Anthropometric measures of living standards and gender inequality in nineteenth-century Britain’, Local Population Studies, 2007.

Deborah Oxley, Biometrics, http://www.digitalpanopticon.org (2017).

Bernard Harris, ‘Health, Height, and History: An Overview of Recent Developments in Anthropometric History’, Social History of Medicine (1994).

Jessica M. Perkins et al, ‘Adult height, nutrition, and population health’, Nutrition Reviews (2016).

Defendants’ voices and silences in the Old Bailey courtroom, 1781-1880

This is a version of the paper I gave at the Digital Panopticon launch conference at Liverpool in September 2017.

In the interests of fostering reproducible research in the humanities, I’ve put all the data and R code underlying this paper online on Github – details of where to find them are at the end.

Defendant speech and verdicts in the Old Bailey

Defendants’ voices are at the heart of the Digital Panopticon Voices of Authority research theme I’ve been working on with Tim Hitchcock. We know that defendants were speaking less in Old Bailey Online trials as the 19th century went on; we’ve tended to put this in the context of growing bureaucratisation and the rise of plea bargaining.

I want to think about it slightly differently in this paper though. The graph above compares conviction/acquittal for defendants who spoke and those who remained silent, in trials containing direct speech between 1781 and 1880. It suggests that for defendants themselves, their voices were a liability. This won’t surprise those who’ve read historians’ depiction of the plight that defendants found themselves in 18th-century courtrooms without defence lawyers, in the “Accused Speaks” model of the criminal trial (eg Langbein, Beattie).

But this isn’t a story of bureaucrats silencing defendants (or lawyers riding in to the rescue). I want to suggest that, once defendants had alternatives to speaking for themselves (ie, representation by lawyers and/or plea bargaining), they made the choice to fall silent because it was often in their best interests.

About the “Old Bailey Voices” Data

  • Brings together Old Bailey Online and Old Bailey Corpus (with some additional tagging, explained in more detail in the documentation on Github)
  • Combines linguistic tagging (direct speech, speaker roles) and structured trials tagging (including verdicts and sentences)
  • Single defendant trials only, 1781-1880
  • 20700 trials in 227 OBO sessions
  • 15850 of the trials contain first-person speech tagged by OBC

The Old Bailey Corpus, created by Magnus Huber, enhanced a large sample of the OBP 1720-1913 for linguistic analysis, including tagging of direct speech and tagging about speakers. [In total: 407 Proceedings, ca. 14 million spoken words, ca. 750,000 spoken words/decade.]

Trials with multiple defendants have been excluded from the dataset because of the added complexity of matching the right speaker to utterances (and they aren’t always individually named in any case). [But of course this begs the question of whether the dynamics and outcomes of multi-defendant trials might be different…]

Trial outcomes have also been simplified; if there are multiple verdicts or sentences only the most “serious” is retained. Also, for this paper I include only trials ending in guilty/not guilty verdicts, omitting a handful of ‘special verdicts’ etc.


Working assumption is that nearly all silent defendants do have a lawyer and the majority of defendants who speak, don’t.

Sometimes, especially in early decades, defendants had a lawyer and also spoke. Unfortunately, the OBC tagging doesn’t distinguish between prosecution and defence lawyers, and not all lawyer speech was actually reported.

But, more seriously, is it safe to assume that ‘silent’ defendants were really silent? Occasionally defendant speech was actually censored in the Proceedings (in trials where other speech was reported), eg a man on trial for seditious libel in 1822 whose defence “was of such a nature as to shock the ears of every person present, and is of course unfit for publication”. But that was a very unusual, political, case. (See t18220522-82 and Google Books, Trial of Humphrey Boyle)

[However, it was suggested in questions after the presentation that maybe the issue isn’t so much total censorship as in the case above, but that the words of convicted defendants might be more likely to be partially censored, which would problematise analyses that centre on extent and content of their words. This could be a particular problem in 1780s and 1790s; maybe less so later on.]

So work to be done here – eg, look at trials with alternative reports specifically to consider defendants’ words.

Distribution of trials by decade 1781-1880

Start with some broad context.

The number of cases peaked during the 1840s and dramatically fell in the 1850s. (Following the Criminal Justice Act 1855, many simple larceny cases were transferred to magistrates’ courts.)

Percentage of trials containing speech, annually

Percentage climbs from 1780s (in 1778 Proceedings became near-official record of court), peaks early 19th c and then after major criminal justice reforms of late 1820s swept away most of the Bloody Code, shown by red line, substantial fall in proportion of trials containing speech.

This was primarily due to increase in guilty pleas, which were previously rare. After the reforms, 2/3 of trials without speech are guilty pleas.

Conviction rates annually, including guilty pleas

(Ignore the spike around 1792, due to censorship of acquittals.) Gradual increase in conviction rates which declines again after mid 19th c.

But if we exclude guilty pleas and look only at jury trials, the pattern is rather different.

Conviction rates annually, excluding guilty pleas

Conviction rates in jury trials after the 1820s rapidly decrease – not much over 60% by end of 1870s. That’s much closer to 18th-century conviction rates (when nearly all defendants pleaded not guilty), in spite of all the transformations inside and outside the courtroom in between.

Percentage of trials in which the defendant speaks, annually

Here the green line is the Prisoners’ Counsel Act of 1836, which afforded all prisoners the right to full legal representation. But the smoothed trend line indicates that it had no significant impact on defendant speech. Defendants had, at the judge’s discretion, been permitted defence counsel to examine and cross-examine witnesses since the 1730s.Legal historians emphasise the transformative effect of the Act; but from defendants’ point of view it seems less important; for them it was already a done deal and the Bloody Code reforms were much more significant.

Defendant speech/silence and verdicts, by decade

This breaks down the first graph by decade – shows that the general pattern is consistent throughout period, though exact % and proportions do vary.

Defendant speech/silence/guilty pleas and sentences

Moreover, harsher outcomes for defendants who speak continues into sentencing. Pleading guilty (though bear in mind this only really applies to c.1830-1880, whereas silent/speaks bars are for whole period) most likely to result in imprisonment, much less likely to receive transportation (and hardly ever death) sentence. Defendants who speak are the most likely to face tougher sentences – death or transportation, more so than the silent.

(Don’t yet have actual punishments – the next big job is getting the linked Digital Panopticon life archives…)

Defendant word counts (all words spoken in a trial)

How much did defendants say? Not a lot. The largest single group of defendants is the silent (ie, 0 words). But even those who spoke usually didn’t say very much. [average overall was 55 words] Eloquent, articulate defendants few and far between!

Defendant word counts and verdicts

So if you did speak, it was better to say plenty!? Or in other words, more articulate defendants had a better chance of acquittal (though they were still slightly worse off than the silent).

Defences: average word counts and verdicts

Finish with focus on defendants’ defence statements – made by nearly all defendants who spoke and for the majority the only thing they did say (a minority questioned witnesses or made statements at other points in the trial).

overall word counts of defence statements * guilty (n=7696) average wc 44.97 * notguilty (n=1414) average wc 65.15

On average, defence statements by the acquitted were longer. Again highlights that more articulate defendants do better.

Also, there is more variety (less repetition) in the statements of acquitted defendants. 98% (1374) of their 1414 defence statements are unique (crudely measured, as text strings). Whereas 93.17% (7170) of statements by convicted defendants are unique.

Start to look more closely at what they say? Not possible yet to investigate in depth, but use some simple linguistic measures.

Defences: Words least associated with acquittal


In linguistics, keywords are “items of unusual frequency in comparison with a reference corpus”. Compared the larger set of defence statements by defendants who were convicted with defence statements by defendants who were acquitted

Table above is the words least likely to be associated with acquittal – ie, the least successful defence statements…

I want to highlight:

  • mercy + beg
  • picked (+ carry might be related)
  • i
  • distress

Remember that many defence statements were not really ‘defences’; they were more of an appeal to the judges’ clemency after sentencing (‘I beg for mercy’) or claiming extenuating circumstances (‘I was in distress’) in particular. Also Playing down offence – ‘I picked up the things’.

And in general many short bare statements beginning with “I” rather than more complex narratives.

Four hopeless short defences

So I picked four of the most frequent short (non-)defences that are heavily associated with convictions, to explore a bit further. (excludes use of any of these within longer defences)

defence frequency % convicted
nothing to say 109 98.17
mercy 125 98.40
picked up/found 223 93.72
distress 82 97.56

Main variants:

  • I have nothing to say
  • I beg for mercy/leave it to the mercy of the court/throw myself on the mercy of the court
  • I picked it (them) up/found it
  • I was in (great) distress/I was distressed/I did it through distress

The next four graphs show the percentage of defendant speakers who use each phrase in short defence statements in each decade.

I have nothing to say

This was very popular before 1810s – peaks at use by 4% of defendants who speak in decade 1801-10 and then rapidly disappears.

I beg for mercy/leave to the mercy of the court

Slightly later popularity – slower decline after 1810s

I picked it up/found it

Less dramatic decline after 1820s.

I was in distress/did it through distress

Curious that this doesn’t appear at all in 1780s; peaks 1810s.


So there are variations in timing/speed of decline, but broadly, these hopeless ’non-’defence statements, which are almost certain to be followed by conviction, are all declining in use and rarely heard in the courtroom after the 1820s. That fits, it seems to me, with both the gradual decline in defendant speech and the more rapid rise from the late 1820s of plea bargaining.

First, the defence lawyer option meant that defendants were better off finding the money for a lawyer who could try to undermine the prosecution case through aggressively examining witnesses. This was happening from the 1780s onwards.

And second, the plea bargaining option from the late 1820s meant that if defendants really had no viable defence, had been caught red-handed, they were better off pleading guilty in return for a less harsh punishment.

And so: for defendants who wanted to walk free or at least lessen their punishment, if not for later historians trying to hear their voices and understand what made them tick, silence was golden.

More stuff

Women Petitioners: London Servants

I’m going to round off WHM2017 with a couple of posts indulging my current interests in petitions. Today I have two petitions from the London Lives Petitions Project: both are from working women who petitioned London magistrates for help after their employers’ actions had got them into serious trouble with the law. The first appealed to the justices because, she said, she had no other friends to help her in London; the second claimed abuses of power by her dishonest employer’s friends and relatives. Both women were subsequently exonerated.

Elizabeth Rainshaw, falsely accused of theft by her mistress in 1691:

The humble petition of Elizabeth Rainshaw

Sheweth that your petitioner hath lived in ye service of Mr. Scott (son in law of Justice Newman) about one year & an half & has been intrusted severall times with moneys & goods by her mistress to a considerable value; But now lately their being provision of coals brought into her said masters house the doors were sett open for them to goe in & out at pleasure.

That your petitioner’s mistress alleadging she lost six silver spoons the same day & 2 watches, hath charged your petitioner with the same & caused her to be comitted to Bridewell & has bound your petitioner’s uncle also over to appear before your Worshipps as being a confederate with her notwithstanding he is known to be an honest sufficient tradesman of the parish of Fulham in Middlesex & came not nere your petitioner yet the said Misstresse Scott in the night time cryd out her said uncle was come to rob them, & caused her husband to goe out of his house with 2 pistolls in his hands to the watch to seek the man that intrubled at their door & it happened to be one of their neighbors; Now for as much as the said Mrs. Scott hath heretofore accused severall of her servants for theft (vizt.) one for a dog of a hundred guineas price & one other for things afterwards found in her own closett & hath brought her servants to disgrace when they were not guilty; And your petitioner being bread up in ye country & hath no friends alive but her said uncle James Rainshaw, & being innocent of the said fact,

Your petitioner therefore humbly prays your Worshipps will be pleased strictly to examine the circumstances of the said matter which are too large to incert herein [LL LMWJPS653020007]

Elizabeth was tried at the Old Bailey Sessions of July 1691 and acquitted, ‘the Evidence being Circumstantial‘. (There is no way of knowing from the brief report whether her appeal to Westminster JPs had any influence on the outcome of the trial.)


Martha Johnson, duped by a thieving employer in 1699:

The humble petition of Martha Johnson

Sheweth that your petitioner is bound over to this present Sessions for receiveing a parcell of plate from one Henry Marline, who stole the same, from James Liege his friend and relation, as to the felony your petitioner is innocent thereof, as may hereafter appear. That your petitioner well knoweing the said Marline to be a gentleman of undoubted creditt and unspolled reputation, who brought unto your petitioner in his fowle linnen (shee then being his washer woman) the plate aforesd, alleadgeing it not onely to be his owne, butt that being under an obligacon to pay a summe of money to support his creditt or he was utterly ruind, requested your petitioner to sell the same, which by reason of her poore circumstances, shee att first refused; butt was for the reasons aforesaid prevaild upon by the said Marline, he offering to goe along with your petitioner to indemnify her from all harm that should happen on that occasion.

That the said plate was stopt, and your petitioner being seized, had Marline apprehended, and deliverd into the charge of one John Kimpton the constable, who, either by negligence or combination with the said Liege and one Bobine friends and relations to Marline, who out of the tender regard they had for his life and reputation sufferd him to escape, the truth whereof your petitioner can make appear by severall credible witnesses.

May it therefore please your Lordshipp to discharge your petitioner And that the constable being now bound over, may be proceeded against according to law. [LMSLPS150100093]

Sir Robert Jeffreys, one of the JPs, investigated Martha’s case and reported that he was ‘well satisfied of her innocencye & integrity in this matter‘.


How an 18th-century petitions works

Petitions of the People? (many headed monster)

‘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 download 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

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.

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: