£1.7M award to trace the lives of British and Australian convicts

Convict Record

Convict Record

A £1.7million award from the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) is set to enable people to trace the records of Londoners sentenced to either imprisonment or transportation from 1787 up to the 1920s, when the last convict died.

The project, The Digital Panopticon: The Global Impact of London Punishments, 1780-1925 funded by the AHRC, 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 to produce a searchable website.

Led by the University of Liverpool, the project team involves the Universities of Sheffield, Oxford and Sussex in the UK and the University of Tasmania, Australia. The Digital Panopticon will make it possible to explore the impact of the different types of penal punishments on the lives of 66,000 people sentenced at The Old Bailey.

The University of Sheffield’s Humanities Research Institute (HRI) will play a pivotal role in the project, developing new record linkage and data visualisation techniques which will enable researchers and the wider public to explore life stories across thousands of documents.

Professor Bob Shoemaker from the University of Sheffield’s Department of History explained: “The Digital Panopticon extends the life of the successful Old Bailey Online project by linking it to other digital resources which document the lives of convicts and their descendants.

“The project addresses an issue of considerable contemporary relevance – the effectiveness of punishments in reducing reoffending, by comparing the life experiences of those who were imprisoned with those who were sentenced to Australia.

“In addition to providing valuable evidence of the impact of punishments, the integrated database will allow family and local historians to trace individual lives across oceans and generations.”

Barry Godfrey, Professor of Social Justice in the University’s School of Law and Social Justice, said: “This project will, for the first time, make it possible to chart the fortunes of all prisoners from London who were transported to Australia from the point of their conviction until their deaths.

“Visitors will be able to use the website to easily reconstruct prisoners’ lives – at an individual and collective level – by looking at census information, health and employment records and family data”

The Digital Panopticon will not only be of interest to the 12 million family historians in the UK and Australia but will also help resolve some important questions that have intrigued historians, sociologists, social geographers, linguistic researchers, economists and criminologists about the impact and effects of imprisonment, and of transportation to Australia.”

The project is funded by the AHRC’s Digital Transformations programme which aims to exploit the potential of digital technologies to transform research in the arts and humanities, and to ensure that arts and humanities research is at the forefront of tackling crucial issues such as intellectual property, cultural memory and identity, and communication and creativity in a digital age.

Professor Andrew Prescott, Theme Leadership Fellow for the Digital Transformations programme, said: “The recently announced large grants under the Digital Transformations theme each reflect in their different ways how engagement with digital technologies is changing research in the arts and humanities and offering researchers many new possibilities.

“The most striking thing about all these projects is that while they will develop and deploy innovative technologies, they will use these methods to explore the human condition: the way we developed.”

Additional information

Old Bailey Online

Humanities Research Institute