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A window to the past

An AHRC project has recreated a remarkable history of crime and punishment across nearly 250 years of British history, giving rise to a wealth of further research and spawning award-winning TV programmes.

For centuries, the Old Bailey in London was the most important criminal court in the English-speaking world. But the trial records it produced are so numerous that reading the physical versions would in effect be a life sentence. What was needed was some way of making the records searchable, and available beyond the dusty vaults where they’re locked up.

Since 2003, the Old Bailey Online project has turned reports from nearly 200,000 Old Bailey trials, which took place between the 1670s and 1913, into a formidable digital resource. In doing so it has made fully searchable the largest body of texts ever published, detailing the lives of ordinary people.

The project has been led by Tim Hitchcock, Professor of Digital History at the University of Sussex and Robert Shoemaker, Professor of Eighteenth-Century History at the University of Sheffield. As Hitchcock says, ‘the archive has had an astonishing range of uses.’ Many people, of course, visit the Old Bailey Online site for their own personal reasons, seeing if they have any felons among their forebears. Then on the academic side, there are projects like Old Bailey Corpus: ‘because many of the court records contain verbatim accounts of witnesses and the accused, taken down using an early form of shorthand called brachygraphy, we have a huge body of recorded speech [in total, the Old Bailey records contain some 127 million words]. We can look at the changing nature of language, on a scale of analysis that hasn’t been possible before.’

Something that we can see, for example, is just how ubiquitous the language of violence is in eighteenth-century accounts – descriptions of assaults crop up in all kinds of cases. That declines as we go into the nineteenth century, seeming to reflect the transition to a less brutal society.

A gift to the nation

For the media, too, the Old Bailey Online has been a goldmine. It gave rise to the BBC’s award-winning TV series Garrow’s Law, which is based on real-life barrister William Garrow, who practiced in the late 1700s. Mark Pallis, who was a writer on the programme (and is a former barrister himself), says: ‘the Old Bailey records were absolutely fundamental to the show’s success. You couldn’t go through them without seeing Garrow’s name cropping up again and again, often defending the underdog.’

For Mark Pallis, the Old Bailey Online project is ‘something of fundamental importance, which has added to the UK’s cultural heritage. For the first time, you get to hear the actual voices of ordinary people, in the syntax of the time, giving a sense of their real-life problems. It’s a window into the eighteenth century world, providing the tiny details that make up the real richness of London life at the time. It’s a fantastic thing, the work that the team did: they’ve given a gift to the nation.’

“the Old Bailey records were absolutely fundamental to the show’s success”

Then there’s the BBC radio show Voices from the Old Bailey, which uses dramatisations of court cases to explore aspects of eighteenth-century social history – everything from smuggling to rioting and cross-dressing. As historian Amanda Vickery says in the programme, in the Old Bailey accounts we have ‘the great theatre of humanity, with victims, witnesses and the accused all telling their sorry tales, and so revealing the very stuff of life. It’s the closest thing we have to a tape-recording of the past.’

The producer on the series was Elizabeth Burke, of Loftus Media. ‘We saw the potential of the Old Bailey Online archive almost immediately,’ she says. ‘As verbatim accounts, you can just lift them off the page and give them to actors. You hear the chatter of the streets, the authentic voices of ordinary people who otherwise have left no trace, as many were illiterate.’

Elizabeth Burke’s personal favourites are the little fragments of evidence from children, in which their characters comes across forcefully in just a few words. ‘There’s one little girl who is interviewed to see whether she is a reliable witness or not. She’s asked whether she “knows her catechism” and angrily replies – “no!”’

Voices from the Old Bailey has had a huge audience for a radio programme, and the series was in the top five in terms of audience appreciation on Radio Four. ‘And we know that tens of thousands of listeners followed up on their interest – we referred them to the Old Bailey Online website to find out more, and we know that they did that, often searching under their own family names.’

Setting the standard

"You don’t always know what benefits a big project will bring."

Perhaps surprisingly, the Old Bailey Online archive has also been put to a number of public policy uses. Eighteenth century cases have been cited in the US Supreme Court, for example, as evidence of how the law was practised before the US Constitution was written.

Then there’s the AHRC-funded Digital Panopticon project, which has involved a collaboration between historians in the UK and in Australia, and has drawn together more than thirty large datasets (including the Old Bailey records), relating to some 90,000 convicts. By matching all this information up, Digital Panopticon lets us see not just who convicts were, and not just what happened to them after they were caught and sentenced, or even what happened after their punishments came to an end: whether or not they found themselves back committing crime. Now we can even look at the fortunes of their descendants, and see the long-term effects of what happened to them. And the material has been used to ask questions that are still relevant today, such as whether alternatives to imprisonment are more effective.

“What the AHRC has done is to create a series of exemplar projects, which set the standard for what can be done”

Bob Shoemaker, who is Professor of Eighteenth-Century British History at the University of Sheffield, co-director of both the original Old Bailey Online project, and the Digital Panopticon. ‘We didn’t specify how the archive would be used,’ he says. ‘Old Bailey Online shows that you don’t always know what benefits a big project will bring: you can’t exactly predict its effect. The AHRC expected us to think about what impact it might have, but it was ultimately prepared to take a punt.’

Finally, as Tim Hitchcock says, ‘the whole trend of digitising public records in this country has been boosted by Old Bailey Online: Britain is now the most digitised country in the world. What the AHRC has done is to create a series of exemplar projects, which set the standard for what can be done.’

For further information, please go to: www.oldbaileyonline.org/

Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License

Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License

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