Communications & Media

New history website provides further insight into transported and imprisoned British convicts

Australian researchers, family historians, teachers and crime writers can now follow the lives of people convicted and transported to Australia, or imprisoned in Britain, through a vast, new, free online resource.

The Digital Panopticon website draws on over four million records to allow users to uncover how punishment affected the lives of 90,000 individuals convicted of crimes at the Old Bailey in the UK between 1780 and 1925, including those uprooted by the UK criminal justice system to carry out their sentence in the British Empire’s then newly established penal colonies in Australia.

The website has been developed by the University of Liverpool, University of Sheffield, University of Oxford, University of Sussex and the University of Tasmania.

Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stuart, at the University of Tasmania, said the Digital Panopticon site will provide access to many records previously unavailable to Australian-based researchers.

“It will prove a particularly important resource for family historians, enabling them to track the lives of the men and women sentenced in the Old Bailey to ‘leave their country for their country’s good’,” he said.

By providing a wide range of search fields, including name, year and place of birth, criminal record, height, eye and hair colour, among others, it is possible to compare the impact of transportation and imprisonment on reoffending, desistence, family lives and health.

The free website also allows users to search by group, such as those convicted of a certain crime, and then download entire data sets for analysis.

Researchers have discovered that:

  • Many convicts did not serve the punishments as originally laid out, including many sentenced to transportation that never left Britain.
  • British convicts that were transported to Australia tended to desist from offending once married with children.
  • Children born to transported convicts were healthier and taller than those born to convicts imprisoned in Britain.
  • A dramatic increase in record-keeping during the 19th century became a new form of state control over the criminal.

Project lead, Professor Barry Godfrey, a social historian at the University of Liverpool, said: “The amount of information is staggeringly huge, it’s a resource the likes of which we have never had before.

“It is one of the largest genealogical resources and one of the first to catalogue in chronological order so users can follow the whole life of a person.”

Professor Bob Shoemaker, at the University of Sheffield, said: “Combining extraordinarily rich records with the latest digital humanities methodologies, this free resource demonstrates the impact of punishment on health, family circumstances and future patterns of offending, with clear relevance to contemporary penal regimes.”

Tim Hitchcock, Professor of Digital History at the University of Sussex, said: “The Digital Panopticon helps us understand history from below in a new way – from the perspective of the hundreds of thousands of working people caught up in a global system of policing, punishment and empire.

“The material reveals the lived experience of trial and imprisonment. It really does change our understanding of the history of criminal justice, particularly the importance of both the criminal trial and plea bargaining to the system’s evolution.”

Professor Deborah Oxley, at the University of Oxford, said: “Social and economic history has entered a new era.

“Mass biography, connecting multifarious records across individual lives, offers new opportunities for understanding the past. Gaze afresh at the birth of the modern criminal justice system, as it journeyed from death and transportation to detention, from inside this Digital Panopticon.”

The website forms part of the wider Digital Panopticon project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

The technical work, including data assembly, record linkage, and website creation was carried out by the Digital Humanities Institute at the University of Sheffield.

As part of the resource, the Founders and Survivors projects at the University of Tasmania and the University of Melbourne provided the key Tasmanian data for VDL Founders and Survivors Convicts 1802-1853 and VDL Founders and Survivors Convict Biographies 1812-1853.

The new resource also includes data from genealogy sites Findmypast and Ancestry, as well as the National Archives and record collections in Australia.

Users of the Digital Panopticon are able to see if additional materials related to their research are available in these external sources. The website was launched at the Digital Panopticon Conference, hosted at St George’s Hall, Liverpool.

Find out more by visiting or on twitter @digipanoptic

Image: Francis Abbott, an example of a transported convict who re-built his life in Australia. Image credit: ALMFA, TAHO: SD_ILS:607375.

Published on: 22 Sep 2017 11:31am