“The chil­dren of Aus­tralian con­victs were more suc­cess­ful than those of Bri­tish con­victs”

You can now re­search the lives of 90,000 peo­ple con­victed at the Old Bai­ley be­tween 1780 and 1925 via a new on­line re­source: the Dig­i­tal Panop­ti­con. Barry God­frey (left), prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor on the project, ex­plains more

BBC History Magazine - - History Now / News - Pro­fes­sor Barry God­frey is prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor on the Dig­i­tal Panop­ti­con project

Why did you want to find out more about con­victs from this pe­riod? The Dig­i­tal Panop­ti­con set out to an­swer a ques­tion posed in the 1780s by philoso­pher and so­cial-the­o­rist Jeremy Ben­tham: what worked best to re­form crim­i­nals – prison or trans­port­ing con­victs to Aus­tralia? We’ve pieced to­gether the con­vict records to tell the sto­ries of both those who were sent to Aus­tralia and im­pris­oned in the UK be­tween 1750 and 1925. The new web­site – dig­i­tal­panop­ti­con.org – shows how pun­ish­ment and events such as mar­riage and hav­ing chil­dren af­fected their lives.

One con­vict we un­cov­ered, for ex­am­ple, was Mark Jef­frey (be­low), who served a sen­tence in Mill­bank Prison for rob­bery. In 1848 – still in­car­cer­ated – Jef­frey got into a fight over prison ra­tions and was sen­tenced to 15 years’ trans­porta­tion. He spent the rest of his life in Aus­tralia. Hope­fully, his­to­ri­ans will be able to use the in­for­ma­tion we’ve gath­ered to draw con­clu­sions on a num­ber of im­por­tant ques­tions on Jef­frey’s, and other con­victs’, lives. What makes the con­vict records so il­lu­mi­nat­ing? Con­vict and prison records give us in­for­ma­tion that can­not be found any­where else: the height and weight of work­ing-class peo­ple, for ex­am­ple. You can even search by eye colour. But only by link­ing prison records to­gether with civil records (births and mar­riage regis­tra­tion and cen­sus data from 1841 on­wards) can we get a more rounded pic­ture of those peo­ple who found them­selves be­fore the courts. What do the records tell us about crime and pun­ish­ment in the 18th and 19th cen­turies? They tell us that theft was pros­e­cuted more of­ten than other crimes and that prop­erty of­fend­ers usu­ally re­ceived harsher sen­tences than vi­o­lent of­fend­ers (with the ex­cep­tion of mur­der­ers).

They also show that many con­victs con­demned to death had their sen­tence re­duced to trans­porta­tion, or im­pris­on­ment. Mean­while, most sen­tenced to pe­nal servi­tude in Bri­tish pris­ons were re­leased early be­cause of a li­cence sys­tem that started in the Aus­tralian colonies, and which still ex­ists in the Bri­tish prison sys­tem to­day.

Pre­lim­i­nary re­search in­di­cates that the chil­dren of Aus­tralian con­victs grew up taller, and led more suc­cess­ful lives, than those of Bri­tish con­victs. We also think Aus­tralian con­victs com­mit­ted fewer se­ri­ous crimes after trans­porta­tion. More re­search is needed, but th­ese are ex­cit­ing

early find­ings.

Mark Jef­frey’s life has been mapped on the Dig­i­tal Panop­ti­con web­site

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