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