Ex­pert’s Choice

His­to­rian Dr Lucy Wil­liams spe­cialises in the his­tory of crime. Her lat­est book is Con­victs in the Colonies (Pen & Sword, 2018)

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This pho­to­graph of in­mates at Lon­don’s Pen­tonville Prison em­ployed in con­struc­tion work was taken in 1870 By the 19th cen­tury the old sys­tem of pun­ish­ment in Eng­land, famed for whip­pings, brand­ings, ex­e­cu­tion and pe­nal trans­porta­tion abroad, was be­gin­ning to change in favour of a sys­tem of im­pris­on­ment. By the 1850s Eng­land had one of the most ex­ten­sive pe­nal es­tates in the world, with more pris­ons in Lon­don than any­where else, leav­ing be­hind hun­dreds of thou­sands of fas­ci­nat­ing records.

The Dig­i­tal Panop­ti­con ( dig­i­tal­panop­ti­con.org) is a fan­tas­tic free re­source for those look­ing to find tran­scrip­tions of records for Lon­don pris­on­ers be­tween 1780 and 1925. The site al­lows users to search records by name, key­word and a range of other per­sonal de­tails. You can search the en­tire data­base for those sen­tenced to im­pris­on­ment, or se­lect par­tic­u­lar records if you al­ready know your time pe­riod or prison of in­ter­est.

Records range from the reg­is­ters of the Bridewell House of Cor­rec­tion (1740–1795) right up to the Metropoli­tan Police Reg­is­ter of Ha­bit­ual Pris­on­ers dis­charged from pris­ons in Eng­land and Wales (1881–1925). How­ever, note that the level of in­for­ma­tion in each set of records varies.

Among the most de­tailed prison records are the UK Li­cences for the Pa­role of Con­victs (1853–1925), with sev­eral thou­sand (those dated 1860–1887) of­fer­ing in­ti­mate de­tails of con­victs’ time in prison such as med­i­cal his­to­ries and pun­ish­ment records.

The Dig­i­tal Panop­ti­con also con­tains a num­ber of de­tailed in­for­ma­tion pages that are writ­ten by ex­pert his­to­ri­ans. These pro­vide con­text on the records them­selves, and on the build­ings, peo­ple and regimes that de­fined im­pris­on­ment over more than 150 years of his­tory.

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