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