28 Apr 2008

Crimes and punishments of historical London unlocked

Old Bailey trial

Old Bailey trial

Details of crimes, carried out by the likes of Oscar Wilde, the infamous Dr Crippen, suffragettes and Irish terrorists, can be viewed for the first time on the internet, thanks to a significant expansion of the innovative Old Bailey Proceedings Online website.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield, Hertfordshire and The Open University have doubled the size of the existing Old Bailey Proceedings Online 1674-1834 website, expanding its coverage to include details of criminal trials from 1674 to 1913, from just after the Great Fire to just before the Great War.

The website, which provides access to the largest single source of searchable information about "ordinary" British lives and behaviour ever published, details over 197,000 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal between 1674 and 1913.

People from all over the world can visit the site and get a valuable insight into a diverse range of crimes from pick-pocketing and robbery, to abduction and murder. The addition of nineteenth and early twentieth century trials also highlights ‘new’ crimes, such as mothers convicted for neglecting their children, reflecting people’s attitudes at that time in history.

Co-director Professor Clive Emsley, of the Open University, says:
“Crime is something that fascinates everyone, and what the Old Bailey Proceedings does is provide people with the opportunity to see what crime was really like in the past. They can make comparisons and see close parallels to what’s happening today. For example, we think of terrorism as being new, but within the Old Bailey Proceedings, people will see terrorists who are attempting to do the same things 100 years ago.

We think of street crimes as new, and yet it in the mid19th century, people will see that the term ‘to mug’ was even in use then.” (Police witness, November 1862).

Some of the most sensational cases ever to be tried at the Old Bailey are also now available for people to view, including the trials in which Oscar Wilde was convicted of indecency and the infamous Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen, who killed his wife, was bought to justice.
The Proceedings contain fascinating facts about the circumstances of crimes, the lives of the accused, witnesses and victims, and verdicts and punishments handed down by judges.

Trials involving robbery and murder, as well as desertion from the army and terrorism occupied the courts in historical London, just as they do today. But they reveal very different attitudes to crime, justice and punishment. One trial, for example, details a child as young as thirteen, who was sentenced to death for breaking into a house and stealing a number of goods.

Professor Robert Shoemaker, Head of the Department of History at the University of Sheffield and co-director of the project, said: "This new expansion means it is now possible to search records of 197,745 individual trials, running to 110,000 pages of text and some 50 million words.

"Up until now this treasure trove of social, legal and family history has only been available to a few dedicated historians, who were prepared to spend months peering at microfilms. Now everyone from schoolchildren and amateur historians to scholars working in a range of academic disciplines can have easy access to this wealth of information.

“The site’s use is widespread, with people as far away as Australia using it to trace their ancestry or find out a little more about British history. Without this invaluable resource these people wouldn’t have access to the innumerable fascinating snapshots of individual lives in the past contained in these trial accounts.”

Notes for Editors:

Examples of interesting trials, as well as case studies of people who have used the website to great success, are attached for press and media use.

The court records were obtained from scanned images of the original printed pages, using a combination of manual rekeying with optical character reading (OCR) technology. The results of the two processes were then compared by computer. Any differences alerted editors to a possible error, which was checked and corrected.

Digitisation of the text was performed via the Higher Education Digitisation Service at the University of Hertfordshire. The files were then marked up before being transferred to the University of Sheffield's Humanities Research Institute (HRI) where a search engine, specially adapted at the Institute, was developed to facilitate searching by keyword, name, crime and punishment, as well as compile statistics.

The project has been funded with the support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Big Lottery Fund.
Since its initial launch in 2003, the website has had over 10 million visits, with 20,000 visits a day at its peak.

In 2004 the website was selected as the overall winner of the 2003 Cybrarian Project Awards, in recognition of "outstanding effort and contribution towards the accessibility and usability of online information via their design". The Cybrarian Project was established by the E-Learning Strategy Unit of the Department of Education and Science.

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