Our Criminal Past

Why I’m a Fan of Using Digital Archives – A Postgraduate Student’s Research Experience

In 1802, Ferdinando Davis was executed at Nottingham gallows for the crime of highway robbery. Before the dawn of the Victorian era in 1832, a one James Cook was similarly “launched into eternity” for the murder and robbery of a Mr Paas in Leicester.

The lives of these two men were recounted in contemporary execution broadsides, or the Last Dying Speeches genre of literature. The broadside genre of literature formed a large proportion of the research which I conducted for my MA thesis which I undertook at Leeds Beckett University. The broadsides which I used were from the online archives of the Harvard Law School Library. I am someone who has made extensive use of online archives at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. In fact, the majority of the research which I have undertaken has been done using digital resources such as the Old Bailey Online and London Lives. The first taste I had of something approaching “proper” historical research using an actual archive – going to visit it in person, that is – came surprisingly late in my student experience when I was completing my MA, carrying out research into penny bloods at the British. Granted, the British Library is not a conventional archive as, being a library, it holds mainly printed sources. I am now in the early stages of my doctorate and I would like to give some of the established academics subscribing to this website an insight into my experiences in using online sources.

The original premise of my MA thesis was to compare and contrast the “factual” representation of property offenders between c.1800 and c.1860 with their fictional representations in Newgate novels and penny bloods. It goes without saying that the search feature on most digital databases saves on the time and monetary costs involved in actual archival research. The search feature on the Harvard Law School website allowed me to hone my research to specific offences. As a result of this, the direction of my thesis changed. It has been stated by Vic Gatrell that to read one broadside is to read them all. However, upon my examination I found this not to be the case. To a certain extent it is correct; broadsides usually recounted the last dying speeches of felons condemned to the gallows and at first glance they did not vary greatly over time. However, the fact that the majority of these sources were all in one place, at my fingertips, allowed me to test Gatrell’s statement. I found there were subtle variations in the form and content of broadsides over time. For instance, they changed from being the last dying speech of a felon (which I argued in my thesis represented a continuity with 18thcentury criminal biography) to being predominantly a Life, Trial and Execution (which I argued represented a societal shift towards a policed Victorian society). Also, having viewed a large selection of broadsides, seeing changes in the types of images they carried allowed me to view the transition of the images from “totemic artefacts” (with crude woodcuts depicting a hanging) to examples of violent entertainment (as argued by Rosalind Crone). It was the ability to select a large sample of broadsides which enabled me to link the excellent work of Gatrell and Crone together.

I would also like to give an idea of the constraints that students, particularly those living in the north, face when planning conventional archival/library research. Firstly, the cost of visiting London (train fares are often £70 for a return ticket from Leeds if booked in advance) can be quite hefty for a student who also has to balance study with part-time employment. Moreover, one of the sources I had originally planned to look at during my visit to the British Library was unavailable. I wanted to look at one text entitled The Wild Boys of London, but a few days before I set off I was informed it was not available due to conservation work being carried out on it. So my “sample” was reduced from four texts to three: HD Miles’ Dick Turpin (1839), J Lindridge’s The Life and Adventures of Jack Rann (1845), and my favourite, the anonymously authored Charley Wag, or the New Jack Sheppard (1865). I supplemented these selections with printed editions of A String of Pearls (1845) and The Mysteries of London (1844). The decision I faced before visiting the British Library was deciding whether to concentrate on only a small selection of sources and study them in depth, or examine a larger selection and “skim” their content but provide a more comprehensive picture of the development of the penny blood genre. In the end, I opted for the former. Naturally, a history student living in and around London would not have faced this problem, as in theory they could have visited the British Library daily if necessary. But for students in northern universities this is one of the challenges they face as time and money, in effect, dictates the research that they can realistically accomplish.

This is not, of course, to criticise conventional archival research. Far from it. Excellent histories have been produced as a result of painstaking, meticulous and intense archival research by historians. Students today are lucky to have so many primary sources accessible from our personal laptops. Perhaps I’m enthusiastic about online archives due to the nature of the history which I have chosen to focus upon. I consider myself a historian of the history of literature and publishing. My undergraduate dissertation studied the changing representations of polite society in 18th century print culture and, as I’ve said previously, my postgraduate dissertation focused upon Victorian crime literature. My doctoral thesis will also be studying print culture by examining Victorian representations of Robin Hood in broadside ballads, poetical anthologies, chapbooks and novels. As you can see, throughout my academic career so far there has been a focus upon the printed word. Perhaps for a historian such as me, who studies print culture, online archives are the way forward. In fact, with so many eBooks available now, it seems like a logical extension for organisations to begin publishing older printed sources online. I would hazard a guess that the digitisation of manuscript sources, in contrast, would present more challenges for archivists and those involved in the conservation of fragile manuscript sources than would the digitisation of more durable printed sources such as books, newspapers and periodicals. In addition, on a practical level, the printed word is probably clearer and more decipherable on a computer screen than the elaborate handwriting of people in past ages, research into which leaves many historians requiring palaeography training. Ultimately, it depends on the type of history you are studying as to whether online research presents advantages or disadvantages.

For the type of history I study – the history of literature and print culture – I am a big fan of online archives. They allow you to study a large selection of sources from the comfort of your own home, and I would argue that the quality of students’ research can in some cases be enhanced by using digital sources because time can be saved   and effort is not wasted having to visit a place “in the flesh”. Online research, in my experience, was complementary to conventional research. I have nothing but praise for those organisations which have set up websites such as Harvard Law School’s Crime Broadsides, the Old Bailey Online and London Lives. However, I also think that more work is needed. Many of the online archives featuring British sources which are available today are London-centric – although the Harvard Law School website is unusual in this respect – and this makes it difficult to trace offenders’ lives further than a fleeting appearance in a broadside. This was something I originally wanted to do in my MA thesis but decided against it. For example, I have been unable to find no other online reference for one unfortunate young man, a James Dormand, who was executed in 1793 for four crimes of highway robbery in Perth, anywhere but in a broadside. He seems to have been an interesting character – very much like my favourite, the well-known Jack Sheppard, who you will all have encountered probably at some point. Dormand was “of a roving and wild disposition”, brought up to his father’s business but absconded with all the money and, with his friend Robert Rogers, moved to Ireland to start a criminal career of highway robbery. Returning to Scotland, they carried out more robberies before he was captured and “launched into endless eternity”. I am guessing there may be other references to this character lying somewhere untouched in an archive – maybe one day I’ll travel to Scotland and see if I can find out more about him! To conclude though, I think, or rather hope, that as more and more students – particularly at undergraduate level – begin to use online sources, more and more archives will make their resources available online.


Closing and Opening Prisons, Prison Service Journal, special issue edited by Paul Crossey. Issue No 215, September 2014.  Available here.

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