Our Criminal Past

Law, Crime and History special edition

Recently, we have been busy editing the contributions to the Our Criminal Past special edition of the online journal Law, Crime and History. The editing process reminded us of the variety of perspectives, methods, experiences and pedagogies that network members brought to the events between 2013 and 2014.

Since the events were held, the digital project seems to have developed apace. As Sharon Howard, Hamish Maxwell Stewart, Matthew Cracknell and Kris Inwood demonstrate in their articles, big data has huge potential for the way we do history but also many implications for the way we think about, interrogate and preserve the criminal past. In their article, Height, Crime and Colonial History, in the special issue, Maxwell Stewart et al. use digital history and record linkage in order to measure the relationship between height and criminality in the colonial context. What does height tell us about disadvantage? How important are such physical characteristics to our understanding of criminal life histories? As Maxwell Stewart et al. note: “Digital history provides a means of exploring these complex issues in greater depth’.” Recent developments in crime history digitisation would seem to reinforce this and Sharon Howard surveys these changes in her article Bloody Code: Reflecting On a Decade of the Old Bailey Online and the Digital Futures of Our Criminal Past. In the special issue, Howard charts the developments since the launch of the Old Bailey Online, arguably the mother of digital history of crime projects, in 2003. In her capacity as project manager of large digital projects, she considers the benefits of projects such as The Digital Panopticon, which started in 2013 and which is already telling us new things about the experience of convicts in Australia. But Howard also urges caution and points to the challenges faced by digitally inclined historians.

Certainly, both advantages and disadvantages are presented through our engagement with social media. In the special issue, authors Lucy Williams and Helen Rogers largely focus on the positive interactions with history and heritage enabled by blogging and Tweeting. In her article Blogging Our Criminal Past: Social Media, Public History and Creative History, Rogers explores how historians currently use blogging and micro-blogging. She argues that blogging can actually help to shape our research, ”becoming an integral and dynamic part of the research process”. Williams is largely in agreement. Her contribution to the special issue, Writing Wayward Women: Why Blog the History of Victorian England’s Female Offenders?, reflects on her experience of running the Wayward Women blog. She concludes it has been a positive experience, and helped to shape her identity as a historian. As she notes: “Blogs provide an opportunity to build and express our professional identities, whilst at the same time engaging with the huge community of academics and non-academics alike interested in our criminal past.”

The engagement with new technologies not only benefit our research but, importantly, also shape the ways in which the history of crime is transmitted to a broader audience as digital history and social media become increasingly part of our everyday pedagogy. As Zoe Alker argues in her article The Digital Classroom: New Social Media and Teaching Victorian Crime, students are becoming digital apprentices, not only learning but also shaping our teaching practice. She reflects on using hands-on teaching practice to encourage students to become savvy in digital history and to engage in social media as a way of collaborating with other students, discussing and disseminating their work. As Alker writes: ‘‘Hands-on learning is an effective way of preparing students to be responsible and self-reflexive participants in the digital public sphere.”

Teaching is enhanced by our access to online sources, and the history of crime and penalty is particularly rich in this regard. As Andrew Davies and his colleagues Mark Peel and Laura Balderstone note in the article Digital Histories of Crime and Research-Based Teaching and Learning’, online sources "offer the means of fleshing out the lives of those brought before the courts: to see them as husbands and wives, and as parents (or children), rather than merely as ‘criminals’ or ‘convicts’. Digital archives allow students to examine these connections, tracking people who endured criminalisation, incarceration and even transportation". Despite the boons of digitisation and social media, at the events, network members stressed the importance of the archive and of the need for a continuing dialogue about the preservation of our criminal past. That debate is a particularly live issue for archivists and heritage professionals, as we heard in papers from those who work closely with the artefacts and documents which are our bread and butter as scholars, researchers and teachers. For example, Andrew Payne, of The National Archives, spoke eloquently about the story of Prisoner 4099 and the ways in which Home Office records could be used to reach out to young people. Bev Baker and Polly Shorthouse, of the Galleries of Justice Museum, reflected on the changing ways in which a museum and heritage centre such as the Galleries has sought to tread the line between education, heritage preservation and entertainment.

These important issues are also the subject of reflections by Elizabeth Wilburn, who in her article in the special issue looks back at her tenure as Education Officer for The Tackling Knives Action Programme at the Greater Manchester Police (GMP) Museum and Archives. Her remit was to "use heritage to reach out to young people in different communities in Greater Manchester, and continue to break down barriers between them and police officers at GMP". New and innovative ways of displaying crime heritage underpinned a recent Heritage Lottery-funded exhibition at Bishop’s Stortford Museum. In our special issue, Dorian Knight’s article, On the Beat: Stories From 1914-1918: A Fresh Approach to Interpreting Crime History at Bishop’s Stortford Museum, explores how local police history holdings from the First World War period were interpreted not only through a museum display but also in graphic novel images produced by Middlesex University students.

We hope that you will enjoy reading the contributions to this Our Criminal Past special edition as much as we did. The papers at the original events and the written contributions suggest many ways of thinking about and engaging with the present and future of our criminal past. While challenges remain and, as Richard Ireland notes in his debate piece, Why Everything We Know About Criminal Justice History is Wrong, gaps in the preservation and understanding of our criminal past still need to be addressed, we are very happy to have had this opportunity to showcase some of the exciting and innovative methodologies, collaborations and pedagogies which researchers, teachers, and heritage practitioners are currently undertaking.

Professor Heather Shore

Heather Shore has published widely in the field of crime and penal history. Her research encompasses the history of youth offending, the historical evolution of the idea of the criminal underworld, and British organised crime in the interwar period of the twentieth century. Heather is co-convenor of History UK (HUK), co-chair for the Criminal Justice Strand of the European Social Science History Conference (ESHHC), and a founding member of the British Crime Historians (BCH).