Digital Photography

What about the victims, why are they so rarely included in the history of crime?


I have been researching and teaching the history of crime and punishment for well over a decade now and the field now covers considerable ground. There are excellent studies of the criminal justice systems of the past, from the medieval to the modern age, ranging across a wide geographical area from Britain and its empire, to Continental Europe, Africa and the Americas.  There are articles and books on the evolution and development of policing, the rise of the prison, and on different types of criminal activity. Researchers have studied homicide, highwaymen, fraud and forgery, shoplifting and pocket picking; they have looked at juvenile criminals, at female felons, and at (most recently) at the huge numbers of men and women transported to Australia.

Some of the earlier work in the history of crime – and I’m going back to the 1970s and 19780s now – set the scene for much of what has followed. Researchers like Douglas Hay and others that studied under Edward Thompson at Warwick, produced wonderful polemic work that critiqued the hanoverian justice system. They exposed the class bias at the heart of the English criminal justice system that selected its targets from the young working class men who robbed and stole from those better off than themselves.

Peter Linebaugh’s study of eighteenth-century London (The London Hanged) and Thompson’s  own Whig’s and Hunters are, with Hay’s seminal edited collection (Albion’s Fatal Tree), examples of left-wing revisionist histories of a Georgian justice system that seemed to have very little to do with ‘justice’ itself. As another firebrand of this sort of history, VAC Gatrell,  declared that the history of crime is a dirty subject because it is about power, not about crime itself.

Gatrell’s own magnum opus, The Hanging Tree, remains one of my favourite books both for its depth of research and the power of his prose. These pioneers in the history of crime redefined the way we studied this history, borrowing as they did from the wider field of social history, to place the criminal centre stage and, and this is important, raise him up as a victim of the justice system.

The Digital Panopticon, which launched late last year, traces the steps of those uprooted from their communities and dumped on the unforgiving continent of Australia in the late eighteenth and early to mid nineteenth centuries. Michel Foucault and later Michael Ignatieff’s work on the Victorian prison system also paints a bleak and desperate picture of men and women ground down and destroyed by a heartless penal system.

In short then the history of crime and punishment has mostly (since the 1970s at least) been a history of how the state has brutalised those caught up in the criminal justice machine. What is largely missing from the story is that of the victims of crime.

Now, I understand why this was the case in the early years. Historians (particularly those of the left) were keen to show that working-class people had agency, that they were not simply condemned to the ‘condescension of history’ (as EP Thompson put it). Along with work that highlighted the fight for customary rights, the vote, resistance to oppression and creeping capitalism these historian created ‘social bandits’ and heroic highwaymen. More clearly, and less controversially, they attacked the state and its mechanism of social control.

But is it now time to think about the victims of crime? After all, since the late twentieth century the right of the victims of crime have increasingly been placed on the agendas of legislators and criminal justice commentators. Modern criminology does acknowledge that victims need to be both seen and heard; restorative justice has gained ground and recent debates about the release of John Worboys have re-energised calls for victims to be better informed or consulted when offenders are let out of prison.

I think we need to start to try and place the victims at the centre of our studies of crime and punishment, or at least to better understand their role and their experience. We have had excellent work that looks at the role victims have played as prosecutors, which acknowledges their ability to help secure pardons (or conditional pardons) for property offenders sentenced to hang under England’s ‘bloody code’. But what about some work on the shopkeepers in London that appear in the Old Bailey? Or the men and women  robbed and beaten by highwaymen, or those fleeced in city taverns by ‘cunning’ prostitutes? Could we try to present a history from their perspective?

It is not easy of course. We have ended up knowing a lot more about the criminals than we have the victims. Even when it comes to the most famous unsolved murder case in history – the Whitechapel (or Jack the Ripper) murders of 1888 – there is precious little on the five (or more) women who were killed, at least by comparison to the endless commentary on who the assassin might have been. At least Haille Rubenhold is working on this as I write, so that may be addressed fairly soon.

So this is a call if you like, to prospective PhD students, and others working in the field. I’m not asking us to stop exposing the cruel penal systems of the past (or those of the present for that matter), nor am I saying that everyone executed, transported, flogged or imprisoned deserved their fate, but perhaps we now need to redress the balance a little and begin to research those that suffered in a different way from the prevalence of crime and paucity of protection from it that a deterrent based system in the past offered them.

Drew Gray

Drew writes a daily blog on the Victorian Police Courts and teaches the History of Crime at the University of Northampton.

indicative bibliography

Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison.

Gatrell, V.A.C, (1994) The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 

Hay, D (1975), Albion’s Fatal Tree

Ignatieff, Michael (1978) A just measure of pain: the penitentiary in the industrial revolution, 1750-1850.

Thompson, E.P (1975) Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act 


DIY Digitisation and Ownership of the Past

Whatever new fads and fashions there are in the study of history (and believe it or not there are many happening all the time) one thing has remained in place since the revolutionary work of Leopold Von Ranke and the German school of history in the late nineteenth century: the use of primary sources dating from the period we are studying.

These might be official government documents, personal correspondence and diaries, images, recorded interviews or (as has been the fashion recently) objects. These things are our link to the past, helping us make sense of what people thought and felt. They allow us to inhabit the past, the same spaces as our historical subjects inhabited (in a literal sense when we touch the same documents they created). They are what makes history interesting and exciting.

As a historian I see no other method of enquiry – yes people are writing less (or zero) letters and ‘we’ll all be searching the web and using metadata in the future.’ But one way or another we will have to make direct contact with our past through some kind of evidence, otherwise it will be lost to us, which could have grave consequences.

George Orwell warned of the dangers of losing contact with the past in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The main protagonist, Winston Smith, works on historical records for the ruling party in this dystopian future, altering  the past in accordance with Party policy, at the same time trying to remember his own past, lost in a pre-fabricated illusion un-anchored in time and space.

Historians must explore the past and they must be open about what they find, however awkward this may be for others – this is as true of social, economic and cultural history as it is of political and diplomatic history.

Winston Smith.jpg

John Hurt as Winston Smith in the film 1984 (1984) 


Primary sources, then, must continue to be our historical material. But changes have been afoot for the past ten years or so in the methods by which we collect these documents. Advances in digital camera technology and a relaxation(ish) of attitudes to photography in archives have allowed historians (and anyone else who cares to bother) to digitally copy and ‘remove’ huge amounts of historical evidence from the archives.

This process of ‘DIY Digitisation’ has been revolutionary for some, and for others at least a significant change in academic practice. Not all historians now work in archives on their documents, some choose to make flying visits, fill their memory cards, and work on the documents at home. Many archives now bear more resemblance to photography studios than quiet spaces for historical enquiry.

Copyright rules and rules of privacy and ethics still remain central to what historians do in archives and with their documents, quite rightly so. But the fact remains that historians ‘own’ these documents in practical, if not legal terms. They have them ‘saved’ on their computers, available to them at any time (when they aren’t teaching, ‘doing some admin’, sitting in meetings…). In a world becoming more ‘digital’ on a day-to-day basis these documents are becoming more real to us – I know this having used this method for the past ten years and having been on that journey myself.

The documents can be consulted and re-consulted at the whim of the researcher, not at the behest of an archivist, and this is a game-changer. It isn’t just about ‘convenience’, it’s about access. Historians of material culture may argue their preference is to see, touch and feel their objects and many do. But many also rely on images of their objects and capture these for similar reasons – so that they can revisit them.

Charges applied to digital photography in archives (not all but many) are an indication of the contestations going on around the ‘ownership’ of these documents, the purposes of archives in physical buildings and the primacy of archive-researcher in the whole process as recent examinations of the issues have shown Learning to let go: Ownership, rights, fees and permissions of readers’ photographs. Given the mass exodus of documents from archives it seems to be a contest that historians are well equipped for.

Perhaps this is a good thing – history should be ours, it is our history and all history, whether secret communications between Churchill and Roosevelt or the correspondence of families in the eighteenth century, is in the public interest. Interesting things are often revealed when documents emerge from the shadows. Just yesterday we learnt that the Queen has invested (offshore) in some companies with questionable portfolios and ethical practices thanks to the leaked ‘Paradise Papers’ Paradise Papers leak reveals Duchy of Lancaster put money into retailer criticised for exploiting poor families. Oh, and Bono bought a Lithuanian supermarket in-between saving the world from poverty U2 frontman was investor in firm based in island nation where foreign investors pay 5% tax on profits, Paradise Papers show

Clearly these matters have more immediate political resonance than the culinary habits of a seventeenth century clergyman, but it all adds up to something bigger than the parts and it is all ours (or should be). I believe that digitisation can potentially have a democratising and liberating impact on our understanding of the past. We are still subject to the rules of archives on access, lots of documents remain unavailable. Some of this material is drip-fed to us by others in the form of online databases, but any of us can now ‘own’ historical documents (again if not legally then in an everyday sense of access) by copying them ourselves and potentially in quite large volumes.

We should beware, of course, that this does not interfere with our professional practice as historians. Reading sources ‘at leisure’ has the potential to loosen and de-formalise the process of document analysis. In his classic examination of the discipline, What is History (1961) E. H. Carr warned against ‘common-sense history’:

‘History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him.’

This reminds us that digitisation has not ‘changed everything’ and the fundamental rules and dangers of the game apply. But the way we ‘take them home’ has changed and is, I believe, changing what we can get from the documents and expanding our field of vision as historians. Orwell’s future was dystopian and clearly there are lots of concerns around the digitisation of our lives. But we can take ownership of some of it and the study of history seems like a good place to start.

Mark Rothery, Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century History

If you would like to read a more extended piece on DIY Digitisation and find out more about my experiences of the process follow this link to my online article DIY Digitisation in the Study of Social History . You will find a range of other papers on the subject linked from that page.