HST2043: Digital Lives of London Criminals, 1750-1850

20 credits (semester 1)

Module Leader: Professor Robert Shoemaker


Module Summary

Between 1750 and 1850 the massive growth of London brought with it both increasing social problems and innovative attempts to address them. Crime became an area of particular concern. In response, new forms of policing (the Metropolitan Police), changes to the criminal trial (increased use of lawyers) and new punishments (transportation to Australia and the reformatory prison) were introduced. Increasingly detailed records were kept of the personal details of those accused of crime, providing valuable information not only for contemporaries but also for historians interested in understanding the causes of crime, and many of these records have now been digitised.

Using a wide range of digital resources, particularly those assembled in the newly created Digital Panopticon (www.digitalpanopticon.org), this module traces the lives of accused criminals tried at London’s central criminal court, the Old Bailey, examining their trials, punishments, any repeat offending, subsequent life events (marriage, family, work), and health. We will examine the causes of crime, the gender, age and social composition of the accused, and the impact on individual lives of the changing focus of punishment, from retribution on the body to reform of the mind. Special attention will be paid to the impact of the introduction of transportation to Australia and the reformatory prison.


1. Provide students with an in-depth understanding of the history of crime and punishment between 1750 and 1850.
2. Familiarise students with a variety of historiographical approaches to the history of crime and punishment.
3. Equip students with a range of source criticism skills, including identifying and coping with the limitations of the available primary sources.
4. Introduce students to the most appropriate methods for analysing and interpreting digitised historical resources.
5. Encourage students to develop their confidence and competence in presenting their ideas orally.
6. Promote collaborative learning among students and develop team-work skills.
7. Promote students' ability to write informed and cogent responses in clear, structured and grammatical prose.

Teaching and Assessment

The module will be taught through a series of weekly lecture workshops and seminars. The lecture workshops will introduce students to the basic historical and historiographical context and prime students on pertinent issues and sources. They are an efficient way of providing information, encouraging ideas and guiding students’ private study. Seminars will provide opportunities for students to present their ideas and interpretations to the wider group. They will be based on systematic study of primary sources prepared in advance and will involve student-led discussions and presentations in order to enhance team-working, presentational and interpretative skills, while involving students in intensive engagement with practices of source criticism.

The module will be assessed in part by three gobbet exercises, which will allow students to advance their understanding of aspects of the module in more detail, to develop skills in primary source analysis, and to improve their writing skills. An unseen written examination will require candidates to demonstrate that they have absorbed and understood the material and that they can express this in clear prose and a structured argument. An oral assessment will evaluate presentations and participation in seminars, in which students will demonstrate their team-working and analytical skills and their ability to analyse different types of primary source material in their historical context.

Further guidance is provided in the module course booklet, available through MOLE.

Information on assessment can be found at: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/history/current_students/undergraduate/assessment/level2

 Suggested Reading

  • J.M. Beattie, Crime and the Courts in England, 1660-1800 (1986)
  • Barry Godfrey, David Cox, & Stephen Farrall, Criminal Lives: Family, Employment and Offending (2007)
  • Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (2016)
  • Helen Johnston, Barry Godfrey, and David J Cox, Victorian Convicts: 100 Criminal Lives (2016)
  • Peter King, Crime, Justice and Discretion in England 1740 to 1820 (2000)
  • Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, 'The Rise and Fall of Penal Transportation', in Anja Johansen and Paul Knepper, eds, The Oxford Handbook of the History of Crime and Criminal Justice (2016), pp. 1-24
  • Deborah Oxley, Convict maids: The forced migration of women to Australia (1996)
  • Robert Shoemaker and Richard Ward, ‘‘Understanding the Criminal: Record-Keeping, Statistics and the Early History of Criminology in England’, British Journal of Criminology (19 September 2016)
  • Richard Ward and Lucy Williams, ‘Initial Views from the Digital Panopticon: Reconstructing Penal Outcomes in the 1790s’, Law and History Review, 31 August 2016
  • Lucy Williams, Wayward Women: Female Offenders in Victorian England (2016)

Intended Learning Outcomes
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