Uncovered: the lives of the poor in Eighteenth-century London

Hundreds of thousands of Eighteenth-century Londoners will be brought to life by a unique online resource, which will be made available to the public from today (28 June 2010). London Lives (www.londonlives.org) provides access to the largest set of handwritten manuscripts ever posted on the internet.

The 'London Lives' website is a fully searchable edition of 240,000 pages (40 million words) of handwritten documents from criminal justice and local government. It will bring to life the working people who inhabited this first 'world city', to facilitate a new kind of history.

Evidence from a murder or a petty theft, petitions to relieve distress, accounts of money distributed to the poor and the records of hospitals, parishes and guilds, are all made newly available on this website. In addition, these manuscripts have been made cross-searchable with the records of trials held at the Old Bailey, and a set of fifteen further databases to make it possible to reconstruct individual lives from the fragments left in the archives. The site also provides comprehensive guides to these records, and to the history of everyday life in Eighteenth-century London.

'London Lives', which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), was created by academics from the Universities of Sheffield and Hertfordshire and published by HRI Online, the electronic publishing arm of the University of Sheffield's Humanities Research Institute (HRI).

The website features an interactive facility that allows people from all over the world to search for and link together documents relating to a single individual, and to group these individuals into communities of shared experience. In the process hidden life stories and new patterns of behavior will emerge from the mass of documentation.

The site is designed to make it possible to reconstruct how 'ordinary' Londoners interacted with government and charitable institutions in the course of their daily lives. By examining how individual Londoners participated in and manipulated these agencies for their own ends, this project will demonstrate how the end users – criminals, victims and paupers – contributed to the making of modern social policy.

Project researchers have already compiled 75 lives as case studies using material from the site, ranging from casual paupers, foundlings and respectable pensioners to murderers and highway robbers. The lives include Charlotte Dionis, a child named after the parish in which she was abandoned; Sarah Malcolm, an accused triple murderess who mounted an audacious defence; and James Carse, a sailor who served with honour under Horatio Nelson but who ended his life on the gallows.

Professor Robert Shoemaker, from the Department of History at the University of Sheffield and co-director of the project, said: "The 'London Lives' website provides unique access to the lives of people normally neglected by historians who played a crucial role in the making of modern London. This incredibly rich collection of sources will provide the basis for innumerable personal and academic research projects. By recording the results of this research, this website will grow over time to become an increasingly revealing digital repository for the lives of past Londoners."

Co-director Professor Tim Hitchcock, from the University of Hertfordshire, added: "This site is designed to make history different; to make it available to everyone in a new way, and to allow everyone to chart their own narratives through past lives. It brings to an unlimited audience on the internet the privilege of reading and searching tens of millions of words transcribed from the manuscripts of everyday life; a privilege largely restricted to professional historians up until now. To read a pauper's signature on an examination that determined whether they received a pension, or place in the workhouse, is to learn their life history and to be connected to them in a new way. London Lives gives new blood and meaning to our connection to the past."

Example Lives

Sarah Parker, fl. 1748-1769, pauper and parish officer. A woman elected to a lucrative parish office and a recipient of generous poor relief at the same time, Parker was an important actor in parish life.

George Cock, b. 1720, a thief with an unusual method. At the age of 14 George was apprenticed to a barber and peruke maker, but he did not last the course and was later executed for stealing from the wives and parents of sailors at sea.

Sarah Malcolm, 1710-1733, laundress and infamous murderess. Best remembered for her participation in a horrific crime, Sarah Malcolm mounted an audacious defence, both at her trial and in print.

Notes for Editors: Images and examples of the individual lives already written are available to use on request.

A conference to mark the completion of the website will take place on 5 July 2010 at the University of Hertfordshire. A programme and registration details can be found at the below link.

This website was created by the same team which created the popular Old Bailey Proceedings Online (See below link.) Digitisation was carried out by the former Higher Education Digitisation Service (HEDS) at the University of Hertfordshire, while the technical work of tagging the sources and constructing the website was carried out at the Humanities Research Institute (HRI) at the University of Sheffield.

Digitisation of the manuscripts was performed manually by the process of double rekeying, whereby two electronic versions of the text were prepared and then compared to detect errors. The identification of names and dates in the digitised texts was carried out by a combination of automated processes (in which a combination of natural language processing and dictionaries were used to identify relevant text strings) and manual checking. A customised search engine allows users to construct individually tailored searches to identify the records most relevant to their interests.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.

For further information please contact: Lauren Anderson, Media Relations Officer, on 0114 2221046 or email l.h.anderson@sheffield.ac.uk