Georgian jailbirds and celebrity highwaymen shaped modern Britain, say historians

Eighteenth-century thieves, paupers, prostitutes and highwaymen helped shape the evolution of modern justice and welfare systems, according to new evidence uncovered by historians.

18th-century thieves rob the wealthy in England by Hogarth - illustrationLondon Lives, a landmark project led by Professor Bob Shoemaker from the University of Sheffield and Professor Tim Hitchcock from the University of Sussex, has uncovered a mass of extraordinary new evidence which reveals how the lives of thousands of 18th-century poor and criminal Londoners helped shape modern Britain.

Based on evidence made available in a publically available database, the study sheds new light on the everyday lives of thieves, prostitutes, vagrants, highwaymen, con-men, paupers and jailbirds, revealing how their daily fight for survival led to the making of modern Britain.

The evidence shows that paupers used their limited written and oral skills to cajole and embarrass parish elites, leading to the creation of a more comprehensive welfare system. Meanwhile the courtroom strategies of street robbers laid the foundations for the rise of the adversarial trial – a legal system used by common law countries such as the UK and US which allows legal representation to both parties.

Criminals who illustrated the failure of justice through constant escapes and charismatic leadership forced the state to build a new world of prisons but also gave hope to some in the wider working classes, according to the historians.

Professor Bob Shoemaker from the University of Sheffield’s Department of History, said: “The London Lives project has uncovered a fascinating new insight into lives and experiences of hundreds of thousands of Londoners in the 18th century. They found themselves submerged in poverty or prosecuted for crime but the way they responded forced the authorities to fundamentally transform social policy and the criminal justice system.

“The study shows that celebrity highwaymen, prison escapees, expert manipulators of the poor relief system, lone mothers and vagrants played the system to the best of their ability in order to survive. In their acts of desperation, the poor and criminal exercised a profound and effective form of agency that changed the system itself.”

Co-author Tim Hitchcock from the University of Sussex said: “We began by digitising the records of the Old Bailey, London’s central criminal court, and the records of poor relief and other criminal courts held at London’s Metropolitan Archives. We then created a website which allowed us to chart the experiences of everyday Londoners who found themselves submerged in poverty or prosecuted for crime.

“What we uncovered was extraordinary: thieves, paupers, prostitutes and celebrity highwaymen, who, again and again, through their cunning, courage, and resourcefulness, forced the pace of change in the evolution of the criminal justice system and the system of poor relief.”

The study’s findings are revealed in: London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 published by Cambridge University Press:

The database assembled in order to conduct the study can be accessed online in a database created by Sheffield’s Humanities Research Institute. It is available via:

Additional information

About the authors

Bob Shoemaker is Professor of Eighteenth-Century British History at the University of Sheffield. Holder of a PhD from Stanford University, he is an expert on London history, gender, and crime and criminal justice in the 'long' eighteenth century.

Tim Hitchcock is Professor of Digital History at the University of Sussex. With Bob Shoemaker and others, he is responsible for a series of websites giving direct and searchable access to some 20 billion words of primary sources reflecting the social history of Britain, including: The Old Bailey Online (, London Lives (, Connected Histories (, and Locating London's Past ( They are currently co-investigators on the Digital Panopticon project (, which is tracing the criminal and penal careers of 90,000 people sentenced at the Old Bailey between 1780 and 1865.

In 2011 Hitchcock and Shoemaker were awarded the Longman-History Today Trustees Award, presented to a person, persons or organisation that has made a major contribution to history, for their work on the Old Bailey and London Lives projects.

The University of Sheffield

With almost 27,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

In 2014 it was voted number one university in the UK for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

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For further information please contact: 

Sean Barton
Media Relations Assistant
University of Sheffield
0114 222 9852