Blogging Our Criminal Past, part 3: Public and Creative History

By blogging for a public audience, historians of crime are contributing to popular representations of the ‘criminal’ past, from the many websites, dramas and ‘true crime’ books devoted to notorious cases and neighbourhoods, to the discovery of criminal ancestors in shows like Who Do You Think Your Are? and Secrets from the Clink, to museum sites such as Nottingham’s Galleries of Justice, which hosted Our Criminal Past’s third event on Representing Penal Histories: Displaying and Narrating the Criminal Past.[1] Much of that day’s discussion between justice practitioners and advocates, curators and academics centred on how to respond to public appetite for education and entertainment and the ethics and responsibilities involved in mediating  ‘dark history’. Blogging, by opening up a direct line of communication between scholars and the public, allows researchers to interrogate popular treatments of crime history and offer alternative perspectives. Guy Woolnough, for instance, uses his blog on Victorian Policing to foster dialogue on media treatments of criminal justice, from reviews of Ripper Street to historical reflections on the use of criminal statistics today. Perhaps most important of all, blogging enables us to represent historical sites and archives as repositories of all our histories rather than exclusively those administering or caught up in the criminal justice system or who flew under its radar.

This was one aim of the blog I began in November 2013, Conviction: stories from a nineteenth century prison, which now amounts to around 40,000 words. While the title signals its starting point – the encounters between inmates and Sarah Martin (1791-1843), prison visitor at Great Yarmouth Gaol – it is as much about prisoners’ lives before and after incarceration as their experience of confinement and Christian reclamation, and about rehabilitation or settling as much as offending. Another aim was to find ways of depicting the mundanity of everyday criminality and prison life that avoids the sensationalist and melodramatic tone of much popular crime history to convey, instead, the complexity, poignancy, and even humour that lie in the historical archive.  In the blog, I hoped to work out how to turn my research into an accessible and absorbing book that might appeal to readers outside academia. Serendipitously, the blogging medium itself is leading me to experiment with alternative writing styles which are helping me envisage the framework for this book. In what follows, I discuss three aspects of the medium that are enabling me not only to adopt a different voice but also to re-think and deepen the research in unexpected ways. These are: the brevity of form which lends itself to short story-telling; the seriality of blogging; and its visual format.


For over a decade I have been tracing the lives of hundreds of prisoners by piecing together piecemeal and fragmentary data and description from the visitor’s journals, gaol records, census and parish documents on individuals and their families. In the Gaoler’s records of the things they stole, the tattoos they sported, the punishments they received for bad behaviour, and above all, in the visitor’s observations of how they responded to instruction, individuals come briefly into view and sometimes into hearing, often in remarkably vivid ways. I knew this material offered tantalizing glimpses of the labouring poor but had no idea how to arrange it into a book-length narrative or find a framing devise that would hold a reader’s attention. In writing posts, each of around 1,500 words, stories began to take shape around these individuals and the sources I use to find them. The short blogging format proved remarkably appropriate for working with historical fragments and opened up the ‘short story’ as a device for relating multiple histories.

To pique the interest of readers, I began not with the prison visitor or setting the scene of the gaol but by focusing on how inmates depicted themselves in the tattoos many sported. In coded and enigmatic ways, tattoos tell stories of personal identity and experience whose meanings become clearer when viewed alongside other documentation about their wearer’s history. They allowed me to introduce prisoners in their own eyes as well as through the gaze of the justice system and their Christian teacher, and to connect them with family and friends: a boy transported with his brother, tattooed with ‘two men arm in arm’; boys caught in their cell in the act of tattooing. As much as possible, I used actions and dialogue, reported by the Gaoler and visitor, to convey the boys as historical actors and lend their stories drama. The overall style of these early posts is micro social history but soon I found myself making greater use of story-telling devices which grew out of the serial nature blogging.

B/logging the past     

The word blog derived in the late 1990s from the term weblog or online log. The online diary or calendar lend themselves well to portraying past time and the criminal justice archive is particularly well-suited to b/logging for so many of its records take the form of the calendar (the Newgate and Criminal Calendars) or daily log (admissions registers, court records, punishment books). The calendar is widely exploited in social media to mark commemorations and festivities, affording historians opportunities to connect and distinguish between present and past timelines and to interrogate popular memory. In Workhouse Tales, Lesley Hulonce makes striking use of the calendar to reveal neglected aspects of pauper life that show ‘the House’ as a home not just a bastille, a place of care as well as deprivation. Her post, Altogether a right merrie day’? Christmas in the Workhouse inspired me to write on Christmas in Prison, 1839, which in turn led me to blogging in historical time.[2]

Pouring over the admission registers and journals of the Gaoler and prison visitor for the Christmas period pushed home the seasonal nature of offending and imprisonment and the quotidian routine of prison life.  They reminded me of the imminent incarceration of five boys, sentenced to thirty days hard labour around New Year 1840. I resolved to blog each day of their confinement, hoping to measure out their sentences as they experienced prison time. Initially I intended simply to log each day’s events by drawing on the daily observations of the Gaoler and visitor but, working over the sources forensically, each post led me to read familiar material afresh and follow new directions. When I explored the boys’ prison education in a scholarly article, the sources had to be filleted to address the overall themes of literacy and Christian instruction. In this more open format, the sources led me organically to trace the evolving nature of the boys’ relationships with each other and the visitor and to explore the emotional dynamics of their close encounters. Though continuing to use techniques from social history, my writing style evolved organically too, allowing these attachments to unfurl while creating narrative pace and colour.

It’s striking that this stylistic shift began as soon as the boys made their voices heard. In the third post, when three boys are sent to solitary ‘for fighting and making use of obscene language’, I slipped into the present tense and thereafter remained in the historic present when relating each day’s events, inviting readers to ask the same question that preoccupied the visitor: will she ‘save’ the boys? Their words and actions, as reported by visitor, provide the narrative tempo.

The dialogue, of course, is a condensed version of conversations that took place on the ward, imprinted on the visitor’s memory. Instead of slowing down the narrative by interpreting and speculating on how the boys reacted to the teacher, I used the fictional devices of focalization and showing and telling to dramatize their responses, taking inspiration from patterns in their behaviour I observed across the historical records.

So readers could see, if they chose, how I was re-presenting the sources imaginatively, I began to include digital images from the visitor’s journal. To show (rather than analyse) my own emotional entanglement in the history and story I was weaving, occasionally I placed myself in the narrative, as here, unfolding ‘the Rules’ the teacher drew up for the boys.


The Rules, pasted in Sarah Martin's Everyday Book

The Rules, pasted in Sarah Martin’s Everyday Book, Monday 13 January 1840. Courtesy Great Yarmouth Museum Service

Picturing the Past

Images from the visitor’s journals became part of the visual and material objects I increasingly used not just to illustrate the story, as in early posts, but as integral components of it. The visual and hypertext elements of web content mean it is possible to explore much more effectively than in print publication the material, social and emotional histories of cultural objects, as many bloggers are discovering, including Vicky Holmes investigating Victorian Domestic Dangers in working-class homes from the records of coroner’s inquests.

Sourcing images was time-consuming but incredibly productive in terms of expanding the material and approaches I drew upon. I searched in vain for an image of a grey cotton shirt worn by working-class boys c. 1840 that might resemble the shirts the boys began stitching as reward for learning their lessons. Instead, via the BBC’s wonderful web portal Your Paintings, I stumbled across the Norwich School of Artists who, in their landscapes with figures, captured labouring folk at work in the early 1800s. Viewing these paintings alongside records from the gaol of what inmates wore on admission, I began to picture more fully how the boys dressed and to appreciate the importance of style and appearance to the poor. In the resulting post, paintings and drawings serve not just as illustration but to blend social and cultural history.

Images used in the blog also helped evoke a pattern of imagery that emerged out of the sources and writing to pull together the threads of the story and give it unity, drawing together, for instance, the visitor’s trade as dressmaker, the inmates’ instruction in stitching and patchwork, her desire to reclaim them by ‘making and mending’.  One painting inspired perhaps the boldest piece of imaginative writing in the blog for, some time around 1840, JMW Turner sketched the figures of three boys in ‘Yarmouth, from near the Harbour’s Mouth’.[3] My imaginative reconstruction of this scene echoes the visitor’s parting ceremony with three of the boys and the way on this occasion, as on so many over the thirty days, they returned the teacher’s gaze, searching her face as she did theirs, trying to puzzle her out. The symbolism in the painting is used poetically, I hope, to capture the boys’ carefree attitude to authority and gesture to their possible futures.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'Yarmouth, from near the Harbour's Mouth',  c.1840. Graphite, watercolour and ink ink on paper. C. Tate

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Yarmouth, from near the Harbour’s Mouth’, c.1840. Graphite, watercolour and ink ink on paper. C. Tate

Social Media and Collaborative History

In outlining how my research and writing has changed through the experience of blogging I am not advocating that creative history should be adopted by other historians. It shows, however, that blogging need not be seen solely as a supplement to scholarly publication or work-in-progress version of it. It suggests, I hope, how blogging may become for many historians an integral part of the research process and certainly it has made me more experimental and resourceful in combining a whole array of research techniques than in any previous work. The inventive blogs examined in this series provide examples of how more traditional scholarly forms might evolve, particularly by moving from print to electronic publication.

This short series on blogging has, ironically, been a work-in-progress towards a journal article and thankfully, since Law, Crime & History is an online open access journal, it will appear with all the links found here (and further references!). Writing the series has also been an experiment for I have consciously published posts in installments as I compiled it. I am very grateful for encouragement and feedback from the online community of historians who helped disseminate it via twitter and facebook, and especially to Sharon Howard, Brodie Waddell and Joanne Bailey who took up the conversation in the Comments, and to Matt Houlbrook, aka The Trickster Prince, who wrote Legitimate speculations or improper fantasies: where do you draw the line?  in response to the second part. These rejoinders demonstrate how the blogosphere has become the home of collaborative intellectual endeavour and exchange. Finally, bloggers like all authors need readers. Blogging may not be for all historians but everyone can participate in reading and circulating this growing and vibrant body of work. By sharing scholarship via social media, all of us can help maximize the chances of it reaching readers outside academia and contribute to developing a properly open public history.

[1] 31 January 2014. For discussion at the event and online see storify by @digipanoptic.

[2] Lesley Hulonce, The Workhouse Games – Sport and Celebration, 24 July 2014, coinciding with the Commonwealth Games; High days and holidays for the workhouse child, 22 May 2014; Altogether a right merrie day’? Christmas in the Workhouse, 13 December 2013; Helen Rogers Christmas in Prison, 1839, 19 December 2013.

[3] Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Yarmouth, from near the Harbour’s Mouth’, c.1840. Graphite, watercolour and ink on paper. Copyright, Tate Collection; Departure, 20 July 2014.

6 thoughts on “Blogging Our Criminal Past, part 3: Public and Creative History

  1. Pingback: Join the Conversation on History@Kingston | History@Kingston

  2. Pingback: Kernels of Truth: historians and the imagination | Socks for the Boys!

  3. Pingback: The Value of Conferences & Blogs for Ph.D researchers | plasticdollheads

  4. Pingback: The real versus the imagined | meeting in the middle

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