Online Archives Unlocked: What’s in it for Crime Historians?

By Cassie Watson; posted 13 June 2020.

At a time when none of us can go to any archive, I decided to investigate the online contents of collections made temporarily available to university staff and students during the Covid-19 pandemic. I also purchased a one-year subscription to one of the two main family history databases (I subscribed to the other last year, when I needed access to UK Medical Registers), courtesy of my department and in lieu of a planned research trip to Scotland. While some on-going research is on hold, could the seeds of future projects be sown during lockdown? Certainly there were some interesting finds, among types of documents that I had rarely (if ever) previously consulted, but because so many of these resources are focused on enabling name searches, ultimately I realised that while they offer an important means of adding detail to criminal justice history research, they cannot replace long days hunched over dusty boxes. But there are some exceptions to this general conclusion. Let’s take a look.

The National Archives 

Currently TNA is offering free access to records published through Discovery, its online catalogue. This offer excludes record sets available on the two subscription websites (Ancestry, FindMyPast), so that doesn’t leave much. Two albums containing photos and details of prisoners in Wandsworth prison (1872-1873) yielded remarkably few individuals convicted of crimes that I have an active research interest in. I have rarely followed convicted criminals beyond trial to their prison sojourn, though I did, long ago, photograph the Prison Commission records of individuals sentenced for vitriol throwing and subsequently released on license. However, the online list of prisoners offers a starting point for research on forms of theft and dishonesty (I had to look up what ‘misdemeanour cheating’ is!), which would make a fascinating project in itself. Property crime is, after all, a solid foundation for many important questions about criminal activity and the political, legal and socio-economic conditions in which it exists.[1]

The only other record sets of interest were wills, which I have not used since I completed my study of Rebecca Smith, the last woman executed for the murder of her own infant.[2] I had little idea of what to expect from Country court death duty registers (1796–1811), but was intrigued to discover that not one of the approximately 66,000 individuals named in this record set is identified professionally as a coroner, magistrate, justice of the peace or police officer, while only a handful of lawyers are listed. But among the over 200 surgeons and apothecaries were several names familiar from my work on medico-legal practice in England and Wales, including two Welsh coroners. So now I know why Robert Davies, whom I listed as “active 1790s to c.1806”,[3] disappeared from the records of the Court of Great Sessions in 1806![4]

The village doctor 1774

The other medical practitioners in this data set may be of interest if I dig deeper into local medico-legal practice, to follow up an observation made by Joan Lane many years ago: “in the provinces, like ophthalmic work, forensic medicine was increasingly performed by a small group of practitioners. In Warwickshire, only a handful of the profession carried out post-mortem dissections and gave evidence at inquests…”[5] My methodology did not allow me to explore this claim systematically, but I remain fascinated by medico-legal work and keen to know more about provincial surgeons. There might be much to learn from surgeons’ Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills, of which there are apparently over 7,600 (1700–1858). Other interesting finds in this class of documents includes a police surgeon who worked in India circa 1826, nine coroners, and various police officers and police magistrates. We can also identify excise officers through their wills, which strikes me as potentially interesting for crime history. Welsh wills can be searched and viewed for free on the National Library of Wales website, though downloads must still be purchased; many other digital resources at the NLW are free.

Other Collections

The Institute of Historical Research is collecting links to accessible online materials, but there doesn’t seem to be much that crime historians will not already have free access to. I was excited by the prospect of temporary access to Archives Unbound (made available by Gale Cengage as part of their support during the pandemic), but this proved short lived: the digitised collections (a downloadable list is here) don’t include much about crime history. The most promising candidate is Dublin Castle Records 1798–1926 — for anyone interested in Irish criminal justice history who does not normally have access, this would be a great time to download entire documents including police reports and various judicial materials, most of which seem to date from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Any thoughts I had of trying to find evidence of vitriol throwing cases were immediately quashed, however: the ‘search within document’ function didn’t work too well, perhaps because the huge (752 pp) document that I started with (1890s police reports written in a clear hand) tended to include an off-putting note: ‘no OCR text has been captured for this page’.[6] If I include information from Irish cases in my work on vitriol throwing, it will have to be on the basis of newspaper reports!

IMAG0322Academics have long been aware of the dangers inherent in the increasing reliance on digitised primary sources (including optical character recognition),[7] but the benefits to crime historians have been invaluable and transformative.[8] While they cannot replace archive visits entirely, and some may be subscription-only services, the more there are the better. However, the pandemic has not changed the accessibility of online newspaper databases: of the two that I use regularly (weekly, more or less), Welsh Newspapers Online is always free and the British Newspaper Archive has not increased the number of pages available to non-subscribers. As the pandemic subsides, archives reopen and the process of digitising records continues, I suspect most of us will still be glad to have our own extensive collections of photos and photocopies accumulated (in archives) over the years.


Police raid a lodging house at night and arrest a convicted thief. Coloured etching by G. Cruikshank, 1848, after himself. Credit: Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0.

An angry doctor in night clothes shouting at an alarmed man. Etching by T. Rowlandson, 1774, after H. Wigstead. Credit: Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0.

National Records of Scotland, AD14/56/292, Precognition against William Fitchie, accused of assault by throwing sulphuric acid about the person, index, July 1856. Photograph © the author, with permission.


[1] William M. Meier, Property Crime in London, 1850–Present (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 2; Anne-Marie Kilday, “Hell-Raising and Hair-Razing: Violent Robbery in Nineteenth-Century Scotland,” The Scottish Historical Review 92 (2013): 255-274; Anne-Marie Kilday, “‘Criminally Poor?’ Investigating the Link Between Crime and Poverty in Eighteenth Century England,” Cultural and Social History 11 (2014): 507-526; Alana Jayne Piper, “Victimization Narratives and Courtroom Sexual Politics: Prosecuting Male Burglars and Female Pickpockets in Melbourne, 1860–1921,” Journal of Social History 51 (2018): 760-783.

[2] Katherine D. Watson, “Religion, Community and the Infanticidal Mother: Evidence from 1840s Rural Wiltshire,” Family & Community History 11 (2008): 116-133.

[3] Katherine D. Watson, Medicine and Justice: Medico-Legal Practice in England and Wales, 1700–1914 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2020), 275-277.

[4] TNA, IR 26/403/90, Abstract of Will of Robert Davies, Surgeon of Llanfyllin, Montgomeryshire. Proved in the Court of St Asaph, 10 July 1806. Davies’s estate was estimated in the £200 band – rather small but not unusual by the standards of the time. See Anne Digby, Making a Medical Living: Doctors and Patients in the English Market for Medicine, 1720–1911 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 199), chapter 5.

[5] Joan Lane, “A Provincial Surgeon and his Obstetric Practice: Thomas W. Jones of Henley-In-Arden, 1764–1846,” Medical History 31 (1987), 337.

[6] Irish Government. Police Reports, January 1892–December 1897 (CO 904, Volumes/Boxes 48-67). Public Records Office, London, England. April 1895– May 1896 CO 904/58; Reports: Police Reports: Divisional Commissioners’ And County Inspectors’ Monthly Confidential Reports: Western Division.

[7] James Mussell, The Nineteenth-Century Press in the Digital Age (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Charles Upchurch, “Full-Text Databases and Historical Research: Cautionary Results from a Ten-Year Study,” Journal of Social History 46 (2012): 89-105; Tim Hitchcock, “Confronting The Digital: Or How Academic History Writing Lost the Plot,” Cultural and Social History 10 (2013): 9-23; Hieke Huistra and Bram Mellink, “Phrasing History: Selecting Sources in Digital Repositories,” Historical Methods: A Journal of Quantitative and Interdisciplinary History 49 (2016): 220-229.

[8] Sharon Howard, “Bloody Code: Reflecting on a Decade of the Old Bailey Online and the Digital Futures of Our Criminal Past,” Law, Crime and History 5 (2015): 12-24; Mark Finnane and Alana Piper, “The Prosecution Project: Understanding the Changing Criminal Trial Through Digital Tools,” Law and History Review 34 (2016): 873-891.

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