Exploring Old Bailey Online

24 Feb

            Taking digital history this semester has opened my eyes to ways in which history can interact with other disciplines. Specifically, for the past couple of weeks, our class has been exploring how textual analysis and the creation of “long data” fields can reveal new historical questions. The Old Bailey project makes the proceedings of London’s central criminal court from the seventeenth century through the twentieth century available in an open access format. Ultimately, there is quite a bit that Old Bailey can do from a textual analysis perspective that is of use to historians. Perhaps most importantly, it allows oscillation between distant readings (e.g. looking at “long data” fields) and close readings (e.g. looking at individual court records). Despite its numerous advantages, Old Bailey has a great deal of unrealized potential in terms of linking textual data. Further work in this area could make Old Bailey and other similar projects revolutionary in their ability to facilitate primary source research.

            What makes Old Bailey’s interface distinct and extremely valuable is flexibility. Researchers can use its search tools to locate specific court records (limiting results with fields such as gender, verdict, crime, and punishment). This facilitates close readings of court records such as this one, where you can read a witness’s account of Ann Curtin stealing flannel fabric, and Curtin’s statement of defense. Old Bailey also allows more distant readings of the data in the court records. The statistics search once again lets researchers use specific search criteria, but produces results in the form of charts and graphs. Here, you can see that I wanted to find out how many of the women convicted of simple larceny, like Curtin, were found guilty vs. found not guilty. It seems that most of these women did not get off easily. The ability to switch between close readings of data and more distant readings is useful in a most rudimentary way because it allows researchers to look at the same data from different points of view. In terms of textual analysis, if someone didn’t have the time to read through every single court record in which a woman was found guilty of simple larceny, he/she could do a statistic search to take a more distant look at that data set. What is nice is that one can click on the data displayed in the charts and it will link back to all of the relevant court records. Now that allows EASY oscillation between close and distant readings of data!

            Though I haven’t experimented with it very much, another positive aspect of the Old Bailey project is that once a researcher has found a record that he/she is interested in, he/she can search through the “associated records” feature for related documents. These documents are linked through the individual trial record pages, and the individual trial records can likewise be accessed through a link in the associated record. This would probably be most useful in cases where researchers are focusing in on close readings of certain types of court cases.  

            The Old Bailey project is definitely a treasure trove of information for researchers of British law and life. However, it does have some shortcomings. It seems that the project is still in the early phases of linking data, meaning that it does not allow for deep levels of historical and textual analysis. For instance, if I wanted to find more court cases involving Ann Curtin, I would likely have to conduct a specific search using her name as my main search criteria. If I found other Ann Curtins in the database, it might not be clear if she was the same person. There might have been multiple Ann Curtins tried for different crimes in the Old Bailey court. Increased levels of linked data might allow researcher to track individuals throughout the records.

             The fact that the Old Bailey project openly displays its XML data (here is the XML code for Ann Curtin’s trial) means that other data analysts might be able to build off of what Old Bailey has done thus far. Open access platforms, such as Old Bailey, which promote transparency open opportunities to link data across other similar databases and websites. It would be amazing, for instance, to be able to link census records to the Old Bailey proceedings to provide more information in regards to where defendants and victims lived. Of course, there would be limitations to this based on how much information is available about each individual (in other words, one would have to make sure that the Ann Curtin found in the court proceedings matches the one found in census records). All of the possibilities involving linked data rely on textual analysis.

             I also noticed while exploring the Old Bailey project that the recording of court proceedings was largely a commercial enterprise in the seventeenth century, and later came under the control of the city of London. This was very interesting to me, and prompted me to ask how the language in the proceedings might have changed between 1679 and 1778 (when the city of London gained control of the recording of proceedings). I would like to see Old Bailey launch small-scale textual analysis projects that might show users how the project’s data can be used in different ways, and I think an exploration of change in language between 1679 and 1778 might be a great start. Such projects would link contextual historical information with textual analysis. As a historian who is not quite sure how, or whether, textual analysis can enhance my research, I would like to see Old Bailey demonstrate how historical data and textual analysis can go hand in hand.[1]

[1] All information for this post was taken from Old Bailey Online: The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913,http://www.oldbaileyonline.org//forms/formMain.jsp.




4 Responses to “Exploring Old Bailey Online”

  1. angelabpotter February 24, 2013 at 8:15 pm #

    I really enjoyed how you used the techniques advocated in Frederick W. Gibbs and Trevor J. Owens, “The Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing” by making your process of analysis visible to the reader. This is not a natural inclination of mine. In this exercise, it was fairly easy to “trace your steps” but I think it would be harder in a “real” research project. Somehow finding someone with your name in history helps you to build a stronger connection. This method might be really interesting to use with a class. (I have a good English last name so I had to check. There was no “A Potter” but there was a listing for “William Potter,” my husbands name.)

    • apcurtin February 25, 2013 at 3:41 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Angie. To be honest, I didn’t really make the connection between Gibbs/Owens and my own blog post as I was writing it! Using the example of A. Curtin’s court case made it easy for me to discuss how I was exploring the Old Bailey project, but I agree that tracing my steps might have been harder in a more complex/long-term research project. I’ve been toying with the idea of blogging my research process for thesis, mostly because I feel as though I am gathering little snippets of inspiration from a variety of sources as I go along (at least that’s the case right now in my very early stages). I would do so with the primary aim of sorting through and processing my own thoughts, but I like the idea of the research process becoming more transparent and a part of the overall narrative that I will produce.

  2. angelabpotter February 25, 2013 at 4:25 pm #

    Blogging might be a good way. I have this “random thought” file on my computer, but that sounds really interesting.
    See you in class,

  3. ngoodlin February 25, 2013 at 7:23 pm #


    I agree with your point about seeing examples of historical context mixed with the textual analysis portion of the Old Bailey. That was a problem I struggled with too this week–it’s easy to say that this information is invaluable and useful, but what sorts of projects have actually been done with it? Clearly there’s a vast amount of information that’s potentially available, but it seems difficult to get started with it. I would be really interested to see an example of an historian who was “playing with the data,” found a question, and pursued it to find something new and interesting.

    Really interesting and thought-provoking blog post!


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