Teaching with Old Bailey Online

I’ve been teaching with the Old Bailey Online database for three years now. I first stumbled upon the site as I was preparing a new course for our history majors. These “Approaches” courses are a bit of a scholarly smorgasboard, intended to introduce students to concepts in historiography as well as key problems in the field. One runthrough of the Old Bailey site told me I’d come across a tool to accomplish several significant goals for the course at once: introduce an engrossing theme in European history, the history of crime; showcase a number of interpretive debates in the field and, finally, give the class a hands-on start in the application of statistics to history.

As is the case in many other institutions, mathematics and statistics are not the focus or even a sidelight of our history curriculum. In fact, it’s common to graduate students from our program who have never taken a single course in those areas. We’re the only department in our faculty of Social Sciences which exempts its students from the common course in statistics (the possibility isn’t even mentioned in counselling) and many of our majors confess to being “math-phobic” on some level. Nevertheless, I felt that creating some level of mathematical literacy in our majors was desirable, having watched in despair as the attempted to puzzle out the discontinuities in, say, a chart comparing Malthusian projections of food supply and demand, or found themselves stymied in understanding an article or book which incorporated more than offhand statistical material. The Old Bailey Online website would be my foot in the door.

For the vital aspect of the website for my teaching application is not so much the materials of each individual account or the excellent bibliography, it’s the chance to let new scholars play in a historical database akin to a virtual sandbox. The function of generating reports in tables, bar charts or pie charts allows my students to try out all sorts of interpretive questions on for size: are women more likely to get off charges of murder than men? Are young people accused more often of property crimes or older people? Do violent crime outbreaks correlate to peacetime with the release of soldiers and sailors? The database is an engrossing tool that seems to suggest more avenues of enquiry the longer you tinker with it.

However, I have to set very close limits in this class. In the first case, I’m dealing with novice historians, fresh out of their first year in university. Secondly, this course is for many their first course in European history! In the third case, the history of crime unit runs only five weeks or a third of the term. There’s simply no time or background to support a free ranging, exploratory assignment. Finally, as I said earlier, my students come to class lacking the statistical skills or terminology to do more than skim the surface.

So I carefully created and tweaked the unit to build their skills to a simple task — generate and analyze, in three pages or less, two Old Bailey Online statistical searches that differ by one variable only. The coursework moves in two consecutive streams to support this goal. Half of the classroom time is spent establishing the history of crime as a field and its particular developments in the Georgian and early Victorian periods. Our readings support this subject with our textbook for this segment of the course being Clive Emsley’s general text, Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900 supplemented by articles highlighting topical debates for each week’s tutorial discussion. I match this with shorter lecture/workbook segments introducing aspects of statistical analysis and terminology. Much of my approach to teaching statistics is inspired by Pat Hudson’s excellent text: History by numbers: an introduction to quantitative approaches which gives the most practical and comprehensible introduction to the field for nervous teachers and students.

I feel it’s important to build skills and understanding of both the broader subject matter in the history of crime as well as an understanding of statistical analysis. For example, in the second week of our unit, after a historiographic treatment of crime and the courts, our statistical topic is “Approaching Data.” In this segment, we review the different types of data (categorical versus numeric), discuss the different matrix formats with a particular emphasis on frequency distributions, create one from a small data set drawn from some Portland Prison records then end by discussing the types of data manipulations we can make and the conclusions we can draw from this material about the age of criminals, say, or the lengths of their sentences. From this introduction, they’re ready to make the leap to their own explorations of the Old Bailey Online database.

As I noted earlier, the assignment is small and focused: compare two different Old Bailey Online queries that differ by one variable only. They’re further directed to use material that covers the same two decade time period in an effort to eliminate too much comparison of disparate elements from the seventeeth and nineteenth century ends. I provide them with several sample sets such as these:

Verdicts against types of theft, defendant male, counting by offence, 1770-1790
Verdicts against types of theft, defendant female, counting by offence, 1770-1790

but I encourage them to create their own queries. For instance, some students who are interested in the history of childhood and youth have built their assignments around the question of whether or not age had any bearing on the type of verdict. The most common mode of enquiry is into a gender difference — it seems that many students find the gender binary easy to set up in order to comply with the “different in one variable only” aspect of the assignment as well as find that there’s a wealth of gender history analysis they can build on in their own discussion. I’ve found that listing a series of exemplary juxtapositions (specific verdict: guilty and not guilty; theft and theft with violence; etc.) helps them to consider different ways to frame their own enquiry.

Of course, once the queries are made, some students run up against a frustrating lack of data (although that can, sometimes, be significant in and of itself) so they’re forced to go back to the drawing board and consider why their query failed to generate much evidence. Is it the time period they’ve chosen? Are there none or too few cases for a specific set of conditions but many more when you broaden to look at a wider category of crimes or verdicts? In these cases, failure to generate a useful table at the start is actually a useful learning experience and I’ve made sure to incorporate just such an example in our in-class time so that they can see how to deal with a dead-end.

In the end, the most rewarding part is when they write up their analysis. I encourage them to consult the Bibliography for the Old Bailey Proceedings as well as their Emsley textbook to provide context for their short papers. Many of them delve into the particulars of some of the cases, providing illustrative examples to highlight aspects they feel underline their interpretation, demonstrating that they can unite the two previously antagonistic strains of history, quantitative and qualitative, in their own work. I don’t kid myself that I’ve turned the class into cliometricians, but I know that they’re better equipped to both read and create some simple statistical materials in their future studies.


Emsley, Clive. Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900. Third Edition. London: Longman, 2005.

Innes, Joanna and John Styles. “The Crime Wave: Recent Writings on Crime and Criminal Justice in Eighteenth-Century England.” The Journal of British Studies 25:4 (Oct., 1986), 380-435.

Hudson, Pat. History by numbers: an introduction to quantitative approaches London: Arnold, 2000.

Taylor, Howard. “Rationing Crime: The Political Economy of Criminal Statistics since the 1850s.” The Economic History Review 51:3 (Aug., 1998), 569-590.

Read the rest of the Old Bailey Online Symposium.

5 Responses to “Teaching with Old Bailey Online”

  1. Chris Williams Says:

    What do you say to them about Howard Taylor’s work, (which for the uninitiated could be summarised as “All the numbers are made up anyway”)?

    It seems to me that there’s difference between runs of numbers that appear to be presented fully-formed, such as the Home Office statistics that Howard criticises, and those that are constructed by by aggregrating discrete and essentially unchallengable sources, such as the ones produced by the Old Bailey stats package.

  2. Janice Says:

    Chris, that’s a wonderful question and they come to the Taylor article just after they’ve prepared their own statistical tables from the Old Bailey Online site. Many of them find Taylor’s article immediately comprehensible, contextualizing the examples there with some contemporary political or bureaucratic number-massaging. They understand the pressures and tendency to report numbers in a way that works best for your job and develop quite a bit of sympathy for the historian attempting to discern truthful from cooked statistics after the fact.

    What reading this article does best of all is also help them to be healthily skeptical of numbers thrown, without context, into an article they’re reading. They point with some pride to their own work with the Old Bailey to show that every single case that makes up each of their statistics can be read and reviewed. Of course, I try to get them to conjecture what might have been tweaked, altered or omitted in what made it into the Session Papers. I’ve toyed with referring them to

    Gaskill, M., “Reporting Murder: Fiction in the Archives of Early Modern England”, Social History 23 (1998), 1-30

    but I probably couldn’t cover that during class time.

  3. Ancarett’s Abode » Blog Archive » Meme of Pseudonymity Says:

    […] Has your blog allowed you to experiment with writing? Somewhat. Not much stylistically, but, then, I’m not a scholar of literature or creative writing. I’ve experimented in other ways: chronicling online gaming and participating in an online symposium. […]

  4. Melete Online » Blog Archive » Using the Old Bailey Online database Says:

    […] There’s an interesting post over at Ancarett’s Abode about how she uses the Old Bailey Online database in her teaching. The Old Bailey Online site is ‘A fully searchable online edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing accounts of over 100,000 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court.’ […]

  5. Tim Hitchcock Says:

    I very much enjoyed your account of using the Old Bailey website as a part of your teaching. I wondered, however, if you brought to your student’s attention the role of the underlying XML mark-up schema in the creation of Old Bailey statistics. The categories of crime, punishment etc., have been created by the project team and used to describe the content and outcome of each trial, and therefore represent an historical imposition of sorts on the original material. Students can, of course, check the extent to which individual trials fit the categories they think they are exploring, but there are some cases where the changing nature of the law or the Proceedings frustrate the most honest attempt at categorisation (the project team also made some errors!).

    In a recent complaint received by the project from an historian of crime, it was pointed out that forging Bank of England banknotes had been categorised and marked up as ‘coining’ and as an ‘offense against the king’; but that legally (at least from 1801) this crime was a subset of fraud. The complaint suggested that the miss-categorisation fundamentally undermined the resulting statistics and made a nonsense of his analysis.

    In other words, being alive to the categories that were used in constructing the site, could help your students to develop an even more skeptical and sophisticated approach to historical statistics.