Thursday, June 1, 2017

In case Grand-Daddy was a Bank Robber: Review of a Useful Book

Jonathan Oates, Tracing Villains and their Victims: A Guide to Criminal Ancestors for Family Historians. (Pen & Sword, 2017), 178 pp. Original price £14.99 pbk. Library shelfmark (London) 364.3092

Radical historians may not be the primary target readership for this book, but its potential usefulness is not as limited as the title and sub-title might suggest and many of us will be able to find something of relevance to our concerns – which will often involve people who have found themselves up against the law – within its pages. And this can be a fruitful area of research generally, since, as the author points out, “the agents of the state and church take notice of those who break the state’s rules.” Examples are given of how the rules have changed, with some types of behaviour no longer bringing condemnation while others – including riots – are constant targets of the law enforcers.

Chapters deal with Criminal Courts in England and other parts of Britain, Punishment, Police Records, newspapers, books and other sources, followed by two case studies, of a murderer and a victim, and include a lot more than these headings indicate. Deliberate transgression for the sake of an ideology or principle – political crime – is something of an also-ran in the story but crops up at several points, with reference to a selected few variants: Jacobites, Jacobins, Chartists, Luddites, Communists, Fascists, “more modern forms of terrorism” and Suffragettes are mentioned. Only the first of these (about which Dr Oates has written elsewhere) rate an index entry. (In fact the index is rather patchy, with some subjects and names omitted, e.g. Robert Farquhar of “Peter Culter” [Peterculter], Aberdeen, whose unsuccessful petition for clemency gets a two-page spread.) “Riots” will take the reader to half a dozen pages, however.

Throughout the information is presented not as mere lists and not uncritically but with discussion of its scope, limitations, accessibility and context. Frequent extracts and quotations help to put flesh on the archival bones and bring out the human interest of the material, and there are a number of interesting illustrations. A certain bias may be observed towards the author's own location and research interests, not a serious fault since he shows how his methods can be applied elsewhere. England is not taken to mean Britain, other parts especially Scotland receiving a share of attention, if perhaps not quite an equal one: although repeated mention is made of suicide having been a crime until 1961, the fact that this was not the case in Scotland is unstated.

There is less to be discovered about victims although still perhaps more than can usually be known about "ordinary" people. What there is may serve to correct impressions conveyed by prejudice and stereotyping, (for example by examining witness statements of evidence - sometimes not presented in court - about young women, contrasted with media assumptions about them). Such is always a valid endeavour, as is the aim, evident throughout, of arriving at as complete and accurate an account as possible of any given event.

Of particular relevance to some radical historians' recent concerns (see below) are the pointers to information on prisons (including deaths therein), courts martial, mental health, and young offenders' institutions. Even corporal punishment in schools comes under scrutiny, with the strong suggestion that the punishment - "this heinous behaviour" - was the real crime there. Guidance is provided as to which file series in the National Archives deal with what: MEPO for the Met (including Special Branch although this is not said), KV for MI5 surveillance of individuals and so on. The sources considered are by and large official or mainstream, so that there is room for more publicising of archives generated by perceived subversive organisations themselves, specialist library holdings, and websites which have made out-of-print publications available again. Next time "Tracing Your Subversive Ancestors"?

The internet is not favoured by the author as a primary research tool in any case, which may partly explain the slightly puzzling absence of any reference to the Digital Panopticon project* – although that is admittedly a “work in progress”. Contact details and a bibliography however are provided with websites where applicable, rounding off a very worthwhile publication, professionally presented and accessible to amateur and “feral” historians as well as the ancestor or antecedent hunters.

*The Digital Panopticon: The Global Impact of London Punishments, 1780-1925. See alsoNew Online Resources for Radical Historians (2)

A "great riot" at Newcastle in 1740
as reported by the Gentleman's Magazine (p.125 of the book)
Some previous posts on this blog that have used the sort of resources mentioned in the book:

"Indecency" in a Brighton Church, 50 years ago
"Indecency" in a Brighton Church, 50 years ago

Trying Times: More Anarchists in 1894, Part 2
Trying Again: More Anarchists at the Old Bailey, 1894
Little stories from the Old Bailey: Anarchist on trial 1894

Little Old Stories from the Old Bailey
Suffragette Conspiracy Trial, 1912.

... and more...

1 comment:

  1. On (women's) prisons, especially Holloway, see past tense blog-post for 28 May 2017: