Digital Panopticon

As part of an AHRC Digital Transformations award an open-access website was created which contains sixty-million name-rich records. The resource, which was the result of a collaboration between the universities of Liverpool, Sheffield, Oxford, Sussex and Tasmania, has been used for family and genealogical research; the online teaching resources and information sheets are used by secondary and tertiary educators for school and undergraduate teaching; and the data has been used as source material for theatre productions, art exhibitions, public lectures, as well as TV and printed media.

The Challenge


As part of an AHRC Digital Transformations award, an open access resource was created which contains sixty-million name-rich records of 90,000 people who passed through the Old Bailey between 1750 and 1925.

Using the digital data in this resource, it has now become possible to compare the effectiveness of the convict systems that operated in tandem with each other - a natural experiment when men convicted of similar crimes could either serve their sentence of penal servitude in Britain or in Australia.

For researchers, this offers the prospect of addressing a key question posed over two-hundred years ago by the philosopher and penal reformer Jeremy Bentham, which was more effective in reforming convicts. To Bentham, his design for the Panopticon prison offered a better and more rational solution to the problem of criminality than ‘off-shoring’ Britain’s convicts in the Antipodes. 

Research Action


Although Bentham's Panopticon was never built, we have a 3D version created by Zoe Alker and Nick Webb to see how it would have looked

The data collected as part of this four-year project has also been used to collaborate with health researchers, economists, criminologists, and cultural historians to produce research on intergenerational inequalities, recidivism, the personal and financial costs of imprisonment, and the life chances of ex-offenders and their children.

The research focused on five work-packages: Epistemologies; Desistence and Persistence in Offending; Intergenerational Inequalities; Health and weight measures; and Dark Tourism. Each of these strands has produced a number of publications and online outputs.

Working in partnerships


The research was conducted by a team formed of academics working at the universities of Liverpool, Sheffield, Oxford, Sussex and Tasmania, as well as a large technical team, and a number of post-doctoral and postgraduate researchers.

Outputs and outcomes


The website is continually used by family historians and genealogists; the online teaching resources and information sheets are used by secondary ad tertiary educators for school and undergraduate teaching; and the data has been used as source material for theatre productions, art exhibitions, public lectures, as well as TV and printed media.

The Digital Panopticon website has subsequently been used as a model to develop new digital resources in collaboration with commercial companies. In brief the website has brought data into the public realm to enrich the lives of millions of people. 

The Digital Panopticon website has become a central part of undergraduate modules in a number of universities, and at the University of Liverpool it is used by Zoe Alker to enrich teaching. To increase the distribution and impact of the AHRC Digital Panopticon on school curricula, the team is currently strengthening its links with organisations such as the Historical Association and the Schools History Workshop. Connected to the Digital Panopticon’s teaching guides, are initiatives in relation to promoting the use of the website and online resources by teachers and secondary school students. 

The Statistics of Convict Transportation 

Watch a short video: (2 minutes, 24 seconds)

A Digital Panopticon educational resource produced by researcher, Emma Watkins.

Public lectures and exhibitions


Professor Godfrey has given public lectures to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of convict transportation to Western Australia; and the Annual Address for the Arthur Phillip Commemoration for the Mayor of City of London; and exhibitions were held at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) and Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral (a collaboration with Professor Caroline Wilkinson and Face Lab).

Professor Andrew Prescott, Leadership Fellow for the AHRC Digital Transformations theme described the LMA exhibition as, ”…terrific…The mix between life story, artefacts, records-as-object, and topographical information was tremendous. A truly engrossing display.”

The Lancet praised the contemporary resonance of ‘Criminal Lives’ in terms of its potential to stimulate debates about contemporary penal reform and the Trial and Error plays put on in No 1 Court at London’s Old Bailey which raise money for ex-offenders, and for charities helping women who are victims of trafficking.

Terrific… The mix between life story, artefacts, records-as-object, and topographical information was tremendous. A truly engrossing display.

Professor Andrew Prescott, Leadership Fellow for the AHRC Digital Transformations theme, describing the LMA exhibition.