Category Archives: Sharon Howard

Crisis at the British Library?

I’ve read a really disturbing news story that the British Library is facing major financial cuts – there is a possibility that readers will be charged to use the St Pancreas reading rooms and the newspaper library will close altogether. This could be disastrous for large numbers of researchers in British history and literary studies (not least eighteenth century folks). Does anyone know any more about this? How bad is the situation?


The story has been covered more extensively since my first post and it could well turn out be very bad for many researchers. It should be said that the reports are talking worst-case scenarios, and we can all hope that it won’t be quite that bad. But the BL seems unlikely to come out of this unscathed.

See: The Grauniad; Telegraph (and more); This is London.

NB: Library staff will go on strike tomorrow (Wednesday 31 January) in protest and the reading rooms will be closed.

Some 18th-century reading to pass the time

The latest edition of the Science blogging carnival, the Tangled Bank, has an 18th-century history of science theme.

Another interesting source project using WordPress: Defoe’s Review.

Jonathan Edelstein has uncovered the use of a Koran for swearing oaths in The Old Bailey.

And nearly forgot this: When a killer cloud hit Britain.

Update: I mentioned the Linnaeus 300th anniversary in another post; well, now there’s a brand new celebratory website (from Sweden but in English). Apart from some history, it has answers to questions such as: ‘how do flowers know when it’s time to bloom’ and ‘what’s so unique about humans’. There’s a large dollop of Swedish patriotism in there, but it’s absolutely delightful.

Centenaries for the long 18th century

It recently struck me that 2007 is a pretty good year for anniversaries for anyone interested in the long 18th century. The big one must surely be the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade. It’s easy to become jaded at all those overblown anniversary celebrations we see every year, mostly (it seems) simply opportunities for commercial exploitation, but I hope that this one might be a genuine opportunity to reflect and learn?

Meanwhile, we British are already using the tercentenary of Acts of Union between Scotland and England as an excuse to have (even more than usual) arguments about how much longer “Great Britain” is likely to last. (Expect plenty of opinion polls about how many Scots want to go it alone and how many English people would say good riddance.) It’s going to be entertaining, and it might even be educational for the many people out there who still don’t know the difference between ‘England’ and ‘Britain’.

According to Wikipedia, 1657 and 1757 were also interesting (lots of Seven Years’ War and similar action in the latter), though no really outstanding landmarks. (But if you fancy a really looong 18th century, don’t forget the creation of Jamestown in 1607 and the Indian Rebellion of 1857…)

Upate: another good one I missed: it’s also the 300th anniversary of the birth of Linnaeus. Although, having stopped to look at that page, I notice that they can’t seem to decide whether to spell the adjective ‘Linnean’ or ‘Linnaean’!

A slightly belated happy new year to all!


Domestic histories: another perspective

Much to my regret, I won’t have time to participate in this week’s reading event. But let me offer you instead a few mostly half-baked thoughts on a different kind of ‘domestic’ sphere – livestock husbandry – which also has an important place in the long 18th century.

Yesterday’s Guardian had a review of Jenny Uglow’s biography of the engraver Thomas Bewick. The paper version was illustrated with one of Bewick’s engravings, the Leicestershire Improved Breed (from A general history of quadrupeds).

Bewick’s interests ranged far beyond portraits of prize livestock; but the genre was much in vogue from the late 18th century onwards and well into the 19th century, until prints and paintings were superseded by photography. This went in step with the rise of livestock improvement and ‘new breeds’ (now of course very old breeds, and most of them very rare to boot).

Fashions of the time dictated that size (no doubt contrasting with the general run of small, skinny, scrubby mongrels at the time) was everything – the John Bulls of the animal world, you might even say. Vast cattle, fat sheep and long pigs, all perfectly groomed and set against a backdrop of idyllic pastures, sometimes tended by equally well-groomed, plump, smug yokels. No real sheep ever looked quite like these: the animal portrait was intended to advertise, and idealise, a breeder’s wares.

They look so strange and quaint to us. But in the late 18th century these animals were at the cutting edge of scientific farming. They can be seen as symbols of ‘progress’, and a domestic and practical application of ‘the Enlightenment’. And I think the impulse to have them painted was both hard-headedly commercial and sentimental.

A few links:

Thomas Bewick
Bewick Society

Livestock in Art
A matter of good breeding
Farm animal portraits

Some introductions

Some readers will have encountered me at Early Modern Notes, among other projects, although I’ve been having a blog sabbatical this summer. My break from blogging was partly due to major changes in my life and work since the beginning of this month. I’ve moved a couple of hundred miles (note to US readers: over here in Britain, that’s a long way) to take up a new post with some relevance to readers of this blog.

But let’s rewind a bit. For those who don’t know Early Modern Notes, I’m a social historian. (And I’m pretty useless on 18th-century literature, truth be told, unless it’s about criminals.) My research interests are 17th- and 18th-century crime in England and Wales, and I’ve spent a lot more time digging around in dusty legal archives than is healthy. You can find out more about all that here.

What makes us choose one path to follow in research rather than some other? I don’t really know. Mine started way back when I was a first-year undergraduate, and I read this book, and then this one. I blame almost everything on Carlo Ginzburg and Natalie Zemon Davis, although EP Thompson had quite a bit to do with my interest in the 18th century.

I’ve now spent several years seeking out the nearest British equivalents of the rich legal records that Ginzburg and Davis used so brilliantly to write about Italian and French heretics, impostors and murderers. I do number-crunching (at a fairly basic level) whenever it’s necessary, but my real interests lie in qualitative analysis, and in the stories told by people long ago to reconstruct and explain their experiences of the world and of often disturbing and traumatic events.

At the same time that I was embarking on this research as a PhD student, I also started another momentous journey: using the web space provided by my university, I set up a very basic website listing some links to interesting early modern stuff I’d found on the internet. I never expected it to turn into this, that’s for sure. And the experience doing that which I’ve built up over the last five or six years has undoubtedly contributed to where I am now.

Which brings us back to the present. I think that many of you will have encountered The Old Bailey Proceedings Online. My new job is as project manager for two new, related London history projects, based in Sheffield University’s Humanities Research Institute.

The “easy” (hollow laughs) one is for the Victorianists: we’re going to finish off the OBP job by digitising the final run of proceedings from 1834-1913 (under the title of Central Criminal Court proceedings) and integrating them into the existing site. This will create a major, fully searchable, digital primary source for London history, and particularly for the history of non-elite Londoners, running right through from the late 17th century into the early 20th century. You can get some sense of the possibilities from the OBP Blog Symposium of February 2006.

Compared to the 18th-century project, though, that really is the easy bit. Like many other digital primary sources, the OB/CCC proceedings are printed texts – relatively easy to read and transcribe, and to mark up for digitisation. What we’re doing next is much more ambitious and much more complex. Plebeian Lives and the Making of Modern London 1690-1800 will be “a comprehensive electronic edition of primary sources on criminal justice and the provision of poor relief and medical care in eighteenth-century London”.

We’re including a wide range of primary sources. Most of them are archival manuscript materials, including legal records such as coroners’ inquests; parish records (eg: pauper letters, vestry minute books); the records of Bridewell and Bethlem hospital; apprenticeship records; and more. Print sources, meanwhile, include Ordinary’s Accounts. Like the Old Bailey/Central Criminal Court databases, they’ll end up online: thousands of documents fully searchable, freely available to all internet users without any subscription barriers. What’s more, we hope to construct a search engine that will make it possible to simultaneously search a number of related online primary source resources alongside ours, including the OBP, and others at different sites such as British History Online.

Well, we hope. Every phase of the process is lengthy and complex. All those documents and texts must first of all be microfilmed, scanned, and ‘rekeyed’ (transcribed) before we can even begin to do anything with them: that part of it is outsourced, although we have to produce various documentation to guide the rekeyers. Then we have to mark the transcripts up in XML, another dull and painstaking task, which will be done by the HRI’s programmers and by several part-time, home-based workers who are starting this autumn.

Once the markup is done, the CCC project will be quite straightforward to finish off, since it will be essentially a matter of adding it to the existing OBP database and giving it a few tweaks. But for our 18th-century plebeians, our job will barely have begun.

The techie people have to create a powerful search engine that anyone can use fairly easily and, of course, we have to create a web site to present it. Even that’s just a beginning. Of course, we want to see many people with 18th-century interests, from genealogists to academics, using the Plebeian Lives database in their own ways. What we want to do with it is to analyse the data in order to “reconstruct how ‘ordinary’ Londoners interacted with various government and charitable institutions in the course of their daily lives”. We’ll be doing large scale quantitative analysis and record linkage (to find out, for example, patterns of relationships between claiming poor relief and ending up as a victim or perpetrator of crime). The technique of nominal record linkage has tended to be applied to small rural populations: the computer made record linkage practical in the first place, now the internet is making possible the extension of its methods to the teeming metropolis. On the other hand, where we can find enough information about individuals, we’ll trace their individual experiences and uses of the institutions available to them. I eventually get the fun job of writing short biographies to put on the website.

Stories! Did I mention that I like telling stories?!