digital archives

18th-century London as never seen before

U. SHEFFIELD (UK)—The largest set of handwritten manuscripts—40 million words—ever posted online offers the public access to the sometimes gritty lives of 18th-century Londoners.

The London Lives website is a fully searchable edition of 240,000 pages of handwritten documents from criminal justice and local government. It brings to life the working people who inhabited this first ‘world city.’

Evidence from a murder or a petty theft, petitions to relieve distress, accounts of money distributed to the poor, and the records of hospitals, parishes, and guilds are all made newly available on the site.

In addition, these manuscripts have been made cross-searchable with the records of trials held at the Old Bailey, and a set of fifteen further databases to make it possible to reconstruct individual lives from the fragments left in the archives.

The site also provides comprehensive guides to these records and to the history of everyday life in London.

The site allows people from all over the world to search for and link together documents relating to a single individual, and to group these individuals into communities of shared experience.

The site is designed to make it possible to reconstruct how ‘ordinary’ Londoners interacted with government and charitable institutions in the course of their daily lives. By examining how individual Londoners participated in and manipulated these agencies for their own ends, researchers are hopeful the project will demonstrate how the end users—criminals, victims, and paupers—contributed to the making of modern social policy.

Project researchers have already compiled 75 lives as case studies using material from the site, ranging from casual paupers, foundlings, and respectable pensioners to murderers and highway robbers. The lives include Charlotte Dionis, a child named after the parish in which she was abandoned; Sarah Malcolm, an accused triple murderess who mounted an audacious defense; and James Carse, a sailor who served with honor under Horatio Nelson but who was later executed on the gallows for murder.

“The London Lives website provides unique access to the lives of people normally neglected by historians who played a crucial role in the making of modern London. This incredibly rich collection of sources will provide the basis for innumerable personal and academic research projects,” says Robert Shoemaker, from the Department of History at the University of Sheffield and codirector of the project.

“By recording the results of this research, this website will grow over time to become an increasingly revealing digital repository for the lives of past Londoners,” he adds.

Codirector Tim Hitchcock, a professor at the University of Hertfordshire, says the site is designed to make history different: “to make it available to everyone in a new way, and to allow everyone to chart their own narratives through past lives.”

The project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

More news from the University of Sheffield: www.shef.ac.uk/mediacentre/

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