Opening the data in Aberdeen Convicts – part 2

Introduction

In part one of this blog post we explained the rationale of opening up the data from the Register of Returned Convicts of Aberdeen (1869-1939) . In this second part our intern for the summer project, Sara Mazzoli, explains our methodology and our results. 

How we did it

Preparatory work: designing the Google Sheets

Having made the case to open the data we then designed a process for opening that data. We considered that Wikidata would be an ideal site to upload the records. Indeed, the data uploaded on Wikidata falls under the CC0 license, which allows individuals to share it and use it freely.  Moreover, Wikidata allows individuals to freely query the data, and to apply visualisation and analysis techniques. 

The process consisted of a few different steps, both for the opening of records and for the opening of convicts’ pictures – to which we will dedicate a separate paragraph. First, we designed two Google spreadsheets. 

The first Google spreadsheet hosted the instructions for transcribing and checking the transcribed data, which we designed before the process began, as well as a table for the volunteers to sign up to either transcribe or check the records. 

The other Google spreadsheet was divided into seven further sheets, one for each decade. To determine if one record pertained to one decade or the other, we took as reference the discharge date of the prisoners. Each row contained information on the transcription and checking (the person who transcribed the record; the person who checked the record; their eventual notes – e.g., outstanding information, illegible writing in the page to transcribe, etc.); link to the page of the register; page number) as well as the data of the Register’s page – which was: registered number of the convict; age on discharge; convict name and aliases; gender of the convict; complexion; eyes; hair; height (in imperial measurement); crime; sentence; sentence date; discharge date; distinguishing marks (such as tattoos, scars); address.

Once all the data was transcribed, we took two different processes to open the convicts’ data on Wikidata and to upload the isolated mug shots on Wiki commons.

Opening the convicts’ data: upload to Wikidata

Once all the data was transcribed, we decided to create another Google sheet, since it is easier to upload data on Wikidata through this platform. Here, we designed the look-up tables, and created formulas to translate the convicts’ details from natural language (English) to Wikidata properties and items’ codes (e.g., from “brown hair” to “P1884: Q2367101”, where “P1884” is the category for hair colour and “Q2367101” is brown). 

Lookups of hair colours and QID codes

However, again, there were decisions we had to make:

  • Because metric measurement is more accurate and easier to understand, we designed a formula to translate the imperial measurement into metric.
  • Because distinguishing marks lacked a unique format, and because Wikidata needs some structure for the information that is uploaded to be machine-readable and to be queried; we decided not to upload the distinguishing marks. 
  • As for the addresses, given that we wanted to visualize the addresses in a map, and noting all the addresses on the map would make it too cluttered, we have decided to just upload the first address for each individual. 

Therefore, we created a Unique ID for all the items that we created so that they would be connected together. Also, we enriched the available information of the Register with the data collected by Phil Astley in his blog

All the convicts are now available here: https://w.wiki/3bZn 

Opening the convicts’ mugshots: upload on Wikicommons

For the mug shots, we had to take a different process. 

First, we isolated the mug shots. Then, we created a Wiki Commons category for the Aberdeen mug shots, where we uploaded the isolated pictures. We also created a broader category for Images from the Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire Archives – so that it would function as a collector for  possible future projects. 

To upload the pictures, we created an Excel sheet to generate an automatic description for the pictures, using the available data from the register, as well as information from Phil’s blog. Once all the pictures were uploaded, we matched the picture(s) with the individual it was related to. Indeed, all Wikimedia services are related, and therefore it is easy to link a Wiki Commons image with a Wikidata item. 

What we found out: results

Analysis of sentences: general

For the following visualizations, since they do not report the name of the convicts, we decided to make use of all the available data -, it was effectively possible to analyse the data from 278 records. 

The graph below represents the number of convicts discharged every single year. Amongst these, it seems to us that there are 20 individuals who were probably sentenced to penal servitude twice, such as Elisabeth Wilson or Baxter.  For all the data analysis, we decided to take as reference the date of discharge, rather than the sentence date. The reason for this lies in the fact that the sentence date was often not stated in the Register, while the date of discharge was always present. Therefore, it allows us to carry out a more meaningful and precise analysis.

It can be seen that, after the year 1904 (the year that splits the register in half), far less individuals were released. This means that most convictions happened in the early stages of the Register’s existence – and in particular during the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s. In fact, we counted 167 released individuals between 1869 and 1904, but only 111 individuals being released after 1904. 

Another interesting feature, that can be seen here, is that no individuals were released in 1918 and 1919, as the Great War was raging. 

If we look closer at the convictions, it is noticeable that all the sentences were penal servitudes (apart from one transportation, given in 1851). 83, however, are peculiar, since they included police supervision, hard labour, fortifying of license or fines.

Secondly, it is possible to see that a person could be convicted for more than one crime. For example, nine people were convicted for robbery and assault – that is why the number of offences is higher than the number of returned convicts, as it can be seen from the graph below. Moreover, each sentence could include “P.Cs” (i. e., previous convictions) and/or “hab & rep” (i. e., habit and repute – check the first blog post for more details). 

Finally, three of the sentences given in the register were of penal servitude for life. All these three were given at the start of the twentieth century, and two of them were for crimes against the person (culpable homicide and murder). The third one was for attempting to “communicate information respecting H.M.Forces with the intention of assisting the enemy”. However, all these individuals were ultimately released within 1914 and 1931.

Because these sentences were given in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they did not respond to nowadays crime categories as much. For  example, convictions of “abortion”, “sodomy” or “plagium” were hard to classify. Therefore, we decided to follow a classification of the time, first developed by Hume in 1797. Indeed, Hume wrote a very comprehensive work on the classification and cases within Scots Law, which better represents the crimes present in the register. 

Categories:Offences present in the Register pertaining to each category:
Offences against propertyTheft (which can be aggravated by: habit and repute, housebreaking, shopbreaking, warehouse breaking), theft by opening lockfast places, embezzlement, plagium, larceny; reset; falsehood and fraud
Offences against thepersonCulpable homicide, murder, procuring abortion; rape, indecent assault; assault, wounding
Offences against public peaceSending threatening letters
Offences against public police or economyIncest, bigamy, sodomy, indecency, removing a body from its grave
Offences against the StateForgery of notes, uttering, Attempt to communicate information respecting H.M.Forces with the intention of assisting the enemy

Table 1: Offences as classified by Hume in 1797 (Hume, 1819). It is really fascinating to find out that plagium, which is still defined as a crime of “child stealing”, is classified as an offence against property; the rationale being that “the creature taken, which has no will on its own, is a thing” (Hume, 1819, p. 82). 

Of course, this classification cannot be employed uncritically, as it reflects a view of the world on crime, justice, morality and human nature. Grasping this view of the world is impossible for us, but it is interesting to reflect on it  and the impacts that it may still hold on the way we see and experience crime. Therefore, in suggesting that the offences in the Register are classified according to these categories, we do not aim to justify these classifications; but rather to frame those offences in the moral and social paradigms in which they belong to. As claimed by Pauw (2014, p. 9), “Crime history can provide insight into the social response to crime. In terms of social history, the study of crime provides perspective on society’s definition and expectations for moral behavior”. From this point of view, the category of “Offences against public police or economy” is quite exemplary. In fact, it comprehended all offences that went against “propriety, good neighbourhood and good manners”. 

Therefore, as we also stressed in the first blogpost, it is important to underline that such classifications, despite having real effects on individuals, are constructed – and thus can and must be framed and questioned.  

Taking a closer look at the offences for which individuals were convicted, it is evident that the vast majority were accused of crimes against

Property. The total number of offences against property were 246. In comparison, the number of offences against the person was just 50, and those against public police or economy were 12. The offences pertaining to the other two classes of crimes, summed together, account for less than 10 crimes. There were moreover a few sentences that we could not classify, such as “Military striking a superior officer”.

It is interesting to notice that, while most offences for other categories seem quite scattered through the register, most of convictions against public police or economy were mainly given within the last few years of the Register’s existence.

Analysis of sentences: averages and medians

With the aim of understanding how the sentences length changed over the decades, to understand if we could find out any particular pattern; we calculated the average sentence length given for each crime category, both before 1904 and after 1904. This is because the data on charges for crimes against property is the only one which allows a more granular and detailed analysis and confrontation of sentences from decade to decade. 

Due to the fact that, as mentioned above, 84 sentences were containing other pieces of information (such as hard labour, police supervision, etc.), these sentences could not be included in the calculation of the average. Also, in this case, as for the mixed sentences, such as the above-mentioned “Assault & Robbery”, we could not determine whether the sentence length could be equally splitted between the two charges, and therefore decided to pair them together with “Other” in this analysis.

Point in timeAgainst propertyAgainst the personAgainst public peaceAgainst public police or economyAgainst the StateOther and mixed sentences
Convicts released before 1904       
Number of sentences per type of crime109173212 
Average sentence length (years)6.557.948.336.56.33 
Median sentence length (years)7756.5
Convicts released after 1904       
Number of sentences per type of crime64161102
Average sentence length (years)4.577.534.412.55.71 
Median sentence length (years)553412.5

Table 2: statistics on sentence length for each class of crimes, divided by point in time.

In general, sentence length for individuals released after 1904 was a bit lower compared to the penalty received by individuals released before. Calculating the average sentence length for the sentences given before 1904 (where it was possible to calculate it), we found out that convicts were, on average, sentenced to 6.73 years in prison. After 1904, that number reduced to 5.26 years. It seems that most of it has to do with shorter punishments for crimes against property, which were the vast majority and which average length for crimes against property significantly decreased for individuals released after 1904. 

For crimes against the person after 1904, we see an average sentence length of 7.81 years, contrasted by a median length of 5. For convicts released before 1904 who committed a crime against the person, usually a sentence of 5 years or more was given, and thus sentences were more homogeneous – and therefore, median and average are similar. Instead, for those convicted of crime against the person released after 1904, there were four harsher sentences to 10 years or more (including the two penal servitudes for life, which lasted 15 and 30 years), and eleven sentences that lasted 5 years or less. A similar thing is true for crimes against public police or economy before 1904; where amongst those three sentences given, two were 5 years long and one, for incest, 15 years long.

Analysis of gender and age data

Amongst these 278 records that we could analyse, we found out that 37 convicts were women. Most of them were convicted for crimes against property, mostly theft. There were four however, who were convicted for a crime against the person – all of them for culpable homicide in 1886, 1893, 1923, 1929. When  analysing the data for gender, it is apparent that most of women were convicted in the second half of the nineteenth century, being most of them discharged between 1869 and 1893. 

In terms of how the average age of female convicts compares to male convicts, as well as to how the average sentence length given to women compares with that of male convicts; there are no apparent significant differences.

Point in timeAverage age on dischargeAverage sentence
 FemaleMaleFemaleMale
Convicts released before 190444397.57.03
Convicts released after 190439403.675.17

Table 3: statistics on sentence length and age, divided by gender and by point in time.

Analysis of addresses data

The map with the addresses was developed by Ian, and can be seen here. This visualization was created through the Wikidata queries service, and is based on the data we have currently uploaded on Wikidata. Thus, it is based on records of individuals discharged between 1869 and 1921.

Fig 1: Map with the addresses to which convicts returned. The first view on the right comprehends the whole Aberdeen urban area, while the second one below it is more focussed on the city (the represented area is that inside the black square in the first picture). The third represents Aberdeen’s city centre, where most convicts returned to (the represented area is that inside the black square in the second picture). 

The yellow dots represent the address of convicts released in 1870s, the green ones is for the addresses of those who were released in 1880s, the red ones are for the addresses of those who were released in 1890s, the purple ones is for the addresses of those who were released in 1900s,  the brown ones are for the addresses of those who were released in 1910s, the pink ones are for the addresses of those who were released in 1920s.

According to Smith (2000, p. 22), in 1708 Aberdeen had 5000 inhabitants. By 1800, that figure quintupled, but the city’s borders remained unchanged: “the boundaries at the time were defined by the Denburn Valley to the west, the south end of the Spital (now St Peter Street) to the north, and the tidal estuary of the River Dee to the south. […] This growth [in population] had been accommodated primarily by the infill of open space thus greatly increasing the density of the urban population”. Therefore, Aberdeen’s council decided on a plan to expand the city towards the Western areas of the Denburn valley, thereby building Union Street – which project started in 1799.

The construction of Union Street redefined the geography and the social composition of the city. While at the start of the nineteenth century, the poor and the rich more or less shared the same urban space; with the expansion of the city towards the West, the middle and upper classes moved to the newly built suburbs. The working class was thus left to live in the city centre, often in squalid and unsanitary conditions, in slum-like housing. Indeed, despite the economic prosperity experienced by the city during the second half of the nineteenth century, the living condition of the working class did not improve (Williams, 2000). 

In fact, according to Williams (2000), despite the widespread poverty amongst the working classes, caused by low wages, the local government hardly ever intervened before the twentieth century. Indeed, in Victorian times, poverty was generally seen as a choice, rather than the result of social forces; and thus public intervention was not seen as a possible solution. The Victoria Lodging-House, in which 19 convicts resided as their first address – previously a residence known as Provost Skene – was opened as a result of philanthropic action, rather than from governmental initiative. The first municipal attempts to solve the housing crisis and to clear the slums are to be found at the very end of the nineteenth century and at the start of the twentieth, with the appointment of Matthew Hay as the medical officer of health. Hay denounced the conditions in which the poor lived, and suggested improving the most critical areas for the general public health interest. Therefore, the government built the Corporation Lodging House in East North street in 1899, where 17 convicts resided as their first address. It also started closing uninhabitable dwellings. More systematic attempts to overcome the indigent conditions in which the poor lived started in the Twenties, in which, for example, Guestrow was cleared. In total, the people in the Register that lived in Guestrow as their first address were 31, with the last moving there in 1913. 

The high concentration of former convicts in the areas of Castlehill and Castlegate therefore may suggest that most of them lived in such conditions, and were belonging to the working class. Therefore, they might have lived in conditions of extreme poverty. This could also explain why the rate of crimes against property, which patterns usually change according to the economic cycle, remained quite high during the second half of the nineteenth century; despite Aberdeen’s economy increasing during that period.

Reflections on the project

All in all, this project has been incredibly interesting and stimulating. It represented a chance to dive into the history of Aberdeen, explore social Victorian practices, and understand and work with a platform such as Wikidata. Indeed, it was fascinating to see, for example, the way in which convicts were described. We could notice the widespread presence of tattoos, and even the presence of vaccination marks after the 1880s. 

Part of the reason why the project was so stimulating, and represented an occasion to learn so much, lies in the complexity of the project itself. We had to make decisions at every stage of the project, we had to design spreadsheets and formulas, and employ tools which we had never before – and that required quite a bit of trial and error. To me, it was an occasion to understand how Wikidata, a platform born in 2012, works, and what are its potentials. 

Since its foundation, Wikidata has since grown with projects like this one. In fact, as Ian told me, the project has been a great occasion to also help shape and change Wikidata’s way to categorize convictions. Indeed, the way in which data can be stored in the platform is quite flexible and fairly easy to change. 

Many scholars, activists and Wikimedians have highlighted the possibilities unfolded by the opening data using Wikidata. For example, Evans (2017) has claimed that Wikidata can provide better access to datasets, and can better connect collections together. In fact, being just one platform, it potentially allows for the datasets’ items to be linked also with other items in other datasets. Therefore, Wikidata can be defined as a platform to publish linked open data (LOD), and as such can provide us with more insights on the data compared to a single institution’s website (Allison-Cassin & Scott, 2018) – since that website probably does not offer the same possibility of linking the institution’s data with that of other institutions.

Furthermore, as Ian explained to me, employing Wikidata is free, and thus far less costly than maintaining an institution’s website on which to open the data. Indeed, there is a very small risk of Wikidata being closed, as it is with any site, but the datasets on the platform can always be downloaded and backed up, and this risk is much lower than a project website set up by a local authority whose funding may be cut in future. Therefore, Wikidata can potentially represent a great opportunity for the GLAM sector, which data is so crucial to understand the history of the places where we live in. Of course, I would argue that this data must be framed and contextualized, and the choices that were made must also be made as transparent as possible. Also, it is noticeable that there are limits to which data can be opened, and how. Since the data to be opened still requires some uniform formatting, it was not possible for us to open the distinguishing marks yet. Nonetheless, for the GLAM sector Wikidata can represent an occasion to engage with the local community, and to co-create meaningful projects. 

Ultimately, on this note, we want to thank once again the volunteers who took some time to help us with the project. We couldn’t have done it without your kind collaboration.

References

Allison-Cassin, S., & Scott, D. (2018). Wikidata: a platform for your library’s linked open data. Code4Lib Journal, (40).

Evans, J. [Wikimedian in Residence – University of Edinburgh]. (2017, November 7). Wikidata loves Galleries. Libraries, Archives & Museums – Jason Evans, National Library of Wales [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qf6OG2QTvT4&t=1406s

Hume, D. (1819). Commentaries on the Law of Scotland, Vol. 1

Pauw, E. (2014). Reports of Criminality: The Aberdeen Journal and the Presentation of Crime, 1845-1850 (Doctoral dissertation).

Smith, J. S. (2000). The Growth of the City. In Aberdeen, 1800-2000: A New History (pp. 22-46). Tuckwell Press.

Williams, N. J. (2000). Housing. In Aberdeen, 1800-2000: A New History (pp. 295-322). Tuckwell Press.

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