Researching Communities of Crime and Punishment in 19th – early 20th century Derby

I regularly encounter local history research that’s been quietly going on without the knowledge of others interested in similar topics, or that might be of relevance for those carrying out broader based historical research. I hope to find the time to establish some form of informal research register, to address this situation (if there’s sufficient interest). In the mean time, I’ll mention what I’m up besides LIPCAP, death and burial research, general ‘poverty’ research, and pursuing my interest in the historic pubs of Derby and District (I’ve not yet compiled publicly accessible material on this topic, but hope to do so over the next year or so). So this post will (very briefly) outline my interests in Crime and Punishment in 19th – early 20th century Derby.

Others have written about the history of Crime and Punishment in Derbyshire,[i] so it might be argued that little remains to be discovered through further study of this topic. However, I take a slightly different approach: as well being interested in criminals and the system and administrators of ‘justice’ and punishment in the past, I am interested in the communities that lived next to prisons (which of course are not necessarily mutually exclusive categories). As with much academic research, I also investigate the communities from which ‘convicts’ derived, considering the extents to which external prejudices may have coloured the ways we now perceive ‘underclass’ and poverty in the 19th and early 20th centuries.[ii]

These interests and approaches are largely influenced by my own background and experiences. My life began as the last of 6th generations to inhabit Ponsonby Terrace – a street built against the walls of Derby County Gaol. (I’ve briefly described this housing elsewhere, which was demolished in the early 1970s as part of Derby’s urban ‘improvement’ programme to remove ‘slum’ housing)[iii]

For many years (continuing after demolition of my home: see below) I played in and around the ‘Gaol Ground’ as a child, as did my forebears (by my time the prison had been converted to a Greyhound Stadium). In talking to older family members, I was surprised to find that we unknowingly shared similar beliefs and stories relating to the prison as part of our play; I find inter-relationships between landscape, community, and mythology particularly interesting (e.g. see my chapter in this recently published volume), so would like to further develop this theme.

Derby Gaol (highlighted in grey, centre right) and Ponsonby Terrace (highlighted in black adjacent to southeast), digitised from 1880s Town Plan and overlaid on Google Map satellite image (Created by Author)

Derby Gaol (highlighted in lilac, centre right) and Ponsonby Terrace (highlighted in black, adjacent to southeast), digitised from 1880s Town Plan and overlaid on Google Map satellite image (Created by Author) (iv)

Due to my training and experience, I adopt an archaeological approach, being particularly interested in material culture (including standing buildings). However, as a Historical Archaeologist, I consider artefacts and sites alongside a range of other (including written) historical sources. And there is a good deal of written material – as well as many material remains – yet in need of comprehensive analysis (much of which has come to light, or been made more easily accessible, since the publication of the previous works referred to above).

During my previous research, it became obvious that the investigation of specific sites (in this case, prisons for example), in isolation from other sites and associated material (such as houses and cemeteries, and domestic and mortuary artefacts), risks ignoring much evidence that might otherwise elucidate a great deal regarding the lives and experiences of people in the past. Likewise, it became rapidly evident that focusing solely upon the local, or upon a particular, narrow, timeframe, without making wider comparisons across time and space, can only reveal a partial picture. I therefore believe it important to consider change over time, and to investigate the similarities and differences across geographical areas, for example considering the effects of central changes upon provincial life. I will draw upon my previous work on identity and power, which provided grounding regarding the interaction of discourse, material culture, and environment in the past.[v]

Prison wall (centre of photo), which formed the rear yard wall of the mid 19th century Ponsonby Terrace housing, showing remaining prison façade (left centre of photo)

Prison wall (centre of photo, adjacent car), which formed the rear yard wall of the mid 19th century Ponsonby Terrace housing, showing remaining prison façade (left centre of photo)

I still have *much* work to do on Crime and Punishment in Derby, but as I compile data I have begun to share information that might be of use / interest to readers (see previous posts). I’ll continue to post information as and when I encounter something of interest, although this will make for rather abstract and disjointed reading until I begin to pull together the sources for interpretation. It will be some time before I am able to complete this research (as other research and fieldwork will for a while prevent all but occasional forays into the history of crime and punishment). I look forward to hearing of other research in this field – please let me know if you are carrying out something similar, or if your family history research uncovers relevant information.


[iii] However, family continued to live in similar, adjacent, housing (South Street) well into the 1980s; I returned to live nearby (York Street) in the mid-late 1980s, where other family members lived; I still consider this area as my home. Considering the proximity of prison, it’s been assumed that previous family members took in work connected with the Gaol (several female members were seamstresses and ‘charwomen’), although I’ve yet to find evidence of this.

[iv] Unfortunately, copyright restrictions prevent replication of the OS map.

[v] My research on ethnicity, imperialism, and regional and local identities, in Early Historic Britain is mainly presented within my doctoral thesis, although a book chapter (‘Cives and Saxones: the expression of Ethnicity in southwest Britain in the Early Middle Ages’, in Lorna Bleach, Katariina Närä, Sian Prosser and Paola Scarpini (eds.) In Search of the Medieval Voice: Expressions of Identity in the Middle Ages, Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars, pp. 180-200) briefly summarises my conclusions regarding ‘Britishness’ and ‘nationhood’ in the post-Roman period

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