Tuesday 24 November 2020 – Zoe Alker (Liverpool) – Data mining convict tattoos, 1788-1925

This seminar is 5:30 pm – 6:30 pm, 24 November 2020, live on YouTube.


Session chair: TBC


The remarkable increase in tattooing among British convicts in the nineteenth century is poorly understood. It is unclear why convicts marked their bodies in ways which facilitated official surveillance, nor do we understand the complex mixture of sentiments expressed.

This paper presents the results of a British Academy funded digital analysis of written descriptions of tattoos on 60,700 British convicts between 1788 and 1925, examining these descriptions alongside evidence of the convicts’ personal histories. The paper shifts attention from branding as a tool for state control and official surveillance to examine the convict body as a site upon which gender, ethnicity and class were symbolically marked by the convicts themselves.

This paper will explain the digital humanities methodologies used to extract and visualise this information from the wide-ranging descriptions of convicts’ bodies held in the large database of information found in the Digital Panopticon web resource (www.digitalpanoption.org), and then outline the key patterns identified.

Visualisations will demonstrate chronological patterns, explain differences in tattooing practices depending on convicts’ gender, age, place of origin, occupation, religion, offending and punishment history, and types of sentiments expressed, including love, faith, identity, and personal history.

Speaker bio

Dr. Zoe Alker was appointed as Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology at the University of Liverpool in 2016, and prior to this, was postdoctoral researcher on two leading digital crime history projects: Digital Panopticon: The Global Impact of London’s Punishments, 1780-1925 (AHRC), and After Care: Youth Justice and its Impacts, 1855-1925 (Leverhulme). Her research agenda centres on histories of crime and justice in the nineteenth century. Through digital analysis, and the use of a range of interdisciplinary social research techniques to recreate the lives, families, and neighbourhoods of Victorian offenders, her work uses historical data to inform contemporary criminal justice policy.

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