Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Rethinking Inventories in the Digital Age: The Case of the Old Bailey

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Rethinking Inventories in the Digital Age: The Case of the Old Bailey

Article excerpt


In late July 1751 John Fling was living in rented accommodation in Stonecutter Street, just off Fleet Market in central London. It was a poor street, and he was a poor man.1 But his fellow lodger, Daniel O'Larry, was not so poor. Among O'Larry's possessions he could count:

one gold watch with a shagreen case, val. 5 l. one pair of womens stays, two caps, one pair of silver buckles, one silver tea spoon, one chints sack, one table cloth, one shift, one gawse handkerchief embroidered, one piece of silk damask, one pillow-beer, two linen Aprons...2 .2

We know this because John Fling stole these items from O'Larry and they were subsequently listed in the indictment read out at the beginning of Fling's trial for theft at the Old Bailey. The details were transcribed and published as part of one of some 35,540 trial accounts included in the Old Bailey Proceedings covering the years 1740 to 1800. The vast majority of these trials (approximately 30,000, or over 90% of the total) were for theft. The indictment that begins each trial lists the tens of thousands of individual objects London's criminal community pilfered, burglarized, or robbed. Both because of the number of individual objects involved, and the systematic manner in which they were recorded (in terms of chronology as well as owners and thieves), the Old Bailey indictments represent a unique form of evidence about the material world of late eighteenth-century London. They provide a counterpoint to our current understanding of the material history of the period, overwhelmingly dominated by evidence drawn from probate inventories and sale catalogues. While probate inventories document an owner's possessions as an intact collection prior to dispersal, the Old Bailey indictments point to which objects circulated without, presumably, the knowledge or cooperation of the owners. The Old Bailey indictments thus represent an inventory of the material world of London as seen through a thief's eyes.

This article builds on the digitized version of the Old Bailey Proceedings ( by first extracting the indictments from the surrounding text and then subjecting the words they include, and objects they describe, to analysis. This entails working with a corpus of over a million words. At this scale, close reading no longer serves the historian well. It would require far more time than is reasonable or feasible; and a strategy of 'distant reading' is adopted here to allow analysis to focus on larger units of text.3 Computational analysis has proven to be a great aid to distant reading and here we will demonstrate how mathematically- and digitally-based strategies can assist analyses of inventories in particular. Like other scholars in the digital humanities before us, we have come to see computational analysis as an important means by which we can learn more about the nature of the archive by exploring the patterns and gaps that might otherwise be occluded. As importantly distant reading of this sort provokes questions that direct our attention back to the primary and secondary literature to find answers, often through a return to close reading.

Additionally, this analysis aims to rebalance an understanding of this place (London) and period (1740-1800) currently based largely on the administrative records of the wealthy and the well-heeled- the inventories of privilege-with something closer to the demotic and quotidian world experienced by the majority population, whose possessions might otherwise have escaped list-making processes and historical recording.

We also seek to bring together two fields of study in provocative ways: studies of inventories and the history of consumption. Both these fields are concerned with material culture, but the study of inventories directs our gaze to that point when a collection of objects is fixed on paper through naming and categorization; whereas the study of consumption tends to point us towards a dynamic process of production, circulation, reception, use, and re-use. …

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