Don's diary: Trials of putting Old Bailey online

April 25, 2003

Today is spent worrying to very little effect. The Old Bailey Online - a website that Bob Shoemaker and I (along with some 30 other people on two continents) have been working on for three years - is due to launch on Wednesday. Eventually, the accounts of every trial held at the Old Bailey between 1674 (the year when material began to be published in a consistent and essentially comprehensive format) and 1834 (when the Old Bailey became the Central Criminal Court for more serious cases from the whole country, instead of just London and Middlesex) will be searchable by keyword, name and place, at the click of a mouse button. It is an amazing resource that will change the way people can research and write history.

Right now, fear of crashing servers is uppermost in our minds. As a result of a well-meaning but premature announcement on a couple of historical gateway sites, the academic community starts to pile in. We tot up 2,053 visits and 54,597 hits to the yet-to-be launched site.

Launch day: 2,749 visits and 73,859 hits. Although the site crashes just before its scheduled demonstration, everything runs smoothly in the end. This is a joint project between Hertfordshire and Sheffield universities, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board and the New Opportunities Fund. Hertfordshire's head of research and Sheffield's vice-chancellor make speeches lauding the cooperation between their institutions and the value of the resource.

5,408 visits and 187,067 hits. Images of the overwhelming response to the Public Record Office's posting of the 1901 census begin to haunt our discussions. I spend the day in meetings, while Bob takes calls from journalists all wanting us to pick our favourite case from the 22,000 trials available. We largely fail, but the one that stirs my imagination most forcefully is that of a woman named Mary Cut-and-Come-Again, from 1745. Just on the details of physical behaviour among the very poor, this site provides information you won't find anywhere else.

4,331 visits and 130,068 hits. I thank the small god of computer programmers everywhere that the figures are beginning to level out at a number we can handle. More meetings, followed by a paper in Cambridge on how to beg on the streets of 18th-century London based largely on Old Bailey material, keep me away from the site. But, it continues to work - or more precisely it crashes, is brought back to life, and crashes again. It is nursed through teething troubles by Jamie McLaughlin, the programmer responsible for writing the search engine at the Humanities Research Institute, Sheffield. We cross our fingers, and check obsessively.

Spend most of the day lost in St Albans trying to meet a Russian film crew who want to do a story on the website. I'm baffled by their audience's interest in the petty thieves and prostitutes whose lives are recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings.

The week has seen almost 18,000 visits, and more than 500,000 hits. What level of usage it will eventually achieve is anyone's guess, but it is certain that some 18,000 people now know a lot more about living poor in 18th-century London than they did a week ago.

Tim Hitchcock is professor of 18th-century history, University of Hertfordshire. The Old Bailey Proceedings can be found at:

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