Funding for the Methods Network ended March 31st 2008. The website will be preserved in its current state.

Plebeian Lives and the Making of Modern London, 1690-1800

Plebeian Lives and the Making of Modern London, 1690-1800 aims to create a digital archive of manuscript and printed sources concerning the lives of ordinary people in eighteenth-century London, focusing on poor relief, criminal justice, and medical care. It also integrates existing electronic resources, making use of recent technical advances in the analysis of multiple digital sources. The result will be a freely-available web-based resource enabling the reconstruction of ‘ordinary’ lives in the round, rather than as documented in single contacts with administrative bodies. The intention is to contextualize individual experiences of crime, poverty, and illness; to ascertain and describe how people participated in and manipulated government institutions and charities to address their individual needs; and to demonstrate how the end users of these institutions contributed to their development. Plebeian Lives is jointly run by the Humanities Research Institute, University of Sheffield and the University of Hertfordshire, the Higher Education Digitization Service provides imaging services. It runs from 1 September 2005 to 31 August 2010. The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

The Project

Fig 1. William Hogarth, 'Arrested for Debt', Plate IV, The Rake's Progress, (1735), reproduced courtesy of Tim Hitchcock

Records which pertain to a number of individual Londoners are being linked together, making it possible to construct individual life histories of how Londoners experienced crime, poverty and illness throughout their lives (and to assess the relationships between these experiences), The project will enable a new understanding of the role and agency of non-elite Londoners in the evolution of the institutions and social practices of the modern metropolis such as the welfare state and the modern criminal trial.

Recent historical research, whether on the industrial revolution, the development of the state, concepts of individuality, or attitudes towards space, has identified the key contribution of the eighteenth century in the creation of modern Britain. In the realm of social policy, this century witnessed the invention of the workhouse, infirmaries and reformatory prisons. It saw the foundation of new hospitals and a panoply of other charities; of the first salaried police, and of newly complex forms of record keeping. All these developments took place most fully in the crucible of London. Hitherto, most historians have concentrated on the roles played by Parliament, local government, and voluntary societies in making these innovations, but in the last decade scholars have begun to point to the importance of the pressure placed on institutions by non-elite users in driving and shaping these developments. The extraordinary wealth of surviving records for this period has allowed scholars to argue that poor relief, medical care, policing and the nature of the criminal trial were all crucially shaped by the participation and demands of the ordinary Londoners who participated in and made use of these services.

Popular response to the ‘general reception’ policy of the Foundling Hospital, for example, forced the hospital to radically alter its provision within only four years, while the growing activities of ‘thief-takers’, and their use by victims of crime, forced changes in law enforcement policies and trial procedures. More generally, the adoption by parishes, the courts, prisons and hospitals at the end of the century of newly bureaucratic record-keeping practices centred on the individual recipient was the result of the cumulative pressures brought over the course of the century by the increasingly savvy poor. Rather than being viewed as victims of forces beyond their control or as raw data for statistics, scholars are now beginning to view non-elites as agents who not only shaped their own destinies but also those of the many institutions with which they negotiated.

Building on the more detailed analyses of the lives of the poor achieved by community studies in non-urban locations, and taking advantage of recent technical advances, it is now possible to ask new questions about the history of non-elite Londoners using a new methodology. Collections of digitized resources may be linked together using shared XML mark-up schema and sophisticated search engines, making it possible to assemble large and complex bodies of data from a variety of sources and extract key information from them. A precursor of this project, the Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, has demonstrated not only what can be achieved by applying this methodology to a single large body of text, but also how diverse collections of digitized sources may be integrated: place names in trials have been linked to digitized contemporary maps and, in a pilot study covering one decade (1746-55), individual trials have been linked to related digitized records about the crime and the accused (manuscript sessions papers and the Ordinary’s Accounts). This online resource now allows research to be conducted into four distinct digitized sources (the printed Proceedings, published contemporary maps, manuscript documents from the sessions files, and criminal biographies published as the Ordinary’s Accounts) both separately and jointly. By assembling and linking together a far more comprehensive body of primary sources documenting Londoners’ encounters with government and charitable agencies, this new project will reconstruct their role in the evolution of modern London. A large and fully-searchable collection of digitized sources is being created and analysed in order to determine the relationships between Londoners’ experiences of crime, illness and poverty, and of the institutions from which they requested assistance.

Several very valuable datasets already exist, and these will be incorporated into the research resource and the analysis wherever possible. However, these datasets provide inadequate coverage of the lives of non-elite Londoners, or typically provide only a selection or abstract of the original source, omitting potentially valuable qualitative information. Most importantly, these datasets each exist independently, in a variety of different formats, and are not (with the exception of British History Online) linked up in ways which facilitate cross-database searching. The most important of these datasets are: Metropolitan London in the 1690s; the Westminster Historical Database (1749-1820), ‘The Lives of the Poor in the West End of London, 1724-1867’; the Old Bailey Proceedings Online; ‘People in Place: Families, Households and Housing in Early Modern London’; and British History Online. In its facility for simultaneous searching of a variety of databases, British History Online comes closest to attempting what this project seeks to achieve, but search outcomes are limited because the records searched are so diverse and the texts are not marked up with a common tagging schema.

More than simply creating a far more comprehensive resource of records documenting the activities of non-elite Londoners than is currently available in order to address our research questions, this project is developing entirely new ways of exploiting the full range of digital resources which have already been created (or will be in the future). The sources digitized for this project are being marked up using a shared XML schema in order to facilitate record-linkage and searching across a range of sources. In addition, building on current work undertaken at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield, a platform will be created which will facilitate searching across multiple collections of digitized resources which are available online in separate websites. These search facilities will allow the potential of this new resource to be fully exploited, not only by this project but by other scholars in the future. Because it will present a full transcription of the texts (as opposed to a database of abstracted evidence) the number and scope of research questions that scholars can ask of this resource will be unlimited.

The surviving archives of eighteenth-century London are uniquely well adapted to systematic analysis. The careful and at times intrusive management of local government by both the Middlesex Sessions and the City of London ensured a remarkable degree of thoroughness and consistency in the nature of the records that were created. At the same time, the incredible detail of surviving post-Fire records allow individual lives to be documented in their encounters with a variety of institutions in ways that is not possible for an earlier period or a different place. The sheer density of institutions, and the survival of their records, is such that most Londoners can be found in more than one series, while some unlucky individuals may be found in the records of dozens of institutions. Until now, such comprehensive information about individual lives has been almost impossible to extract from this vast body of records. Given the large number of relevant surviving records, a fully comprehensive resource cannot yet be created. It is necessary to select for analysis the most important record series - those providing a combination of wide coverage and rich qualitative descriptions of individual encounters with institutions in response to experiences of crime, poor relief, and illness. In some cases it is possible to cover the entire metropolis north of the Thames (the area governed by the City of London and the County of Middlesex), but in other cases the sheer bulk of the records has meant that it has been necessary to sample. In such cases selections have been made according to the richness of the surviving records and in order to include representative examples of key institutions. In order to preserve the original archive structure and allow future expansion of this resource, the record series chosen will wherever possible be digitized in their entirety.


The experience of a single London street beggar, Paul Patrick Kearney, provides an instance of how this project will help to transform our understanding of the role of individual Londoners in the creation of a newly integrated and complex system of local government and social policy. His first appearance in the historical record can be found in the Old Bailey Proceedings Online, which records his arrest for fraud in 1728 during a performance of the Beggars’ Opera and his subsequent trial at the Old Bailey. He was convicted and sentenced to stand in the pillory outside the Royal Exchange – a punishment which effectively ruined his career as a merchant trading to Spain. For the next ten years he was forced to work through another merchant named Mark McCarty. Although he continued to act as a Spanish Merchant, he had clearly lost the trust of the wider community. McCarty died in 1738, and left Kearney power of attorney over his will and in charge of the distribution of funds to his children. It is at this point that Kearney appears in the online catalogue of the National Archive (PROCAT), as a litigant in two cases in the Court of Chancery. The cases are Dickensian in their complexity, and involve faked wills and false marriages, missing sons and avaricious daughters. Several of the individuals involved (but not Kearney himself) appear in the rating books and poll books searchable in the Westminster Historical Database. By the end of the 1740s, Kearney’s mental state was clearly under strain, and he can be found writing unhinged letters, warning of Scottish plots, to ministers of the crown, which are recorded in the State Papers Domestic, and can again be located through PROCAT.

By the 1760s, Kearney was reduced to begging on the street. He repeatedly appealed for relief to his parish of settlement: St Dionis Backchurch, in the heart of the City. After an appeal to the Lord Mayor (recorded in the Guildhall Minute Books), he was admitted as a pensioner by the parish, and sent to a contract workhouse on the edge of the City. The expenditure on his clothing and support is fully recorded in the parish records for some fifteen years, throughout which time he was in regular need of medical attention. In 1774, at Kearney’s request, St Dionis sent him to St Thomas’ Hospital to cure, ‘the itch, mange and a malignant or pocky leprosy’ he had developed while an inmate at the workhouse. He remained a patient for over six months – being the subject of a substantial correspondence with his parish of settlement (recorded in St Thomas’ Out-letter books, the Admissions Register, and the Court of Governors’ Minute Books; and in the parish archive). After his expulsion from St Thomas’s, St Dionis sent him back to the contract workhouse (generating a further appeal to the Lord Mayor, this time recorded in the Mansion House Minute Books). Finally, in 1776, after the parish threatened to send him to Cope’s private madhouse in Hoxton, Kearney came to a deal with the parish, allowing it to purchase their freedom from his demands at the cost of £4.17s. In the life of someone like Kearney, the inter-relationships between the courts, the parish and the City, the merchant community, and the great hospitals of London, of criminal justice, politics and economics, and charity and health, are brought into a clearer focus. By forcing his parish to deviate from their stated policy and negotiate with him individually, Kearney and other paupers like him encouraged parishes to manage social problems on a more individual basis, and at the same time to coordinate their actions with other agencies such as hospitals and the City. By building a series of biographies of this sort, we will be better able to explain the evolution of social policy provision in the metropolis at a key point in its history.


In order to facilitate record linkage, all relevant records are being microfilmed, and the resulting images scanned to a high resolution. The texts are then ‘double rekeyed’ by the Higher Education Digitization Service (HEDS) at the University of Hertfordshire. The text is then tagged in XML. This process is partly automated using MELITA, a programme developed by the Information Studies Department at Sheffield which identifies possible text for tagging on the basis of glossaries, regular expressions, and text formatting, and which allows researchers to accept or reject proposed tags. The XML marked up text will be posted on the web, alongside .gif images of the original pages, to allow the transcribed text to be checked alongside the original. The text resource will be searchable in a variety of ways. A free-text search engine, Lucene, will allow users to search for any character strings (using wildcards if necessary) found either within XML tags or in full texts. It will be possible to select particular record series and time periods for analysis. A second search engine will analyse databases derived from marked-up text to generate statistics. Links to contemporary maps will allow geographical evidence to be mapped. Where possible, additional databases available from the AHDS, such as the Westminster Historical Database, will be incorporated within the databases to be searched. In addition, a platform for integrated searching across websites holding separate databases of digitized sources will be developed. In developing this feature we hope to take advantage of ongoing developments in eSocial Science and the Access Grid.

Links between documents relating to the same individual will be established automatically on the basis of the tagged information relating to names, occupations, dates, places, and document types. Fuzzy searching will allow for spelling variations, and algorithms will determine possible matches according to date ranges, occupational labels, and places. It is envisaged that this process will identify several thousand individuals who appear in more than one document type.

This information will be used to conduct three different types of analysis. First, a series of approximately one hundred biographies will be written of particularly well-documented individuals, people whose names frequently recur in a series of different types of records. These case studies will allow individual experiences of the interrelationships between poverty, crime, and illness, and the methods by which they sought assistance from a variety of institutions, to be examined in depth. Second, these biographies will be contextualized through analysis of patterns of specific combinations of records, which will determine relationships between different types of life experiences, and between patterns of use of different institutions. Third, this information will be contextualized by examining and comparing chronological changes in each record series. This will make it possible to identify how changing patterns of use shaped the development of each institution, and how developments in one institution influenced those in another. This research will form the basis of the major monograph which will be written by the project directors. The resource created in order to perform this analysis will be posted online, therefore all scholars will be able to exploit it. As the website will be comprised of fully digitized texts, users will be able to use the resource to research completely different questions from those investigated by this project. The provision of images of the original pages along with full transcripts of the text will also ensure that this resource retains its value long after more selective databases have become obsolete. In the longer term, the open architecture of the collection will permit its expansion to include additional documents and new types of sources. In this way, in addition to the research conclusions, this project will leave a valuable legacy for future scholars.

Primary Aims

The project aims to produce:

  • A large, fully searchable, online body of digitized primary source texts on the history of eighteenth-century London - some 189 million characters on 182,745 pages - will be created and made available
  • A platform for searching across multiple websites, linking the project website to other sites containing relevant digitized sources on eighteenth century London.
  • A compilation of a series of approximately one hundred individual biographies, of particularly well-documented but heretofore unknown lower-class Londoners. These will be posted on the same website, with an invitation to other scholars who use the site to do the same.
  • The publication of two journal articles on the interrelationships between crime, poverty, and sickness in eighteenth-century London.
  • The presentation of a research paper on the use of search engines and fuzzy algorithms for record linkage. This will be presented at a digitization conference and published as a journal article.
  • A major monograph, jointly authored by the project directors, which will report the project’s findings. It will explain how non-elite Londoners interacted with the courts, local government, and charities to shape the development of new responses to crime, poverty and sickness in eighteenth-century London.
  • An international conference which will be held on ‘Popular Agency and the Creation of Modern London’, with the key essays published as a book. Contributors will be given early access to the digitized resource created by the project, not only allowing them to use it for their own research, but also giving them the opportunity to provide feedback on the functionality of the resource during the final stages of its preparation.

Publications/Further Reading

The project findings will be written up in a series of journal articles and in a major monograph.

Tim Hitchcock, Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London, (Hambledon and London, 2005).

Robert Shoemaker London Mob: Violence and Disorder in Eighteenth-Century England (Hambledon and London, 2004).

A description of aspects of the methodology developed for this project is embedded in an article on the Old Bailey site: Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, ‘Digitising History From Below: The Old Bailey Proceedings Online, 1674-1834’, History Compass, 4 (2006), 193-202.

Source Material Used

  • The manuscript sessions papers of the courts of Quarter Sessions and Gaol Delivery for the City of London and Middlesex
  • Ordinary’s Accounts
  • Coroner’s inquests
  • Parish records
  • Bridewell (House of Correction)
  • Hospital records
  • Guilds

These records will be searchable in conjunction with existing digital sources and catalogues, particularly the following:

  • Chelsea Settlement Examinations, 1733-1766 (volume 33 of London Record Society)
  • St Luke’s Chelsea Workhouse Registers, 1738-1784
  • Registers of Boys and Landmen Volunteers Recruited into the Marine Society,1756 - 1814
  • The Old Bailey Proceedings Online, 1674-1834
  • Metropolitan London in the 1690s (tax records)
  • The Westminster Historical Database (poll books and tax records), 1749-1820
  • Contemporary maps of London (with place name indexes), including John Strype (1720), John Rocque (1746), and Richard Horwood (1799)

In addition, we will seek to include the following digital records which are currently being created (subject to negotiation):

  • St Martin’s in the Fields Poor Relief Records, 1724-1867
  • Mansion House and Guildhall Justice Room minute books.
  • British History Online
  • Access 2 Archives (online catalogue of local government archives)
  • PROCAT, the electronic catalogue of the National Archives (with particular reference to records concerning petitions and pardons of convicts)
  • Eighteenth-Century Printed British Parliamentary Papers (JISC-funded project)

Tools and Methods


MELITA; Lucene, TEI; JEdit.

Method Categories

Data Capture; Data Structuring and Enhancement; Data Analysis; Data Publishing and Dissemination; Communication and Collaboration; Strategy and Project Management.

Specific Methods

Markup/text encoding; double entry rekeying; indexing; searching/querying.

Data Formats


Metadata Standards

Dublin Core.

Project Website


Staff and Advisors

Principal Staff Member

  • Professor Robert Shoemaker, University of Sheffield, Director
  • Professor Tim Hitchcock, University of Hertfordshire, Director

Other Staff Members

  • Dr Sharon Howard, University of Sheffield, Project Manager
  • Philippa Hardman, University of Sheffield, Senior Data Developer
  • Mary Clayton, University of Hertfordshire, Research Assistant
  • Nicola Wilcox, University of Hertfordshire, Data Developer
  • Susan Parkinson, University of Hertfordshire, Data Developer
  • Anna Bayman, University of Hertfordshire, Data Developer
  • Catherine Wright, University of Hertfordshire, Data Developer
  • Anna Simmons, University of Hertfordshire, Data Developer
  • Eilidh Garrett, University of Hertfordshire, Data Developer
  • Carol Lewis-Roylance, University of Hertfordshire, Data Developer
  • Gwen Smithson, University of Hertfordshire, Data Developer

AHDS Methods Taxonomy Terms

This item has been catalogued using a discipline and methods taxonomy. Learn more here.


  • History


  • Data Analysis - Concording/Indexing
  • Data Analysis - Searching/querying
  • Data Structuring and enhancement - Markup/text encoding - descriptive - conceptual
  • Data Structuring and enhancement - Markup/text encoding - descriptive - document structure
  • Data Structuring and enhancement - Markup/text encoding - descriptive - linguistic structure
  • Data Structuring and enhancement - Markup/text encoding - descriptive - nominal
  • Data Structuring and enhancement - Markup/text encoding - presentational
  • Data Structuring and enhancement - Markup/text encoding - referential