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Project update – box 26 completely transcribed!

By Louise Seaward, on 21 December 2017

Hello!  We’ve one last piece of news before we sign off for Christmas.  We are delighted to announce that Box 26 of the Bentham papers has now been completely transcribed.  This is a huge achievement as Box 26 contains more than 350 folios, many of which are yet to be published as part of Bentham’s Collected Works.  We need to give special congratulations to the transcriber Gill Hague (username: ohsoldgirl) who has transcribed the vast majority of this particular box.  We would also like to take this moment to thank all of the Transcribe Bentham volunteers for their continued contributions to other boxes on the Transcription Desk. 

Box 26 contains material that was written by Bentham between 1808 and 1822 concerning trial by jury, libel law, and the liberty of the press. In particular, Box 26 includes draft material for Elements of the Art of Packing, as applied to Special Juries, Particularly in Cases of Libel Law.  This work was first printed in 1810 but remained unpublished until 1821.  Bentham’s friend, the legal reformer Sir Samuel Romilly advised that the publication of the work could lead to the former’s prosecution.

Throughout Box 26, there are significant signs that Bentham was aware that he was being especially radical in his writings.  In folio one hundred and forty-three Bentham wrote:

‘My endeavour shall be to make myself understood as far as I dare. But what I am sure I can not forget, and what it concerns you all not to forget, [is] that in this Country, with its boasted Constitution, there is now no liberty.’

Bentham then mentioned by name Lord Sidmouth, whom at the time was Home Secretary and was known for his particularly heavy-handed approach to political dissent, as well as Lord Castlereagh, then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. However, Bentham also began to write a third name but the manuscript reads only ‘Lord |   |’, with a space left blank on the manuscript, presumably out of cautiousness.

Bentham Papers, UCL Special Collections, Box xxvi, fol. 143 [Image courtesy of UCL Special Collections].

Bentham argued that there should be greater clarity in written legislation and that the legal and political system should serve the interests of the people, rather than the ‘sinister interests’ of lawyers and politicians.  If an adequate definition of libel could not be achieved, Bentham asserted on folio one hundred and fifty-three, ‘no man can without imposture call himself a friend to the liberty of the press’.

We’ll close by hearing from the volunteer Gill Hague about her experience of transcribing Box 26.

‘I have been transcribing Bentham for some six years and usually look in the box index to identify topics which I think will be interesting to work on.   I thought Juries would be an interesting topic as one could relate it to current practice and so it proved.  Seeing that the box was untouched I thought I would start on page one and see if I could work my way through in sequence.   It gave the opportunity to see Bentham’s arguments unfold, and how the expression of his arguments were revised and refined.  As all transcribers will know Bentham often repeats words and phrases, so sometimes deciphering his handwriting – these documents date from the 1820’s when it was not at its clearest – was made easier by having come across words, particularly the legal terms,  used on other documents in the box.   Fortunately, there were also a number of pages of fair copy which were easier to transcribe.   Aside from the handwriting, the hardest pages were the double sized ones with text in four columns, I could type the line break code in my sleep once I’d worked my way through those and, at about 1200 words a page including the markup, they are roughly equivalent to three of a ‘standard’ one – if one can say there is such a thing.   All in all, it was an interesting and satisfying exercise and I hope to start on another box in the New Year.’

Thank you Gill for your efforts!

We would like to wish all our volunteers and readers a Merry Christmas!  The Transcription Desk will remain open over the holidays for those who wish to transcribe.  UCL is closed from 23 December to 2 January so the Transcription Desk will be largely unstaffed across that time.  So we look forward to seeing you all in 2018.

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Thanks go to Chris Riley (PhD student at the Bentham Project) for the research on Box 26 that appears in this blog post.