Archive for the 'Digitisation' Category

New material to transcribe: ‘like a great Spider in ye Center of yr. Panopticon’ – the return of Bentham’s prison

By Tim Causer, on 11 September 2013

A further series of fascinating manuscripts have been uploaded to the Transcription Desk: this material from Box 122 of the UCL Bentham Papers details the revival of the British government’s interest in the panopticon penitentiary scheme. As we have mentioned elsewhere, the panopticon was rejected in 1803 as a solution to the problem of treating criminals. Despite his anger at the time, Bentham seemed in 1808 to finally be at peace with this decision, writing to his brother Samuel that ‘JB has next to no expectation of panopticon being set on foot … and at his time of life scarce a wish about it: but that with him it has never been more than a secondary object, his primary object being a reform in the state of the law‘.

However, at the end of 1807 had received a rather rude reminder of the panopticon. The commissioners for auditing the public accounts had requested that Bentham account for the £2,000 of public money voted to him in 1794 for purchasing land on which to build a panopticon. The result of this request was a lengthy and somewhat acrimonious correspondence, some of which can be found amongst these manuscripts: Bentham found it difficult to comply with the commissioners request, not least owing to the passage of time, and his (and Samuel’s) haphazard account-keeping.

Bentham provided some documentation, but this did not satisfy the commissioners, and he was driven to plead with them to accept his verbal testimony. Bentham’s sense of persecution grew: hadn’t the government caused him enough pain over the panopticon? He wrote another account of his treatment, to be found here, bemoaning the commissioners’ unaccountability, and suggesting that he was subjected to ‘the principles of a Venetian Senate … or a Spanish Inquisition‘. Fortunately, the audit board finally accepted Bentham’s testimony in December 1808.

In the following years, the panopticon – somehow – was back on the agenda. Criminals were seen to be convicted at ever-increasing rates, the hulks were notoriously bad, and New South Wales was being viewed as an Arcadia for criminals, rather than as a place of punishment. Though in June 1809, William Wilberforce told Bentham that he was once more going to promote the panopticon, asking him if ‘had still ye Heart to go forward after all your former disappointments‘. Bentham remained very wary: in May 1810, he wrote that he had ‘no such ambition as that of passing the short remainder of my life among the Treasury Porters‘. Wilberforce replied with platitudes, telling Bentham that

After all you have experienced Unless ye way is smooth’d and the doors thrown wide for yr triumphant passage, I would have stir you from ye Chimney Corner … Surely you will not refuse to tend yrself to those who are eager to bring it forward … I am delighted by seeing with my mind’s Eye, your Honour like a great Spider in ye Center of yr. Panopticon‘.

As Janet Semple remarks in her masterful Bentham’s Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary (p. 264), ‘This letter did incalculable harm; first, by luring Bentham with false hopes that were to embroil him in further fruitless labour and public humiliation; and secondly in the use of a vivid metaphor to stamp for ever the image of him as a spider in the midst of his penal web’.

The Treasury contacted Bentham around this time, and he confirmed that he was still willing to serve as governor. On 4 March 1811, a committee was appointed to consider the 1779 and 1794 Penitentiary Acts, chaired by George Holford MP, a known anti-Benthamite. Yet Bentham seemed confident now in the panopticon’s success, recalling later in life that: ‘I assumed all along as a matter of course, that the determination of the Committee and thereafter would be favourable to me‘. Bentham was to be disappointed: he gave evidence on 27 March and 1 April (the latter date proving very apt), and faced frequently hostile questioning. Holford’s report, completed in May, was a damning indictment of the panopticon, and the only crumb of comfort was the conclusion that Bentham should receive financial compensation.

Following the rejection, Bentham returned to complaining of sinister interests and ‘an originally preconcerted plan for setting aside Panopticon‘. He submitted a compensation claim for the astonishing sum of £689,062 11s. (over £23 million in today’s money), for lost profits which would have been earned from the panopticon between 1795 and 1813. Bentham finally settled for the not inconsiderable sum of £23,000 (c. £800,000 today). The panopticon scheme was finally dead.

We hope that you enjoy exploring this material, and do let us know if you have any queries!

New material to transcribe: the panopticon’s failure and Bentham’s anger

By Tim Causer, on 21 August 2013

A new batch of extremely interesting Bentham manuscripts has just been made available on the Transcription Desk. Box 121 contains a great deal of interesting material relating to Bentham‘s panopticon prison scheme, or rather its failure. This batch of manuscripts, composed mostly in 1802, illustrate Bentham’s anger and sense of betrayal towards the British legislature which, despite having passed the 1794 Penitentiary for Convicts Act, failed to build Bentham’s prison. In Bentham’s eyes, the panopticon had been thwarted by the failure to find a site, first at Battersea Rise, thanks to the opposition of George Spencer (the 2nd Earl Spencer), and then at Tothill Fields owing to the opposition of Richard Grosvenor (1st Earl Grosvenor). Thanks to the vested interests of landlords, Bentham ended up purchasing a small and boggy site at Millbank, and became aware that politicians had little real commitment to the panopticon.

In June 1803, after a campaign of many years, it was clear that the panopticon was to be abandoned. The scheme’s failure was the greatest disappointment of Bentham’s life: ‘They have murdered my best days’, he remarked. The experience left him incensed at the treachery of British politicians, and he turned his attention to detailing their perfidy. According to Bentham, the 1794 Penitentiary Act was for no ‘better or other intention than of serving as a bait for gulling me out of money’’, and in JB/115/145/001, he wrote:

My hairs, already grey, are pointing to the grave. It remains for me to try whether my country be as devoid of faith and feeling, as those whom the jumble of events has given to it for its rulers … It may then be said—simple neglect would have been sufficient: disappointment and ruin, at the end of five years of treachery and oppression, were too much’.

Box 121 contains some of Bentham’s angry outpourings, in an unpublished text entitled A Picture of the Treasury under the Administration of the Rt. Hon. W. Pitt and the Rt. Hon. H. Addington with a sketch of the Secretary of State’s Office under the reign of the Duke of Portland. Written in 1802 and 1803, this is a near-contemporary account of Bentham’s dealings with men in high office, albeit one told from Bentham’s point of view. (From the other side, Charles Long, the junior secretary to the Treasury, came to hate the sight of Bentham hanging around the Treasury, waiting to attempt meetings with him).

It was perhaps during this period that Bentham fully developed the idea of ‘sinister interests’ – that legislators did not necessarily act in the interests of the happiness of those they ruled, but rather to satisfy their own vested interests. By transcribing this set of manuscripts, you will be going some way to exploring this theory, and the timing of Bentham’s conversion into a political radical, convinced of the need for a representative parliament with universal adult suffrage. It seems likely, as Prof. Philip Schofield contends, that it was ‘the panopticon experience which began to convince him [Bentham] that nothing worthwhile could be achieved through the existing political structure in Britain’. (Schofield, Bentham: A Guide for the Perplexed, Bew York, 2009, pp.12-13).

We hope that you enjoy exploring this rich material, and will be happy to help with any questions you may have!

Progress update, 1 to 7 October

By Tim Causer, on 7 October 2011

Welcome to the progress update for the period 1 to 7 October 2011, which has once more proved very busy, and in which we have again improved the proportion of completed transcripts.

49 new manuscripts were transcribed this week, giving us a total of 1,940 transcripts. Of these, 1,689 (87%) – up 69 on last week – are now complete and locked.

The state of progress for each box is as follows (including the newly uploaded Boxes 62 and 97):

  • Box 2: 189 manuscripts transcribed of 532 (36%)
  • Box 27: 232 of 350 (66%)
  • Box 35: 218 of 439 (49%)
  • Box 50: 37 of 92 (40%)
  • Box 51: 35 of 940 (4%)
  • Box 62: 5 of 565 (1%)
  • Box 70: 158 of 250 (45%)
  • Box 71: 185 of 665 (28%)
  • Box 72: 115 of 664 (17%)
  • Box 73: 117 of 156 (75%)
  • Box 79: 58 of 199 (29%)
  • Box 95: 44 of 147 (30%)
  • Box 96: 283 of 539 (53%)
  • Box 97: 2 of 288 (1%)
  • Box 115: 224 of 307 (73%)
  • Box 139: 38 of 38 (100%)
  • Overall: 35% of the 5,580 manuscripts uploaded to the website have been transcribed thus far.

Boxes 96 and 27 saw the most activity this week.

You may also notice from the above that we have been able to sign off our first box of material as complete, though this is a little bit of a cheat. Earlier in the week we locked all of the manuscripts belonging to Box 139, apart from those on which transcription had already begun, as a Bentham Project editor has recently finished transcribing the material for a forthcoming Collected Works volume. There are a handful of transcripts from this box needing to be completed, but otherwise we can consider it finished (albeit unofficially!)

To provide an idea of the volume of work which volunteers have thus far contributed to Transcribe Bentham, we conservatively estimate that the ‘average’ manuscript contains 250 words – though some can be up to a couple of thousand words long. On this assumption, contributors to the project have cumulatively transcribed 485,000 words since September 2010. This is an astonishing level of work.

Thanks, as ever, to all those who have contributed this week, and for their efforts towards Transcribe Bentham‘s continuing success.

New material available to transcribe

By Tim Causer, on 5 October 2011

Two new boxes of material have just been uploaded to the Transcription Desk for volunteers to Transcribe.

Box 62 consists of material largely written in French, mostly composed in 1795 and related to Bentham’s penal code. Those looking for a challenge may find it in this box! The final twenty folios of Box 62 are in English, and deal with the interesting topic of tattooing.

Box 97 is a very different beast.  Much of it is taken up by writings on legislation, but it also includes outlines and descriptions of many other of Bentham’s works.  The final two folios are in Italian. Volunteers looking for relatively short manuscripts to transcribe will find this box to be of particular benefit.

We have around another half-a-dozen boxes to be uploaded in the coming weeks, which will include more writings on the penal code and punishments, the economy, and manuscripts relating to his 1802 publication, Panopticon versus New South Wales.

Happy transcribing!

Code for Transcribe Bentham MediaWiki plugins available

By Tim Causer, on 12 July 2011

As regular readers know, the award-winning Transcribe Bentham Transcription Desk was programmed and put together by a highly-talented team at the University of London Computer Centre, led by Richard Davis. Those who are thinking about crowdsourcing their own manuscript collection will no doubt be interested to learn that Richard has recently made available the code for the Transcribe Bentham MediaWiki plugins here. They comprise the transcription toolbar, support for TEI markup, and support for viewing images. There are accompanying instructions on how to make the code work, and details of other plugins used to produce the Transcription Desk.

To use these plugins, you – or someone on your team – must be familiar with the installation and setting up of MediaWiki on a web server. You should also be prepared for the possibility that some settings within the code are specific to Transcribe Bentham, and be able to reconfigure them for your own purposes.

You may wish to consult Richard’s instructions which will no doubt prove far more helpful than this blogpost. We hope the plugins will be of use to those wishing to use them!

(with thanks to Richard and his team for putting this together)