Reflections on two years as a Transcription Assistant

By Tim Causer, on 9 October 2018

By Dr Katy Roscoe (ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Liverpool/Institute of Historical Research Associate Fellow).

For the past two years I’ve been working as a Transcription Assistant, helping prepare Jeremy Bentham’s Writings on Australia for publication. Despite my title, I spent little time transcribing Bentham’s scrawled handwriting—in large part thanks to the efforts of dedicated Transcribe Bentham volunteers! Instead, I spent most of my time fact-checking the editorial annotation to the text written by the editors, Dr Tim Causer and Professor Philip Schofield.

Having written a PhD on 19th century Australian convicts, I was eager to learn more about the first decades of the penal colony. Bentham was the first ‘anti-transportation’ campaigner, and in three ‘Letters to Lord Pelham’ (1802-3) he seethes at the government’s choice to transport convicts to New South Wales rather than support his Panopticon prison design. His revisionist ideas were remarkable and rehabilitation for convicts was as much as priority to him as was being economical. I took the inner workings of the transportation system for granted, so Bentham’s argument that denying convicts the opportunity to return home meant 7 or 14 year sentences of transportation were illegal, was a real eye-opener for me. On the other hand, thanks to an over-reliance on David Collins’ Account of the English Colony of New South Wales (1798 and 1802), I was disappointed by Bentham’s barely concealed disdain for the convicts themselves—particularly the women—who he depicts as lazy, promiscuous and arson-prone. These are stereotypes we know today to be untrue.

As well as deepening my knowledge of the Australian convict system, checking the annotation of Bentham’s Writings on Australia meant forays into unexpected avenues of research. I perused travel narratives for references to a dog who went abroad and lost its sense of smell, looked at floor plans of the Treasury Building, and scoured Don Quixote for one (of many) incidences of mistaken identity. It was certainly a lesson to me, as a junior academic, on reading widely to create a framework on which to hang arguments and ideas. It was also a lesson on the importance of proper referencing and checking your figures—a mistaken page number in Collins’ Account or inaccurate calculation of passengers on board convict vessels could take hours or days to untangle. Somewhere along the line my academic writing started to feature just as many dashes as Bentham favoured, and my supervisors were less forgiving than Bentham’s editors. I resisted for the most part, the temptation to add too many Benthamite phrases into my thesis. Though Bentham coined well-known words like ‘international’ and ‘maximise’, I avoided his lesser-known neologisms like ‘uncircumlocatory’ and ‘incongnosibility’.

Working at the Bentham Project sometimes feels like we were working for an (absent) celebrity. Not only was Bentham’s face on ID cards and screens on campus, he appeared on BBC’s Have I Got News, Private Eye, major news outlets and in museum exhibitions. He also had some pricey jewellery—mourning rings—one of which was recently auctioned at Christie’s. I discovered that everything I thought I knew about him was wrong, and ended up having to explain this to everyone I met at a party (No, he wasn’t the founder of UCL; no, his head wasn’t used as a football). It certainly felt like having a VIP backstage pass when the team got to see his auto-icon up close when it underwent conservation work by UCL’s Museums and Collections’ team prior to his visit to New York (though I’m not sure if seeing his underpants being washed was rock and roll or not!). But the real stars of my stay were the Bentham Project team themselves – so all my thanks to them for being wonderful as I bid them farewell after two years.