Alana Piper’s research project is called Criminal Characters, but not everybody’s story fits the bill for a true crime novel or Underbelly-style dramatisation.
Take Annie Keys. There’s a note in her prison record from the 1890s that Annie had been sent to Melbourne Gaol as a vagrant. She’d been blind since childhood and had been living with a married sister, but the sister’s husband told her to get out and that’s how she ended up in prison.
“You see that a lot in the records from the 19th century,” says Piper, a Chancellors Postdoctoral Research Fellow with UTS’s Australian Centre for Public History. “A lack of systems of care meant that many people ended up in prison because they had nowhere else to go.
“You’ll see records for prisoners who have missing limbs or lameness, prisoners who are deaf or blind. It was often the view of police and magistrates that it was the kindest thing they could do for them, that at least they would have a roof over their head and three meals a day, such as they were.”
Annie’s story is part of a vast archive – tens of thousands of hand-written records from between 1850 and 1940 – held by the Victorian Public Records Office.
To make these histories accessible and searchable for the benefit of researchers and the wider public, Piper has embarked on a novel project to crowdsource online help from around Australia and the world to transcribe every entry.
“Victoria’s prison records are in a series of registers that were basically kept in the same format from the 1850s – the end of the convict transportation period – right through to the end of the Second World War,” she says. “They offer unique insights into who criminals actually were across that 100 year period.
“The Victorian records are particularly detailed in the sorts of insights they provide into the prisoners’ histories, probably because it was a smaller jurisdiction than NSW or Queensland and was much more centralised.
“For instance, officials would note information not just about the offender, but about their families, such as if they had children who had been taken into state care. It was also noted if offenders had spent time in lunatic asylums, charity homes or inebriate institutions.
“They are such an incredibly rich resource that I think if history enthusiasts get involved they will be immersed in the discovery of these people’s lives and the process of making their stories more widely available.”
To gauge interest worldwide Piper has launched an online survey that has already generated hundreds of responses, the majority from Australia, but with more than a third from the UK, the USA and Canada.
“I’m using an open-source crowdsourcing platform that allows people to help a little or a lot as they please.
“You can choose to transcribe just part of a prison record or you have the option to transcribe the full record for a prisoner. That takes a bit longer, probably about 10 or 20 minutes depending how many convictions they have, but that really gives you an insight into who that person was.
“You click submit when it’s done and it goes towards creating a resource to be deposited back with the Victorian Public Records Office, but available to all Australians online.
“It’s going to be the basis of the first real insights into large-scale offending patterns for a period outside the convict era in Australia.”
The journeys through the criminal justice system of a lot of ordinary people will come to light after nearly a century – back then you could end up inside for three to six months on a drunk and disorderly charge.
Of course there will also be the details of the career crims, genuinely dangerous customers and bizarre events that might make for a top-selling book or mini-series.
There must be a film to be made about the so-called “Crutchy Push”, a feared Larrikin gang of disabled standover men that ruled North Melbourne for a short time at the beginning of the 20th century.
“The Crutchies required you to have a limb missing to be a member of the gang, but that didn’t mean they were any less formidable,” Piper says. “They were known for using their crutches as very effective weapons against both other gangs and the police.
“In fact the Crutchies were one of the main targets when the Victorian Premier set up a special police task force to break up Melbourne’s Larrikin gangs.”
To find out more about being part of the Criminal Characters transcription effort, visit: https://criminalcharacters.com/