The London Lives Petitions Project
The London Lives Petitions Project is a digital history project by Sharon Howard which aims to explore approximately 10,000 petitions (and petitioning letters) addressed to magistrates, contained in the voluminous records of eighteenth-century London and Middlesex Sessions of the Peace which were digitised for London Lives, 1690-1800. These are important sources for the social history of eighteenth-century London, which have been difficult to access within the existing London Lives resource because of the sheer size and variety of the Sessions Papers documents.
- In the first phase of the project, I focused on discovery of petitions in the Sessions Papers, and the creation of new metadata that would facilitate access and analysis. This discovery stage is largely complete (February 2016), although there may be smaller future additions and corrections (particularly to deal with duplicates and multiple copies of petitions). The resulting data, consisting of structured metadata and plain text files, has been released as open data under a Creative Commons licence.
- Work on the data is ongoing to add tagging that will further aid access and re-use, particularly subject tagging and re-incorporating London Lives' existing tagging for petitioners' names. I also plan (eventually) to link the petitions to related documents (court orders, pauper examinations, etc) in the London Lives archives.
- Project research starts from the question: What can you do with 10,000 petitions? Can large-scale distant reading techniques tell us things that we didn't already know from close reading of smaller, personally-crafted collections of petitions? I'll be experimenting with various methods and data visualisations.
- But also: what can you not do with them? Understanding what doesn't work for data like this is important. For one thing, the quality of the transcriptions does not match up to traditional scholarly standards: is it good enough for 'big data' methods? And there are problems with uneven survival of the original records. Do quantitative methods produce results that are meaningful, insights of any significance?
- All of this doesn't mean the abandonment of good old-fashioned close reading - far from it. The sheer size of the collection means that even smaller niches can find plentiful material for qualitative analysis, and quantitative analysis enables close readings to be understood in their wider contexts and connections. I'm particularly interested in women petitioners and prisoners; but, by making the new data as re-usable as possible, I hope to enable and encourage other researchers to pursue their own interests and to experiment in their own ways.
Current releases of all shared data, with documentation and licensing information.
- Zenodo (latest official release)
- Github (may have more recent updates/work in progress, and more detailed documentation of the dataset and methods of data collection)
Writing about the project and additional resources
Blogging and presentations (and eventually more formal publications).
Note that these are works in progress, which are liable to be revised following data updates (or even removed), and therefore citing them in scholarly work is really not advisable. If you would like to build your own versions, the underlying data files can usually be found here.
Petitions in context
Petition word counts
Note: these charts use reworked versions of the public release files, from which marginal annotations etc that are not part of the body of the petition have been trimmed. May be slow to load.
Comparing types of petition
Historical petitions online
The dataset has been created using the transcriptions of the Sessions Papers published at the London Lives website. I am grateful to Tim Hitchcock and Bob Shoemaker, the London Lives project directors, for agreeing to share this data.
The original documents are held at the London Metropolitan Archives.
The London Lives project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
The dataset and this documentation are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
This means that you are free to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format; and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, providing you follow the terms of the licence:
- You must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.
- If you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you must distribute your contributions under the same license as the original.
- Please also credit the London Lives project as the original data source wherever possible.