What We Do in the Archives

by Alexa Neale, Project Research Fellow

I’ve been using The National Archives crime collections (CRIM, ASSI, DPP, HO, MEPO, PCOM and J) regularly in my research since early 2012. Over the years I’ve developed techniques and strategies for identifying cases, working in the archives, analyzing the documents, contextualizing the sources and writing about them. I wrote about these processes in my doctoral thesis and touched on them in my viva, but neither of those instances required a detailed description of what I actually do in the archives. Nor could I find any literature on what to do in the archives when I started out there – I pretty much worked it out as I went along, developing strategies to maximize time and volume of documents as my different projects moved along and their needs evolved. To my surprise, it came up as a question in my interview in 2017 for my current position as Research Fellow on the Race and the Death Penalty project:

“What do you do when you go to the archives? How do you go about collecting data?”

This was a far more practical, not even methodological, question than I was used to as part of the academic job application process. I found myself trying to work out how I could answer the question using the S.T.A.R. method! Then I realized there was no trick in the question, Lizzie (Seal, Project Principal Investigator) just wanted to make sure I’d be able to hit the ground running, that I could work independently on the data collection aspect of the project and that I wouldn’t need extensive training in archive research methods to be able to do the job. As it was a role in Historical Criminology there was every chance that an applicant’s research experience could lie elsewhere – in conducting ethnographic interviews, for example, or working with survey data rather than being comfortable with working in archives. And having so much experience of working at The National Archives specifically, and with the HO (Home Office) and other files that would be central to the project particularly, was an additional benefit to the project I was happy to highlight to Lizzie and the other members of the interview panel.

My answer to Lizzie’s interview question actually gave me an opportunity to refer to the project outline in the job description – a pared-down version of the project proposal. I recommended using a slightly different method for collecting data than Lizzie had planned, a method I’m pleased to say we ended up employing. Everyone has their own different ways of working, and I’m not saying ours is the best, but so far it seems most appropriate for our project. I’ve spotted some recent articles online about what to do in the archives, but they all vary slightly depending on the particular archive’s rules and environment, and the type of documents being worked with. Here are a couple of examples that describe a somewhat similar method to ours: from the Bodleian Library and University of Illinois.

Why does it matter what we do in the archives?

Put simply, method in the archives can impact the outcomes of research. Depending on the specificities of the project, what you do in the archives can make a big difference. For examples, if you order in advance or don’t, if you read and take notes on site and how you do that, or if you photograph documents to read later… the equipment you use and the decisions you make about recording what you’ve looked at and where you found information can make enormous differences to the content, quality and collaborative possibilities of your research and its products. Your doctoral thesis, monograph, journal article, conference paper or seminar materials could be completely different depending on whether you looked at 2 files or 12, for example, or if you read only part of a large book or folder of documents rather than the whole of it.

Time is the common factor. With literally millions of documents you could look at in the stores of The National Archives, selecting from them and maximizing the amount of time you can spend reading them is important. For some researchers and academics, distance from the archive is prohibitive, the cost of travelling is significant, research days are few and far between, not to mention childcare and other commitments. So strategies that allow archive-users to see as many documents as possible in as few visits as they can are key. For some, there are other practical concerns; disabilities can literally restrict access to archives, while some people find it difficult to stay sitting in the reading rooms for lengths of time, or to read continuously for hours, or to read from white pages under the artificial lights, or focus their eyes well enough to decipher tiny type or centuries-old handwriting… Digitisation would be the answer to many of these issues, but The National Archives has so far only been able to make a tiny fraction of its vast collections available online, and it is (arguably) not the answer to every archive access problem.

Some of the above issues and complications affect the Race and the Death Penalty project, but most significantly Lizzie and I want to be able to work together on the project outcomes. Collaborating in the way we want to means both Lizzie and I being able to read the documents in the case files separately and discuss our impressions and thoughts about the cases before we write about them.

So we don’t read onsite at The National Archives. We photograph the files we need and bring them back with us, extending opportunities for deeper, slower reading, for collaboration, and even for returning to the documents later or sharing them with others. Many files I used for my PhD thesis, photographed back in 2012, have proved useful for the Race and the Death Penalty Project in 2017 and 2018. It also saves money to read off-site. Between 1900 and 1965, about 60 people who were black or minority ethnic were sentenced to death in England and Wales. This represents upwards of 150 files that could be useful for the project. The time and travel involved in getting both Lizzie and I to The National Archives and back again from Sussex to read and make notes on every one of them on-site would far exceed what the project has paid for equipment and between 15 and 20 visits over a year for just one of us to photograph the files.

So what do we do in the archives?

I see most researchers reading documents in the reading rooms and making notes on them, either by hand or on a laptop or tablet, and then perhaps photographing individual pages or selected documents (using a smartphone or similar) that they might want to view later. For us, this approach wouldn’t work, for the reasons outlined above. I also see it as risky. A couple of researchers I’ve spoken to lost their precious notebooks, or forgot to write down file references or page numbers, or wanted to check their notes or transcription later and have not been able to. Marginalia overlooked at the time of reading could turn out to be really important later, and The National Archives might be a long way to go for that.

Photographing selected documents using a smartphone or tablet would also mean that any images we took of the documents would be quite low quality/resolution, and so not suitable for OCR or publication. Even with the best high-pixel smart phone or other device, I’ve found it virtually impossible to hold the thing perfectly parallel with the document underneath, resulting in some skewing or angling of the document in the resulting image. This also renders it useless for OCR or publication. Not to mention the fact that holding a camera phone up above the desk and pressing the shutter button more than a dozen or so times in succession HURTS.

An example of an image of a document photographed using my smartphone:

A typed letter on aged paper in a folder on a table. The document almost totally fills the frame but the text is blurry, there is significant shadow, and the lines of the document are not level with the frame of the image - it is skewed.
Image of a document from MEPO 2/8449 taken with my 16MP smartphone camera.

With all this in mind, we use a high quality DSLR camera to which we’ve added a remote shutter button. Using the National Archives reading room fixed tripods and positioning the documents under the camera I can get into a rhythm of turning the page and pressing the button, capturing hundreds, even thousands of pages in a single day. Taking regular breaks and doing stretches to combat RSI from page-turning really helps because turn-click-turn-click can be hard on your wrists. In this way, productivity can be pretty high, the maximum number of images I’ve been able to make in a day is about 3,600. File depth (number of pages to a file) varies, but this many pages can represent up to 21 good-sized files, which is the maximum number you’re permitted to order and view at The National Archives in a day anyway.

Our set-up

DSLR camera with remote shutter attachment, connected to tripod fixed to desk. The camera points downward onto a document on the desk. Behind the camera and desk is the window in the National Archives reading room.
Camera fixed to archive-provided desktop tripod (see below for description).
Close-up view of Canon DSLR camera with remote shutter attachment, fixed to adjustable tripod, pointing downward onto a wooden desk.
Camera fixed to archive-provided desktop tripod (see below for description).


Some more top tips for photographing documents at The National Archives:

  • Set your DSLR to JPEG file format not RAW (saves space and conversion time)
  • Check your zoom (all the way out is best)
  • Use auto-focus settings (but make sure your hands are out of the way)
  • Use a remote shutter (it avoids camera shake as well as RSI)
  • Take regular breaks (and put your camera battery on charge when you do)
  • Order files a few days in advance (up to 12 since late-2017)
  • Order three more files as soon as you arrive (you can have three documents on order at any one time, and once they’ve been retrieved and appeared in your locker you can order three more)
  • Go there on one of the days they’re open later (Tuesday/Thursday)
  • Reserve a seat with a camera stand when you’re placing your advance order
  • Remember to adhere to all the reading room rules and regulations RE document handling and photographing, and be aware that they can and do change from time to time. It’s all very well photographing the documents so you can refer to them again, but make sure other researchers have the same opportunity by keeping them in good nick.


Bear in mind that when you get back to a PC with your bounty of images on an SD card, you will need to know which images belong to which file reference. How will you know where CRIM 1/989 begins and ends when its only 88 of 1,888 images you made of 18 different files on the same day? The best way I’ve found of dealing with this is to use that useful yellow label the reading room gives you with each file. By placing it on the top of the file and making that the first page of each new file you photograph you’ll get the date of your visit and the file reference in the shot. It will then appear as a bright yellow flag on the image thumbnail preview that will allow you to divide up your hundreds of images into different folders for different files, or convert them to PDF for easy reading (we do this with a print-to-PDF programme), quickly and easily.

The cover of a cardboard folder, edges square with the frame, with a yellow square of paper sitting on top. The yellow square has an archive barcode, date, time, seat number and file reference.
The yellow tag on the front of the folder is really easy to see in image thumbnails.

We keep a back-up of our original images in case we need to refer back to them, but we ‘print’ (convert) them to PDF to make them into easier to handle files. We can then read them on desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone, annotate the PDFs using Adobe Reader’s functions, and call on the original image files as a back-up should we want a high-quality version for OCR or publishing. (Incidentally, OCR can be achieved really easily with Microsoft OneNote, so you don’t even need a special expensive programme for that, although obviously this only counts for printed text and not handwriting.)

What we can’t do in the archives

There are undeniably some limits to all of the above. This ‘how-to’ is specific to The National Archives and would vary for others depending on the specific rules regarding reading room use, ordering, production and photographing, and these rules impact what you can do. Preparation is the key. Will you need to pay for a camera pass, for example, or pay per image you photograph? Can you take your own camera or do you have to use the archives’ own image capture machine? Do you need to book it? Do you need to pay per image you make, or write down the full reference and page number for every document you make a digital copy of? Read up on an archive’s rules in advance of your visit and ask yourself how this might affect what you want to do there. Beyond this, some method is personal taste, adapting retrieval methods to the needs of the project, file types, etc. The above suggestions wouldn’t work for large maps or rolls, for example.

The DSLR camera itself presents some limitations, too. The auto-focus isn’t foolproof, and I’ve been faced with a couple of blurry images when I’ve returned from the archives, which is disappointing if you’ve not seen the preview in the viewfinder and snapped again just in case. This problem might be overcome with improved camera skill! But the model of DSLR we chose also makes a difference: it has a fixed screen on the back which acts as a viewfinder or preview screen, meaning that if the camera needs to be set up above eye-level you have to stand up or tiptoe to check the image after the photograph has been taken. This could be overcome with a different camera model (the kind with the rotating viewfinder) or by setting up a laptop with the camera to show a preview of the whole image at reading size. I’ve seen other researchers doing this and it’s a very sophisticated, if expensive (and heavy to carry on a train!) set up.

The other major problem I’ve found is sound. DSLR cameras make a very particular noise when the shutter opens and closes to capture the image. There is no way around this. On silent mode the ‘beep’ goes away, but there’s still the audible mechanical sound of the shutter opening and closing, not to mention the lens rotating as it focuses. I’ve had to explain this to very patient fellow-researchers in archive reading rooms in the past. It’s a really annoying, repetitive sound but believe me, it is totally unavoidable (try rotating the lens by hand while it is detached from the camera and you’ll see what I mean – watch this video for a demonstration) so make sure to be considerate of other archive users and try to compromise if the sound is really irritating or disturbing to those who are trying to read documents on-site.

If you’re fortunate enough to be able to go to an archive and photograph the documents held there that are not digitized, have a think about what it would mean to share those documents. I don’t mean making them publicly available – The National Archives would doubtless object (it’s against their access agreements) and there are all sorts of other data protection considerations with sharing archive documents too. But if you photograph a document that might be useful to a fellow-researcher who finds it difficult, for whatever reason, to visit an archive in person, consider offering to privately share a copy of the PDF you’ve made, or some of the JPEGS you’ve collected. If you’re going to an archive and you’re planning to photograph the files you view there, could you fit an extra one in? Genealogists have been offering ‘look-ups’ of undigitized archive documents for years – letting other family historians know which regional or national archives they’re visiting and when, offering to make a copy of a document for someone on the other side of the world. If you’re able to spare 20 minutes and a document order for another researcher who can’t reach an archive as easily that could mean an awful lot to their research. And perhaps they might be able to return the favour. So if you see anything on our blog or Twitter feed that might be useful to your research, please drop us an email – we’d be happy to share if we can. And if you’re about to visit a police archive or similar and you wouldn’t mind taking a few extra photographs for us, please do get in touch!

What we do after the archives

After coming home from the archives, recovering, charging up all the batteries for next time, uploading, converting and backing-up all our files, making them accessible to each other through our shared storage, there’s the reading and writing to attend to. Lizzie and I both employ a close-reading method which we’ve summarized as ‘reading f***ing everything’. The sources we’re using can hide meaning and interpretation even in the margins, so attention-to-detail is necessary. We each write notes, Lizzie prefers hand-written, I’m a fan of a typed summary and some visual aides-memoires, then we meet to discuss what we’ve read and invariably find things that the other didn’t notice or hadn’t considered.

While we’re reading we’re acutely aware of the need for context. The crime case files in the collections described above are all impacted by contemporary legal issues and changes to laws, policies and departmental staff. The files’ content, purpose and prevalence shifts because of, for examples, the 1907 Appeals Act, the 1957 Homicide Act, the abolition of the death penalty, the reform of the courts structure etc. A good starting point for all of this is The National Archives’ Research Guides which are an excellent resource for some of the wider historical and bureaucratic contexts that have impacted what’s available in the archive.

Over the period we’ve each been working with the documents (myself since 2012, Lizzie longer) access and conditions have changed at The National Archives too, forcing us to be flexible and adaptive. Changing archive policies with regard to Freedom of Information, personal data and disturbing images, for examples, have changed what we’re able to view and where, meaning that from one visit to the next we might have to view documents in the invigilated reading room rather than in the open reading rooms. Don’t forget your patience and courtesy toward archive staff (even if they’re giving you bad news about access to a document) they’re highly under-appreciated.

With this in mind, I highly recommend the behind-the-scenes tours offered by The National Archives from time-to-time (see their Events page for details), and similarly Heritage Open Days might allow you to see what goes on in local and regional archives. Often archive staff will be able to tell you what they know about archival practices in the past (why some documents were sent to them for preservation and some were retained or destroyed, for example) and give you the benefit of their experience in all sorts of ways. Bureaucratic processes, police practices, evidence selection and court action have shaped the documents we use and, though we’ve seen a lot of case files, we can only ever look at one box at a time. Over months and years of working in the archives staff there might have noticed things about the changing nature of the documents that you can’t appreciate if you don’t see them all laid out together on the shelf, so it’s worth asking.


After reading, making notes, collaborating and concluding, the next step is to write and share the results of our research. Approaches vary between disciplines, but as these are archive documents from 1900-1965 there is likely to be heavy influence from historical methodologies. However, it has been worth keeping an eye on other disciplines and how they refer to similar approaches. For example, ‘bricolage’, ‘thinking queer’, ‘thick description’, ‘telling cases’, ‘micro-histories’, ‘case study approach’, etc. are all different ways of describing methods that seek to compare elements between and within cases rather than making grand sweeping generalisations from them. In our research before and during the Race and the Death Penalty project, Lizzie and I have both been more interested in reading social and cultural meanings from crime case files rather than attempting to retrieve the ‘truth’ of what really happened or ‘whodunnit’. It’s worth being attentive to the fact that there are literatures in a wide variety of disciplines that describe similar approaches, draw on common methods for reading or retrieving ‘data’, and so we can learn much from casting our nets wider than the immediate sub-discipline or area we’re used to working in and sharing and exchanging not just the products of our research but the ways we go about doing what we do in the archives as well.


Identity in the Archives: problems of identification

Since the project launched in April 2017, we’ve been focused on the first four tasks listed in our project plan: identifying cases, collecting data, first reading of data, literature review. These activities are operating concurrently, to some extent. This blog post focuses on the first activity, describing what we are doing to identify relevant cases, how we are doing it, and some of the problems we have encountered so far. As described in our section ‘about the project‘ which is based on the project proposal, we are seeking to identify all cases of black, Asian and other minority ethnic (BME/BAME) defendants who were sentenced to death in the period 1900-1965 to allow us to try to answer our research questions.

The primary problem is:

How do we know which defendants were BME/BAME?

Identifying ‘race’ from names, descriptions and images are all highly problematic in their own ways. And as historians have generally accepted that ‘race’ is historically (and geographically) contingent, racialised categories might change over the 65 years covered by the project. So in criminal cases where the death sentence was pronounced, how do we know who was considered racially ‘other’ (that is, by the predominantly white police and judiciary), when and why? This is important because we have already identified that black and other minority ethnic defendants were more likely to be capitally punished than white defendants (roughly 5% of all executions were of BAME defendants, whereas they represented less than 1% of the total population), which at least suggests that racism(s) was/were in operation in the criminal justice system in the period. But if that was the case, against whom did discriminatory practices operate? How was racial or ethnic difference identified and understood by contemporaries? For example; were lines drawn because of colour, parentage, place of birth, migration status or a combination of these factors? Were there degrees of difference, or were all racial ‘others’ treated the same, across the period of the project, and at different locations in England and Wales? Could a defendant describe their own identity or was it defined for them? …These are just some of the questions we have, and this blog post won’t be able to resolve them but it will describe some of the problems we’ve had with attempting to answer them so far. In so doing, it also describes the various methods researchers might employ to identify pertinent cases in the archives, applying their own research interests or finding criteria.

Since our project is about ‘Race and the Death Penalty’, we also need to find cases where the defendant was sentenced to death. We have a few sources we can call on, including The National Archives catalogue, lists of people hanged published on the internet, contemporary calendars or similar lists of cases or convicted persons and publications about crime, and contemporary newspaper reports.

The National Archives catalogue contains a wealth of information, despite the majority of entries being only a tiny (and sometimes frustratingly thin) representation of what you might find when you actually order the documents at the archives and look in the boxes. I should stress here that the documents within the twentieth century crime files held at the National Archives have not been digitised, let alone their textual content made searchable. So let me be clear that what we are searching is the file descriptions in the catalogue entries – the metadata recorded by archivists that represents a box or a folder sitting on the shelves, the contents of which can only be accessed by going to the National Archives in person, ordering it and physically opening the box.

The National Archives collections that relate to crime (that’s CRIM, ASSI, MEPO, HO, PCOM, DPP and J) contain nearly a million entries. And some file descriptions in themselves can help us to work out who was sentenced to death, as shown in the example below:

sentenced to death snapshot
National Archives catalogue entry showing a case where defendant was ‘sentenced to death’.

However, The National Archives catalogue can be difficult to navigate and hard to get the results you want from its interface and search function (currently called ‘Discovery’ though I understand a new version is in development). An alternative way of finding information is to download all of the catalogue metadata from the API (Application Programming Interface) and search through it yourself, designing your own queries. Some computer programming knowledge is required for this, and properly describing this method of exploring and selecting cases requires a whole blog post in itself (which I’m still meaning to get around to writing). But file descriptions in the catalogue are not consistent across the whole of the period, nor are they consistent across different court jurisdictions in England and Wales. So we might be able to work out how many files exist in the archive that represent cases where the death sentence was pronounced, but that might not be an accurate representation of all the people who were sentenced to death in England and Wales in that period.

There are also websites like Capital Punishment UK which list all the people hanged in England and Wales in the 20th century. The first problem with this source is that it only gives those actually capitally punished, not those who successfully appealed, or were reprieved, or died in prison. The image below shows an extract listing one year’s hanged:

capital punishment snapshot
Screenshot from Capital Punishment UK showing English and Welsh executions in the year 1900.

The second major problem, which relates to all the methods of identifying cases so far mentioned including the National Archives catalogue descriptions, is that these sources might give us the names of defendants sentenced to death, but names don’t tell us very much, if anything, about ‘race’. They might help us to identify some BME/BAME defendants using a rudimentary understanding of ‘foreign sounding’ names, but this is reductive and problematic to say the least. For example, it completely disregards the fact that England and Wales in the past, as now, was made up of a variety of races and ethnicities and so a foreign or unusual name was not an accurate marker of race.

Contemporary publications about crime go a bit further, including descriptions of the people involved and a brief outline of the case. A good example is A Calendar of Murder by Terence Morris and Louis Blom-Cooper (1964) which Lizzie and I have each used in our previous research to identify potentially useful cases. Each entry names both defendant and victim and describes them, briefly, where the authors felt it was important. Unfortunately, the book only covers the period 1957-1964 and it has no earlier equivalent. An example entry from the book is shown below:

snapshot from Calendar of Murder
Detail from T Morris and L. Blom-Cooper, A Calendar of Murder: Criminal Homicide in England since 1957 (London: Michael Joseph, 1964), p. 239.

Based on Lizzie’s initial research when she wrote the proposal for the project, we suspected that the most consistent and reliable method for identifying cases might be mining newspaper descriptions. This means using the search term “sentenced to death” limited to the period 1900-65 and literally going through every page of results on The British Newspaper Archive (BNA) to pick out the ones where the person so sentenced was described by their racial ‘otherness’ in the headline or first couple of sentences of the article. BNA then allows us to bookmark or download the page so we can use the name and date to search The National Archives (TNA) for the relevant files on the case.

The problem with this approach is the number of results! So far, we’ve checked about 7,000 headlines, but the total is well into the tens of thousands. That’s not indicative of the number of cases since multiple newspaper titles are represented by the British Newspaper Archive, and cases were often reported on in the same newspaper on multiple occasions as they followed the case from start to finish (although obviously it’s only from sentencing to the conclusion of the case that the phrase ‘sentenced to death’ is likely to have appeared). I can’t even do the Maths on how many hours it would take me to go through all the results.

So at the same time as going through the ‘sentenced to death’ results we’ve been using some of the keywords to check that we have collected all the cases where defendants are referred to with this descriptor. A trigger warning here – some of the words that have come up to describe people are pretty shocking. We’ve been surprised by the sheer number of different ways used to refer to the race of a defendant in the past. They include explicit references to colour (eg. ‘Negro’, ‘Coloured’ and ‘man of colour’), which could apparently signify that the person described was black or of mixed ethnic background.  ‘Chinaman’ or ‘Chinese’ was a common referent but could apparently describe defendants from a large area of South East Asia not limited to China proper, including Hong Kong. ‘Celestial’ was also used to describe people from China, and was one I hadn’t heard before (shown in the example below). Other referents to national belonging that explicitly meant racially other were geographical (eg. ‘Indian’, ‘Burmese’, ‘Jamaican’ and ‘West Indian’) and some were occupational: ‘Lascar’ could apparently mean various racial identities and ethnic origins, but specifically referred to men working on ships in certain roles.


celestial and sentenced to death result
Snapshot from British Newspaper Archive search result showing defendant Lock Ah Tam described as a ‘Celestial’ and ‘Chinaman’ in newspaper The Sunday Post.

It could be argued that where there are photographs of defendants (in newspapers or in case files) we can make assumptions about whether a person would have been considered racially ‘other’ but this has its limitations too. For example, Udham Singh, described as a ‘man of colour’ was born in the British Punjab in 1899, held a British passport, and described himself as Indian. However, in the interwar period he travelled the world as a sailor under the name Frank Brazil, listing himself on his identity documents as Puerto Rican because Indian men were not allowed to work on American ships. (More on Udham Singh in an earlier post on our site, here.) Hierarchies of race and colour existed that complicated the identification of an individual by the shade of their skin. This included class connotations as well as specificities of ‘race’.

And significantly, identities could be contested or negotiated, within certain limits. For example, the first case of an arrest with the use of an ‘identikit’. The image produced was black and white, and not necessarily explicitly raced in itself, although the descriptions it came with were (the composite image described the person it depicted as “Indian”). There was some disagreement in court as to whether the image produced by the identikit really looked like the person police arrested based on the identikit image. Had the police officer who questioned Eddie Bush detained him because he resembled the image he had seen, or had he identified him because he was told to be on the lookout for ‘an Indian youth and his blonde girlfriend’ in the Bloomsbury area? (She was apparently very striking looking.) It was a matter of debate whether Eddie even ‘looked Indian’. Born in London, Eddie’s mother was white and his father was from Pakistan. Eddie himself didn’t identify as Indian/Pakistani or a man of colour, and resisted attempts to characterise him as such. In fact, in one narrative of the murder he said that the victim had called him a ‘n****r’ which had made him so angry he had been provoked to attack her.



eddie and kit
Photograph of Eddie Bush, left. Identikit used by police to identify Bush, right.


With all this in mind, the question remains, whose definitions of race are important to our project?

We don’t have the answer yet, but a recent breakthrough has some exciting implications. We noticed that some of the Home Office folders within the files had little notations on the back of them. Examples are shown below:


3 examples of CM3
Three examples of notes on Home Office files reading ‘C.M.III. – Chron. List’ etc.

They all say “C.M.III. – Chron. List” followed by page numbers and descriptions, the most fascinating being “p. 230 – Foreigners” and “p. 231 – coloured men.” We wondered, did this refer to an index being kept of all the cases that fitted these (and other) categories by Home Office definitions? It took a long time to work out what C.M.III might mean but we think we’ve got it. Catalogued among the ‘precedent files’ in the Home Office collections at the National Archives are ‘black books’ previously kept in the Home Office itself. It seems that these were referred to for making reports on cases with common elements, elements from murder weapons used (all cases of shooting listed together, for example) to relationships between the victim and defendant (pages and pages of lists, and subsequent reports, of murder by ‘sweethearts’ for instance) and from defence strategies employed (‘provocation’ for example) to the perceived racial identity of the defendant. Much like the published book A Calendar of Murder described above, the lists in these books give the name of the defendant, the year of the trial, and the outcome of the case. Helpfully, they also provide reference numbers for the relevant Home Office files (struck out when the file was destroyed). Some cases appear in more than one list. Crucially, if the Home Office took the decision to reprieve rather than hang a defendant found guilty of murder, a brief explanation of why they did so is given. In many cases, the defendant’s release date and ultimate fate is given.

black book extract
‘Black book’ extract showing ‘Murder by Coloured Persons (Cont’d)’

This is really fascinating stuff. Historians and Historical Criminologists who deal with any of the types of crime described by these indices (a list of some of the categories shown below – please feel free to contact us for more details) can’t fail to recognise the utility of such lists. Although these categories are imperfect they are a great starting point for us. There seem to be a few omissions and inconsistencies (defendants we would have expected to be considered ‘foreign’ not appearing on that list for example, or one defendant from China being listed as ‘coloured’ while another from the same country is a ‘foreigner’). And undoubtedly these designations of people’s identities are problematic, even arbitrary. But these pages are a great starting point for our project. With the Home Office having arguably the most influence over whether or not a capitally sentenced defendant was hanged or pardoned (their sentence reduced to live imprisonment), literally whether someone lived or died, they provide a very specific but immeasurably valuable perspective from which to view race and racialisation in relation to the death penalty.

Classes of case from V67
A selection of headings under which capital cases were categorised in Home Office black books.


Watch this space for a list of all cases of black, Asian and minority ethnic people who were sentenced to death in England and Wales in the twentieth century, including an exploration of the Home Office’s classifications.




Poster presentation at BSC 2017

On 6th July we presented the first output from the project – an academic poster – at the British Society of Criminology Annual Conference, held at Sheffield Hallam University. 

The text and images are reproduced below but you can download the actual poster either here in its original (large) format, or a smaller file is available here: BSCC poster web version

Creative Commons License  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, please cite Lizzie Seal and Alexa Neale.

Race, Racialisation and the Death Penalty in England and Wales, 1900-65

‘Race, Racialisation and the Death Penalty in England and Wales, 1900-65’ is an interdisciplinary project at the University of Sussex funded by the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2016-352). It draws on concepts, methodologies and modes of analysis from both history and criminology to explore the over-representation of black and other minority ethnic (BME) people among those capitally punished in the twentieth century (roughly 5% of civilian executions were BME compared to 0.3% of the British population in 1950).

Though case studies have previously analysed the significance of racism and racist discourse in individual trials, including in relation to miscarriage of justice (Minkes and Vanstone, 2006; D’Cruze, 2007), there have been no larger, more thoroughgoing studies of race and the death penalty. This omission leaves a gap in scholarship regarding the history of racialized punishment – the ways in which punishment was part of the maintenance of racial inequality, particularly in relation to the ‘importance of colonialism in structuring ideas about crime and punishment’ (Cuneen, 2014: 390).

By examining, as far as possible, all cases of BME individuals sentenced to death in England and Wales 1900-65, the project will explore issues of racial discrimination in relation to capital punishment, including the ways in which prosecutions for murder were in practice made racist. Narratives and stereotypes of racial difference and racialized interpretations of defendant’s behaviour will be explored through critical readings of archival material and newspaper reporting on individual cases.

The project launched in April 2017, initially focusing on identifying capital cases in England and Wales with black and other minority ethnic defendants, and copying the files on those cases at The National Archives. As of July 2017, 45 cases have so far been identified, half of which have been copied. Here, project Principal Investigator Lizzie Seal and Research Fellow Alexa Neale present some of their initial findings from two case studies.

Composite of images from the ‘Race and the Death Penalty’ project.

Madan Lal Dhingra (below) was born in Amritsar, British Punjab in 1883 to a wealthy family who were supporters of British rule in India. He studied engineering at University College, London, where he joined societies of Indian students including the loyalist British Indian Association and the nationalist India House. His presence at the latter worried his father due to its reputation for anti-Imperialist sentiment and ‘seditious’ publications supporting home rule for India. When direct appeals to his son failed, Dr Dhingra asked his friend in London, Sir William Hutt Curzon Wyllie, to use his influence to persuade Madan to stop attending India House.

Madan Lal Dhingra

Sir William Hutt Curzon Wyllie (below) had enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the British Army in India, rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.  In 1909, he was serving as advisor and political aide-de-camp to the Secretary of State for India, hosting and entertaining Indian magnates and students visiting England. On 1st July 1909, an ‘At Home’ event was held at the Imperial Institute, South Kensington, hosted by the British Indian Association. As guests were leaving, Madan Lal Dhingra pulled a revolver from his pocket and shot at Wyllie who was killed instantly. A Parsee doctor who stood between Dhingra and Wyllie was also shot and died.

wyllie e
Sir William Hutt Curzon Wyllie

Dhingra turned the gun on himself but it failed to fire. After he was found guilty of murder at the Old Bailey he explained:

‘…if it is patriotic in an Englishman to fight against the Germans if they were to occupy this country, it is much more justifiable and patriotic in my case to fight against the English. I hold the English people responsible for the hanging and deportation of my patriotic countrymen, who did just the same as the English people here are advising their countrymen to do… Just as the Germans have no right to occupy this country, so the English people have no right to occupy India, and it is perfectly justifiable on our part to kill the Englishman who is polluting our sacred land… I wish that English people should sentence me to death, for in that case the vengeance of my countrymen will be all the more keen.’

Dhingra’s statement was suppressed by authorities but published by his supporters after he was sentenced to death. A major concern at the Home Office was that Dhingra’s anti-colonial sentiments might make him a martyr if he was hanged, and for this reason many wrote to the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, to recommend a reprieve:

‘It might be better to imprison for life a murderer of this sort and thereby deprive him of the martyrdom he covets and perhaps deter imitators… [On the other hand] public opinion in this country would rightly resent any interference with the due course of the law and it would be represented as a sign of weakness in India.’

Colonial concerns were at the forefront of the debate:

‘Dhingra’s act can only be defended, as he defended it, on grounds which would justify the murder of every Englishman by every Indian. This is madness, sheer and downright lunacy. As if a man in revolt against the existence of the sea would shoot every sailor on sight.’

‘You have not to do with a purely domestic or national matter but with some millions of people of greatest intelligence sunk into abject superstition, and liable at any moment to blaze out into religious frenzy and that people governed by a mere handful of our countrymen… Dhingra is no ordinary case and the best way of meeting it may be found in a departure from popular English opinion that has no more notion of what Indian character is than the man in the moon… Were he an ordinary Englishman the law should certainly be allowed to take its course but he is not.’

Despite petitions to recommend a reprieve, Gladstone ultimately decided not to interfere with the course of the law. Madan Lal Dhingra was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 17th August 1909.

Composite of images from contemporary press reports on the Dhingra case.

Udham Singh (below) was born in the British Punjab in 1899 and brought up in an orphanage in Amritsar. In 1919, as a young man, Singh witnessed the Amritsar Massacre in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed Indian people of different faiths were shot dead by British troops at a peaceful gathering. The event divided contemporary British opinion on the roles and culpability of General Dyer, who directly commanded troops, and Sir Michael O’Dwyer, then Governor of Punjab.

Udham SinghPassport photo. Lahore. 1933
Udham Singh

For the next few years Udham Singh travelled the world, exploring major US cities and working his way around Europe and the Mediterranean as a carpenter on US ships. Back in India, Singh was accused of being involved in anti-Imperialist politics, carrying arms and seditious literature, and sentenced to five years in prison. On release he was granted a passport by the British Indian authorities and travelled to London. In the mid-1930s he again travelled Europe, this time by car as a tourist, and then worked for London film studios as an extra in crowd scenes. In 1940 he wanted to travel again but had difficulties gaining permissions because of wartime travel restrictions. At a visit to the India Office about his passport, Singh found that there would be a lecture hosted by Sir Michael O’Dwyer (below) on behalf of the Central Asian Society at Caxton Hall on the 13th March.

Sir Michael O’Dwyer

Sir Michael O’Dwyer had, by 1940, been retired for many years and living in London. General Dyer died in 1927 but O’Dwyer still publicly defended his actions in the Amritsar Massacre. According to one witness, he even spoke about the event at the Caxton Hall lecture. As the speakers were leaving the stage, Udham Singh pulled out a revolver and shot O’Dwyer at close range. When he was arrested he said:

‘I have seen people starving in India under British Imperialism… I done my duty. I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it… I don’t mind dying. I am dying for my country.’

Markers of Singh’s Indian identity were suppressed at his trial where he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Prosecution counsel declared: ‘Members of the jury, there are no political aspects of this case,’ and the presiding judge refused to hear Singh’s prepared statement, rather he advised the court that nothing Singh said should be published. He reacted:

‘You don’t want to hear from us what you are doing in India. Beasts! England, England, down with Imperialism, down with the dirty dogs…’

After the trial, petitioners to the Home Office claimed that commuting Singh’s sentence to life in prison would have ‘an enormous effect upon public opinion in India and would close the unhappy chapter of Amritzar.’

‘…few English people realise how deep and bitter is the resentment Indians still feel over Amritsar. It was the switch over from trust to distrust of Britain by India. Could we, by a generous act of clemency, make some reparation for the shooting [at Amritsar?] It might go a long way… No moment could be more opportune. Few things count more heavily against us in world opinion than that politically-minded India still refuses to throw itself in on our side in this war.’

Though a reprieve for Singh might make India more likely to support Britain at war, it might also allow his voice to be heard:

‘If we help the British [in this war] we [will] get the same thing what they gave us after the last war. The violent and brutal English interfere in Indian public, cultural, economic and social life, accompanied by the most brutal and incredible physical persecution. Our war is not war with Germany and Russia but with Britain. The British convert our country into a prison and a hell.’

Singh was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 31st July 1940.

Composite of images illustrating the Singh case (bottom left image represents the Amritsar Massacre also known as Jallianwala Bagh Massacre).

Through the processes of the criminal justice system, Dhingra and Singh became ‘executable subjects’ – those seen as deserving of death (Sarat and Shoemaker, 2011). Their cases illustrate the shifting constructions of racial meaning from 1909 to 1940. Changing understandings of Britishness in this period, new immigrant populations, changes in the nature of colonialism and shifts toward postcolonialism changed the ways cases were discussed and defendants were framed. Placing case studies in their wider social, cultural and political contexts in this way helps to shed new light on the penal culture of contemporary England and Wales.

Being political assassinations, the discourses around punishing the actions of Dhingra and Singh gave the death penalty political meaning. Their actions were critical of colonialism and their punishment was therefore racialized. Though there were attempts to conceal political content from the courtroom and public, politics of race and colonialism were central to post-trial decision-making. Contemporaries were forced to consider the potential impact of the life or death of the defendant on global, as well as local public opinion in these cases. Home Office officials had to discuss the wider meaning of the death penalty more generally, what it was for, as well as how mercy might be interpreted if it were applied in these instances.

The majority of twentieth-century murders were spouse- or partner-killings. The political shootings by Dhingra and Singh are unusual amongst them, and contemporary discussions of the cases have different resonances and meanings. We anticipate, however, that analysis of these cases as the project progresses will continue to reveal the ways in which the death penalty was racialized in England and Wales until it was finally abolished in 1965.


Cunneen, C (2014) ‘Colonial Processes, Indigenous Peoples, and Criminal Justice Systems’, in M Tonry and S Bucerius (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Ethnicity, Crime, and Immigration, New York: Oxford University Press, pp.386-407.

D’Cruze, S (2007) ‘Intimacy, Professionalism and Domestic Homicide in Interwar Britain: the Case of Buck Ruxton’, Women’s History Review, 16(5): 701-22.

Minkes, J and Vanstone, M (2006) ‘Gender, Race and the Death Penalty: Learning from Three 1950s Murder Trials’, The Howard Journal, 45(4): 403-20.

Sarat, A and Shoemaker, K (2011) Who Deserves to Die: Constructing the Executable Subject, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Selected sources:

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 10 July 2017), July 1909, trial of DHINGRA, Madar Lal (25, student) (t19090719-55).

The National Archives, CRIM 1/113/5: ‘The murder of Sir Curzon Wyllie by an Indian student, Madan Lal Dhingra…’ (1909).

TNA, CRIM 1/1177: ‘Defendant: SINGH, Udham. Charge: Murder’ (1940).

TNA, DPP 2/728: ‘UDHAM SINGH: Murder’ (1940).

TNA, DPP 2/761: ‘UDHAM, Singh: Murder appeal’ (1940).

TNA, HO 144/919/180952: ‘CRIMINAL: DHINGNA, Madan Lal; Court: Central Criminal; Offence: Murder; Sentence: Death’ (1909).

TNA, HO 144/21444 and 21445: ‘CRIMINAL CASES: SINGH, Udham Convicted at Central Criminal Court (CCC) on 5 June 1940 for murder and sentenced to death’ (1940).

TNA, HO 282/75: ‘Request from the Indian government for the removal of remains of Madan Lal Dhingra…’ (1975).

TNA, MEPO 3/1743: ‘Murder of Sir Michael Francis O’Dwyer by Udham Singh at Caxton Hall, Westminster’ (1940).

TNA: PCOM 9/872: ‘SINGH UDHAM: convicted at Central Criminal Court (CCC) 5 June of murder and sentenced to death’ (1940).