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 (, 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).