The Private Space of the Police and the Prison: Periodicals and the Voyeuristic View of Victorian Law Enforcement

(This post was originally published on the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals Postgraduate Blog – available here:

In this post, I intend to highlight the voyeuristic aspects of nineteenth century crime fiction and articles on the crime published in mid-nineteenth century periodicals, and relate this to the chronology of crime fiction. I intend to explore the interest in making the private world of criminality and law enforcement public, and suggest how this aspect of periodical writing can help augment our understanding of the crime fiction genre and its evolution.

One of the earliest places where we can see a voyeuristic interest in readers of crime literature is eighteenth and early nineteenth century execution broadsides. This has already received some scholarly attention; in her book The Rise of the Detective in Early Nineteenth Century Popular Fiction, Heather Worthington argues:

…the broadsides made their appeal to the voyeuristic interests of the masses, exposing the gory and sometimes salacious details of the crimes and making public what had been private.[i]

Worthington here refers to execution broadsides when she argues that they appealed to the voyeuristic interests of the masses and presenting a public view of hitherto ‘private’ spaces. However, this can also be readily applied to Newgate Calendars and other early crime writing designed to ‘render the private public’. Execution broadsides were popular throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, written and sold by peddlers at public executions. They were single-sheet, heavily sensationalised accounts of the lives of criminals, their crimes that led them to the gallows and a usually graphic description of the executions or other punishments. They also usually included a crude woodcut of the execution taking place, and the prose was often accompanied by a piece of penitent verse, usually printed surrounding the details of the crime and a crude, generic woodcut of the execution taking place (see fig. 1).


Figure 1: Broadside detailing the execution of J. Pallet. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, online resource available at[accessed 08 November 2016] (dated between 1813-1838)

On one hand, execution broadsides publically demonstrated ‘sovereign or state power … encapsulated in pictures and prose and the spectacle of execution reached a wider audience than would have been possible in reality.’[ii] This complements the purpose of the public execution itself, however the broadsides’ alternative purpose was to entertain, and the provision of moral, social or religious instruction remained more a pretence as opposed to the main reason for broadside publication.[iii]

This tension between information and entertainment highlights the execution broadside as a space where a public desire to see ‘inside’ the private arena of the criminal world can be identified.  Execution broadsides complemented a spectacle that was already publically visible, and the detail as to why this particular person had been condemned by the state was therefore a matter of public interest.

Picking up on the broadside’s popularity, The Ordinaries of Newgate began publishing their own versions from inside the prison. These accounts of criminal misdeeds and executions were known collectively as the Accounts of the Ordinaries of Newgate, and were much less sensationalised than common broadsides. The Ordinaries’ access to criminals also gave them an extra edge over the broadside; they could obtain information that a street-seller could only speculate about.[iv] Their widespread popularity reveals a public desire to see inside the private space of the prison – contextual information surrounding a criminal and a highly public execution proved very popular.

Both publications were eventually collated and published as a volume – publications known as The Newgate Calendar(s). The first of these to appear under this name appeared in 1773.[v] These became less focused on executions, and more interested in criminals’ lives. Each story was focused on a specific criminal, their crime and their punishment, and again we see a form of crime-writing that renders a private space public – in this case the life and misdeeds of a stranger, either contemporary or historical. These accounts also often depicted a narrative of the proceedings that took place inside the court-room, another private space that this kind of writing rendered public.

Some issues of the Newgate Calendars were subtitled ‘Comprising Interesting Memoirs the Most Notorious Characters who have been Convicted of Outrages on The Laws of England’. The concept of a ‘memoir’ suggests a link to a form of writing that emerged in the mid nineteenth century that continued the voyeuristic interest of readers – police memoir fiction. One of the first examples appeared in 1827, titled Richmond, or, Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Runner and is attributed to Thomas Sturr, though it was anonymously published. The text surrounds the life of John Richmond, a Bow Street Runner – one of the first organised groups of law-enforcement prior to the establishment of the Metropolitan Police in 1829.  It was not published in a periodical, but as a three-volume novel. However, it fits into the memoir-style category by relating Richmond’s life and his experiences in the Runners as if he were relating a tale to the reader after he had left. For example, Richmond reflects on his memories of joining the Runners:

My first adventure in my new capacity [as a Runner] gave me a strong interest in the sort of life I had now adopted, and compensated for many of the awkward and disagreeable feelings which I had to undergo. I was by this time tolerably well acquainted with London; but was personally a stranger to police transactions, and everything at Bow Street was new to me.[vi]

There are, however, some aspects that distinguish Richmond from later police memoir writing. It is too biographical – the first half is devoted to Richmond’s childhood and early-adult experiences – his adeptness at playing pranks, his schooling, his first love-interest (who tragically dies early on) and his experiences of early adulthood living amongst gypsies. These details are not completely irrelevant; by using this contextual information the novel creates a sophisticated plot-relationship between the two halves of the story, using details from the first to create the second. For example, the loss of Richmond’s first love-interest disassociates him from emotional ties and allows him to undertake the antisocial occupation of a police officer free from emotional attachments. Secondly, Richmond’s life among gypsies prior to starting as a Runner gives him connections in the criminal underworld which he uses as accomplices or for information in his exploits.

This novel is therefore a sophisticated yet isolated example of a police memoir, as later examples of this genre published in the mid-century and in periodicals cannot as effectively use the early life of the character as effectively to set up their narratives. Despite its isolation both chronologically and formulaically, it is an example of a police memoir that continues the theme of allowing readers to see inside a private space, and as such deserves recognising as a milestone in the genre’s development.

In the 1850s and 1860s, police memoir fiction became a popular feature in periodicals, frequently emerging in the pages of a variety of titles. A prolific author was the largely unknown William Russell – distinct from the more widely remembered William Clark Russell. Russell was a writer living in London throughout the 1850s, contributing significant amount of fiction to periodicals and magazines – notably Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal and The Sixpenny Magazine before its untimely demise.

Russell’s earliest example was published in Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal between 1849 and 1853, entitled Recollections of a Police Officer. It was an example of pseudo-non-fictional insight into the police force, designed to appeal to the reading public’s curiosity about the police and provide a literary window into the police force. The serialised publication in Chambers’s proved popular enough for the stories to be collected into a three-volume collection in 1856 (see fig. 2). However, it was retitled Recollections of a Detective Police-Officer.


Figure 2 – Recollections of a Detective Police Officer, London; J&C Brown and Co. (1856) available at

Crucially, the collection of the stories into one three-volume edition added the opportunity to justify, or perhaps explain, the idea behind the creation. In a newly-added preface, Russell argues

I, therefore, offer no apology, for placing these rough sketches of the police experience before the reader. They describe incidents more or less interesting and instructive of the domestic warfare constantly waging between the agents and the breakers of the law…[vii]

Russell informs us that these stories are specifically designed to give the reader an inside-view into how the police operated, and he remained interested in this genre as it developed. Perhaps his most widely distributed example of memoir fiction was Experiences of a Real Detective, published in The Sixpenny Magazine in 1862. In the first instalment, published in March 1862, Russell argues:

“Detective” literature, if it may be so called, appears to have acquired a wide popularity, chiefly, I suppose, because the stories are believed to be, in the main, faithfully-told, truthful narratives. I have read them all, and need hardly say have discovered mistakes that proved to me that the best, most popular of them were the handiwork of a literary man, not the records of an actual experience. I have frequently made remarks in this sense to my friends, several of whom thereupon suggested that I should publish my own real experiences.[viii]

This is an aggressive passage with which to open a new set of stories about the exploits from within the police force. It suggests a growing awareness by the author that detectives and police officers are proving to be popular figures in cheap, accessible and widely published literature. Secondly, the idea of ‘detective literature’ here specifically refers to memoir fiction, suggesting that the perceived nature of ‘detective fiction’ at this time was memoir fiction. The passage specifically points to the fact that the point of the genre was to relate the experiences of a real police officer to the reader. This is unlikely to be true, however it suggests the fact that these narratives were specifically designed to appeal to the voyeuristic interests of readers.

Police memoir writing performed two overall tasks. It began to blend non-fiction with fiction, as it was influenced by much earlier genres of non-fictional crime literature. By looking ‘inside’ the police force, a police memoir style of writing offered a new perspective to experience criminality for readers by following the police officer, rather than the criminal. These memoir writing narratives did however keep an element of the ‘non-fiction’ marketing that these earlier genres also maintained.

The second task that memoir writing performed was help to proliferate understanding of the operational structure and social remit of the police force as an everyday organisation after 1856.The police were often seen as a physical manifestation of Governmental influence in far flung regions away from London, and police memoir-writing allowed readers to get a more first-hand, internal view of the force. It also helped to lay the foundations for later, more recognisable detective fiction.


[i] Worthington, H., The Rise of the Detective in Early Nineteenth Century Popular Fiction, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan (2005), p. 7

[ii] Ibid., p. 7

[iii] Ibid., pp. 6-8

[iv] Ibid., p. 7

[v] Knight, S., Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction, Basingstoke: Macmillan (1980), p. 9

[vi] ‘Richmond’ (attrib. T. S. Surr), Richmond, or, Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Runner, New York: Dover Publications (1976) (orig. published 1827), p. 89

[vii] Russell, W., Recollections of a Detective Police-Officer, London: J&C Brown and Co. (1856), p. vi

[viii] ‘Experiences of a Real Detective’, The Sixpenny Magazine, March 1862, p. 325



‘Experiences of a Real Detective’, The Sixpenny Magazine, March 1862, p. 325

‘Richmond’ (attrib. T. S. Surr), Richmond, or, Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Runner, New York: Dover Publications (1976) (orig. published 1827), p. 89

Knight, S., Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction, Basingstoke: Macmillan (1980), p. 9

Russell, W., Recollections of a Detective Police-Officer, London: J&C Brown and Co. (1856), p. vi

Worthington, H., The Rise of the Detective in Early Nineteenth Century Popular Fiction, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan (2005), p. 7



To Relieve the Innocent Population: Victorian Political Periodical Discourses on the Issue of Criminals

In 1863 John Ruskin, writing in Fraser’s Magazine on the subject of political and social economy, rather startlingly argued the following:

All criminals should at once be set to the most dangerous and painful forms of it [labour], especially to work in mines and at furnaces, so as to relieve the innocent population as far as possible…[i]

This might sound like quite an extreme view by today’s standards, however in the mid-Victorian era there was an observable tension surrounding the treatment of criminals and their socio-economic contributions to society. By the mid-1860s, the number of criminals was increasing at an alarming rate, as the number of persons executed for capital offences or Transported overseas steadily decreased over the first half of the nineteenth century. The number of capital offences had been reduced by over 100 in 1823, thanks to the efforts of Sir Robert Peel.[ii] In addition, Transportation as a form of criminal punishment had been abolished in 1857 by the Penal Servitude Act after Australia (understandably) became unwilling to continue receiving Britain’s convicts. By 1861, the introduction of the Offences Against the Person Act had reduced the amount of capital crimes to just four.

As a result, imprisonment as a form of punishment increased in usage dramatically, and subsequently prisons rapidly became overcrowded. The Government, alongside the public and by extension those writing in the mid-Victorian periodical press, became increasingly concerned about what to do with these criminals. The periodical press, freed from punitive legislation that had previous stifled discussion on most political subjects by the repeal of the ‘taxes on knowledge’ in 1861, picked up on this issue and wrote extensively on the subject. This tension was increasingly discussed in periodical discourses, as politicians, periodical publishers as well as the general public struggled with how to deal with the rapidly increasing number of convicted criminals.

Fraser’s Magazine, the periodical in which John Ruskin wrote the previously quoted lines, was a Tory periodical, which often concerned itself with questions of politics and economics.[iii] Ruskin’s ideas really highlight a Tory attitude towards criminality, then – the question of how to keep the new influx of prisoners active and contributing to society. The Government shared this perspective quite strongly, and this led to the establishment of prison-work details such as bakeries and carpenter workshops, alongside the more feared treadmills and other menial tasks in an attempt to keep prisoners working and economically functional. For example, the below schematic of Coldbath Fields Prison from 1884 (fig. 1) shows the presence of an in-prison bakery and a flour-mill, as well as a carpenter’s workshop, alongside a treadmill house. The sections in pink denote areas that are new – including these facilities, which were designed to keep prisoners economically active.


Figure 1: This image was accessed from the National Archives, available at

There was also significant periodical discussion on this subject at the other end of the political spectrum. Liberal periodicals were also interested in the impacts of the loss of Transportation and the reduction of capital punishment, but from the perspective of the psychological and social impacts on prisoners.

In an additional example of this Tory attitude that convicted prisoners must be kept contributing to society, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, perhaps the most famously vehemently Tory periodical wrote in 1858:

We must take care that the honest labourer does not feel himself the worse for the criminal. This creates a difficulty in the execution of that prime requisite in convict discipline – the introduction of industrious habits.

By purely sacrificing the produce of the labour, the end is not achieved, because it is the aim of the discipline to impart adequate notions of the importance of productive labour.[iv]

Clearly Blackwood’s argues that the most important aspect of prison and judicial discipline is to impart the idea of hard work into prisoners to keep them contributing to society, though the ‘honest labourer’ must not feel that they are worse off than the criminal in their endeavours.

From a Liberal/Whig perspective, the focus in periodical discussion was less on economic impacts of criminality. For example, in 1865 The Edinburgh Review, one of the most venerable and vehement Whig publications (Liberal after the Whig Party’s dissolution in 1859)[v] published an article entitled ‘ART. II.-1. Our Convicts’, which explored the way that becoming a ‘criminal’ affected individual people and caused changes in their perceived identities, and explored how the more centralised and bureaucratic system of law-enforcement affected the ways in which the public perceived criminals as well, creating a marginalised identity from which they could never escape even if they had paid for their transgressions:

A blind man is thought of not as a man who is blind, but as one separated from the rest of mankind by his blindness. A man addicted to liquor, becomes to all but his household connexions, a drunkard and there’s an end. So a man who has once transgressed the boundaries of the criminal law, is thenceforward a criminal [original emphasis], and in that term we seem, as it were, to drown many of the common attributes of human nature, though it is by the temptations of human nature itself that he has fallen.[vi]

The concern of The Edinburgh Review here is therefore not the way that prisoners should be kept economically functional or contributing to society after they have become a ‘criminal’ and imprisoned, but instead the effect that a centralised criminal justice system had on the population as a whole in terms of their perceived identities to others. Criminals who are neither executed nor Transported are marginalised by their isolation inside prison, and once released the label ‘criminal’ cannot be removed. This is an issue that remains relevant today.

The question of capital punishment, therefore, is relevant to both political arguments when periodicals discussed exactly what they wanted to do with convicted criminals. Tory periodicals felt that, as capital punishment was now in use more rarely than it had been at the beginning of the nineteenth century, convicts who resided in prison instead should be kept contributing to society. However, some also argued for the death penalty as a more finite, deterring and (occasionally) cheaper solution to criminality. By contrast, Liberal periodicals were interested in how the reduced use of capital punishment or transportation affected the identity of prisoners after they had been incarcerated, and how they were kept socially integrated.

Capital punishment and the abolition of Transportation had caused this discussion to increase dramatically on both sides of the political spectrum – and it remained a widely contested and debated issue – a search for ‘Capital Punishment’ on the ProQuest British Periodicals database reveals that it was most extensively discussed in the years 1860-69 (throughout the period between 1800 and 1900), with over 3800 hits.

In 1863, the Tory periodical Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine published an article discussing the historical case of Eliza Fenning, a 22-year-old girl hanged in 1815 for the attempted murder of her employer and his children. It analyses the way that the case was handled and how the conviction was received by the public, acknowledging that many were of the belief that Fenning was wrongfully convicted. Far from questioning the Government’s use of capital punishment, however, the article argues:

… it must be remembered that Fenning was defended by able counsel; that after her conviction the case was again investigated by the law advisers of the Crown; that the trial took place on the 11th of April, and the execution was delayed until the 26th of July – a period of more than three months, during which time every opportunity was afforded for bringing forward any circumstance that might tell in the prisoner’s favour…[vii]

In 1863, Blackwood’s again touched on the subject of capital punishment, publishing an article which explored the case of the Wigtown Martyrs. In the article, it argues rather strongly:

All capital punishments must be revolting … Neither the Government nor its agents can therefore be justly held answerable for the mode of execution; and the attendant horrors, the prolonged agony, the wanton recall to life… [viii]

In this case, capital punishment is a necessary evil, and its revolting nature unavoidable. However, not all Tory periodicals felt the same. In 1866, The New Monthly Magazine, a Tory periodical founded by Henry Colburn in 1814[ix] argued that the reduction of the death penalty was desirable, despite the fact that convicted prisoners were more economically costly than executed ones, due to the inherent dishonesty in some people that the fear of the death penalty merely masked:

A man who is only honest from fear of the law’s vengeance is the same noxious member of society without the courage of the active offender.[x]

The same article goes on to advocate prison as a form of punishment, and uses religion as a reason as to why capital punishment cannot be enforced:

We are bound to secure the murderer, and place him where the members of the social body may be secure from any future outrages on his part, but no more. … man has no right to revenge the crime [murder] in the same mode.[xi]

Far from advocating capital punishment through the argument that convicted prisoners were expensive to maintain, this staunchly Tory periodical instead argues that society at large is duty-bound to segregate the prisoner away from the rest of society, but that it is not acceptable to execute them, on moral and religious grounds. Thus, the issue of what to do with criminals becomes more sophisticated.

The direct rival to The New Monthly Magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, agreed. In 1864, it wrote:

Murder, and treason against the state, are the crimes for which the highest penalty of the law are reserved. But, in order that they should deserve such a penalty, it ought to be shown that they are of a kind to increase with a less sever punishment.

In the case of treason: a rebellion has been put down, and the ring-leaders caught, tried and sentenced to death. What can be the use of taking away the life of these misguided men? Their power to do harm is gone, and their death will not arrest any fresh rising. Imprisonment for life, or even a term of years, would, therefore, be as effective as the harsher penalty.[xii]    

Thus, the question of prisoners in periodicals remained contentious, however there was an overarching sense that the idea of capital punishment was antiquated. The periodical press became a forum in which authors and contributors could discuss the treatment of criminals in an increasingly sophisticated criminal justice system – sometimes seen today to be barbaric, but much more progressive than it had hitherto been.



[i] Ruskin J., ‘Essays on Political Economy’, Frasers Magazine, April 1863, p. 442

[ii] Anonymous, Types of Punishment – Hanging’, Victorian Crime and Punishment, online resource available at, accessed 20 September 2016

[iii] Brake, L. and M. Demoor, Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism, Ghent: Academia Publishing (2009), p. 231

[iv] ‘Our Convicts – Past and Present’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, March 1858, p. 305

[v] Brake, L. and M. Demoor, Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism…, p. 190

[vi] ‘ART. II.-1. Our Convicts.’, The Edinburgh Review, October 1865, p. 338

[vii] ‘Judicial Puzzles – Eliza Fenning’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, February 1861., p. 236-237

[viii] ‘The Wigtown Martyrs’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, December 1863, p. 743

[ix] Brake, L. and M. Demoor, Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism

[x] ‘Capital Punishment’, The New Monthly Magazine, February 1866, p. 231

[xi] Ibid., p. 234

[xii] ‘Capital Punishment’, Bentley’s Miscellany, July 1864, p. 172

The Stream Goes Online: An Evaluation of Digitised Periodicals

The advent of digitisation has been a key factor in the increased proliferation and increased popularity of periodical research, in a similar way to many other research fields. As my PhD is grounded in periodical research, the purpose of this post is to muse on the pitfalls of the intense influx of digitisation that researchers should be aware of when working with online material.

In 1971, in his article ‘Charting the Golden Stream: Thoughts on a Directory of Periodical Research’, Michael Wolff lamented the difficulties that students faced when attempting to work with periodical material. Accessing periodical material was difficult for students, who were required to travel to specific archives to examine material held by particular institutions, as well as the fact that often this material would be disorganised, and it was thus difficult for researchers and students to properly use the material they had found.[1]

However, Wolff’s article was also prophetic, as he also argued that the only way that anything close to a subject-index for Victorian periodicals could be created would be ‘through the use of massive computer scanning’.[2] This has recently come to fruition. Interest in periodicals has increased, and thus gaining access to primary material has become an issue that both academics and institutions have worked to resolve. Advances in scanning technology has created a focus on digitisation of primary periodical material, scanning periodicals into complete runs and scanning them online databases.

Digital Benefits

Firstly, most obviously, researchers can instantly access a wealth of meticulously organised material, from anywhere with an internet connection. This now includes whilst travelling, thanks to new high-speed mobile internet connections. Prior to digitisation, there were only incomplete periodical directories for researchers to refer to, including The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals (1966-89), The Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals (1997) and Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature, 1802-1906 (1963). These assisted scholars in locating and contextualising material,[3] but they were by no means comprehensive and contained no primary material. Alternatively, scholars sometimes included their own directories with their publications, so that readers could see where they had obtained their information and to create context for their arguments. For example, Alvar Ellegård in his 1957 book The Readership of the Periodical Press in Mid-Victorian Britain includes a directory of periodicals published between 1855 and 1871. This was seen as very useful and was republished at the editor’s request in the September 1971 issue of the Victorian Periodicals Newsletter.[4] However whilst useful, it could be countered that this practice was an obscure reason why no centralised archive existed; researchers simply created their own directories for each project.

A second benefit surrounds the attachment of meta-data to material – data that contextualises the periodical. This allows students to obtain information about the periodical that they are searching through immediately without having to engage in secondary research about the periodical itself. They can see the name, lifespan and key personnel involved in the periodical’s history, as well as target audiences and prices at their time of publication and how these changed over the periodical’s life.

Researchers can also quickly access complete runs of periodicals that have been collated together. This allows them to view periodicals in their entirety, as well as individual issues and assists the student or researcher in examining the histories of entire periodicals very quickly. This also allows for comparison between particular issues that were published anywhere near each other, and can thus assist researchers in evaluating how socio-cultural attitudes changed over their lifetimes very quickly. Examining complete runs of periodicals also assists researchers in contextualising periodicals, contemporary issues can be placed together to compare how they presented a particular topic or historical event to their individual readerships. This allows researchers to build a broad, cross-section picture of particular cultural events and easily identify socio-political inclinations of publications.

Digitisation also allows for relatively easy manipulation of data. Firstly, Searching within the material for key words that appear in articles allows the student to search for isolated key words that appear in articles across periodical’s entire run. This will return articles containing these key-words appearing in any issue of the periodical, assisting researchers in finding relevant material. This can be used to compare articles published throughout the periodical’s life, assisting in quickly examining how it evolved. In addition to searching through complete runs of particular periodicals, researchers can search through all publications in the database. For example, a search for ‘detective’ in one of these databases will search all periodicals contained in it and return a list of articles from different periodicals that all contain this word. The researcher can then scour these results to select articles that they wish to more closely read. These searches can be single key-words, or complex strings that search for phrases or multiple words by using AND and OR functions in ‘advanced search’ tools. Searches can also be limited to specific date-ranges or authors, and so researchers can tailor their search results to their specific research area. Once the student or researcher has their list of results, they can be filtered, sorted or manipulated to the specific requirements of the researcher.

A final benefit to digitisation is the fact that multiple researchers can view the same material simultaneously. Not only does this assist in the proliferation of periodical research as a whole, but it also allows institutions, museums and indeed individual collectors to preserve their material in a much more secure and risk-free environment, where the danger of damage to material is minimal. Prior to digitisation, these documents would be placed at constant risk of damage by being frequently handled and reorganised. With the advent of digitisation, the originals can be much more securely and permanently stored, in an environment where they do not need to be easily produced and handled on a regular basis.

These benefits are therefore centred on comprehensiveness, as well as quick and easy access to primary material. Despite these benefits, however, there are some pitfalls with the approach of digitising a large amount of primary material that researchers should remain mindful of.

Digital Issues: Online Databases

Firstly, there is no single archive for all digitised periodical material. Instead, individual institutions, individuals and also specific database companies (such as ProQuest or Gale Cengage) all create separate online database archives, each with their own layout, format, meta-data and access requirements. As a result, researchers must ensure they have access to as many of these archives as possible – which their institutions may not subscribe to. This is a similar situation to that which Wolff identified, and which Kay Boardman alluded to in 2006 – multiple databases spread across a number of providers. The difference is that these archives are online, and instead of just providing the publication’s name and data, they instead provide the periodical itself. Not all archives contain all periodicals, and not all periodicals are yet digitised. Researchers must therefore expend significant resources to ensure they can access archives, and be selective about the ones that they opt to access.

These financial implications also create a two-tiered system of subscription – elite institutions with significant funds that subscribe to all databases as a matter of course, and those who are less well funded who can only access a select number.

By extension, some institutions or academics may have access to some, but not all, of the material contained in one archive. Some parts of some databases require different levels of subscription. This can be frustrating for the researcher, as they may find material in their searches that seems promising however they cannot access it, only a ‘title’ or ‘taster’ screen. In addition, most material is only kept on the databases if there is a demand for it. If the number of institutions subscribed to a publication falls below a certain level, it is removed. The idea of almost everything being contained online is therefore slightly diminished.

Maintaining these accesses can be also financially demanding for individual academics without working through an institution. In fact, subscriptions to databases can be expensive for both institutions and for independent scholars. Academic publishers, who George Monbiot once labelled the ‘most ruthless capitalists in the western world’, can extortionately charge for database accesses in the knowledge that institutions and academics have no choice but to comply.[5] Prior to digitisation, individual academics could directly contact universities, libraries and archives to request access for research purposes. However now most databases require subscriptions and sponsored access to databases, and requests to view material made by academics can be responded merely with a request to view the material digitally as the original copies are now stored in inaccessible locations.

An additional problem with the lack of centralised databases is the fact that one online database may have some copies of periodicals in a digitised format, but it is not always guaranteed that the database will contain all of them. Therefore the benefit of digitising a complete run of a periodical is lost, as there may be gaps in the issues that have been digitised. Researchers are therefore often required to search multiple databases in order to ensure that they have searched throughout the entire run of a specific periodical, and perhaps therefore the benefit of having periodicals digitised so that they can be examined as a whole entity is diminished.

Material Issues: Lost in (Cyber) Space

Away from online databases, the huge amount of material that is available is in itself a problem with periodical digitisation, for several reasons. With ever more efficient digitisation techniques becoming common practice, there is a wealth of material available, which in some ways limits the amount of material a researcher can actually find. In order to navigate successfully through such an enormous amount of material requires, as mentioned previously, careful use of search terms and ever more complex search-strings in order to find relevant material. The amount of material available to the researcher necessitates extensive filtering to remove ‘irrelevant’ material.

The amount of material available is perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of periodical study – the phrase often uttered by the periodical researcher is that ‘there is always something new to find’. However it is both a blessing and a curse, as executing complicated searches to find specific articles will only find those specific articles, and the researcher often loses the ability to study the paratextual material surrounding their specific article to examine the setting of the article itself. It also can cause relevant or interesting additional material, such as advertisements, illustrations or even public responses to the material in the periodical, to be lost or missed. Questions can remain unanswered – what was prior to the article? What about just afterwards? What was on the front cover of that particular issue?

This raises a further issue with the sheer amount of material available. Articles from periodicals that are returned via complicated search strings are displayed as entities in themselves and not as part of a wider issue of the publication. These articles therefore become isolated, and a researcher that sources numerous individual articles loses the ability to place each article as part of a whole issue. The secondary effect of sourcing numerous individual periodical articles is to cause the contextualising meta-data that tells the researcher details about the article to become meaningless, as their group of articles itself becomes a group with its own identity.

The final issue with the sheer amount of material made available online concerns the meta-data of digitised material. Whilst the opportunity to add meta-data to a digitised periodical was cited as a benefit of digitisation at the beginning of this paper, it can cause significant problems to researchers and students working with periodical material if not used correctly. The meta-data on some online periodical archives can be incorrect, incomplete, contradictory across databases or missing. This causes all sorts of problems for scholars attempting to use periodical material, as they are unable to contextualise it. Alongside the problem surrounding the fact that digitised periodicals don’t allow one to view an issue in its entirety, but only specific articles, and the article itself becomes even more isolated – it could be an article from any periodical, published in any year, written by absolutely anyone.

In fact, missing meta-data can sometimes be a reason for digitising material. Some institutions or individuals who are unaware of their material’s information digitise it in the hope that an online viewer of it will know. This makes it both a) very difficult to find in the first place if the meta-data is missing and b) difficult to interpret for those who do find it, but are unaware of what it is.

The Physical Limitations of the Digital Academic

The physical limitations of digitisation are also an issue with periodical digitisation. The monumental amount of digitised material cannot be easily navigated with the traditional tools available to an everyday computer user – namely keyboard, mouse and screen. It is awkward to scroll through, photographed pages of periodical material, perhaps unsure of some words because of low resolution or page angles. It is also awkward to click the ‘back’ button on a browser in order to get to the next article in a particular issue, only for the database to time out the session and the researcher must start again. Researchers are infuriated to have access to that amount of material and yet are required to clumsily blunder around using antiquated interfaces. There is also next-to-zero compatibility with mobile devices.

This might seem like a small problem given digitisation’s scope for advancing the field of periodical study. But whilst material capturing technology has advanced, the way in which it is displayed has barely progressed. The efforts made to digitise such huge amounts of material would be more valuable if a more efficient, user-friendly and streamlined way of navigating information was created. It is disheartening for a researcher to receive a message-box stating that the database is not compatible with their browser. This is also linked to the problem surrounding database subscription. Security measures constantly interfere with the database when researchers work for an extended time. The physicality of digitisation is an area where these databases have not yet been permitted to move into the 21st century as much as they could have, perhaps due to funding, interest or time constraints.

By extension, a further issue with digitisation is the lack of aesthetic or tactile value when viewing periodicals online. This issue stems in some ways from the issue surrounding the fact that researchers cannot ‘browse’ the periodical in the same way that they would be able to when physically handling the material to source would-be relevant material without the aid of a search tool. However, the lack of tactile contact can disassociate researchers and students from the primary material, giving the illusion that they are not working with primary material at all.

Our fascination, bordering on obsession, with digitising periodicals has therefore caused a scenario where there is so much material available – before searches even start – that sometimes the most prominent, interesting or significant material could be missed. There is so much information contained on online archives that much of the most fascinating material can be swept away with a digital ocean of irrelevant periodicals. It is up to the researcher to navigate this ocean, using only the most basic of digital tools, and this makes their job of researching much more difficult than necessary. If these issues could be improved or resolved, then the digitisation of periodicals could be used to greater effect than it already is.

[1] Wolff, M., ‘Charting the Golden Stream: Thoughts on a Directory of Victorian Periodicals’, in Victorian Periodicals Newsletter, Vol. 4, Issue 3 (September 1971), p. 24

[2] Ibid., p. 29

[3] Boardman, K., ‘“Charting the Golden Stream”: Recent Work on Victorian Periodicals’, in Victorian Studies, Volume 48, Issue 3 (Spring 2006), p. 506

[4] Ellegård, A., ‘The Readership of the Periodical Press in Mid-Victorian Britain: II. Directory’, in Victorian Periodicals Newsletter, Vol 4, Issue 3 (September 1971), p. 3

[5] Monbiot, G., ‘Academic Publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist’, on Guardian, online resource available at, [accessed 22 January 2016], (29 August 2011)

Long Live Lectures: Exploring the Modernisation of Traditional Teaching Methods

Lectures are dead. Long live lectures. The traditionally delivered academic lecture as a method of information transmission in higher education has recently come under a great deal of public scrutiny.[1] The HE community is awash with articles, opinion pieces and blog-posts, fiercely debating whether the lecture still remains relevant in today’s modern, fast paced and ever-more interactive higher-education setting. Some even go so far as to label them as ‘ineffective’, as well as (shock!) ‘boring’, arguing that they are no longer fit for purpose in an era where digital learning environments and the interconnected nature of student/teacher relationships via virtual learning platforms like Blackboard or StudyNet allow extremely quick transmission of course information and learning content.[2]

However despite these recent explorations into the academic relevance and continued presence of the lecture in higher-education teaching, no consensus has really been achieved. As a new PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant, I’m in a balanced position to add my weight to this issue. I’ve recently been exposed to the traditionally delivered lecture on my undergraduate degree, but am no longer required to attend any as a research student. Instead, I assist in teaching undergraduates, witnessing first-hand the benefits of the traditional lecture in HE.

Whilst it might sound simplistic, I suggest that there is a direct link between the recent trend of steadily increasing undergraduate student numbers at UK universities and the requirement of the use of traditional lectures. Higher undergraduate numbers are causing the lecture to become a much more necessary and, consequently, effective tool for transmitting information to increasingly large groups of students, in a physical location. As undergraduate numbers increase, so too does the requirement of more effective methodologies to pass on learning and module information and content in a physical setting where all students are given equal opportunity to receive and process it.

It is a steady increase that the sector has been experiencing, and it shows little signs of relenting even with the repeated increase in the costs of university study. Undergraduate numbers have substantially increased over the last few years – between the academic years 2007-2008 and 2012-2013, undergraduate students in higher education institutions studying their first degree increased in 1.3 million to 1.5 million.[3] This requirement of mass transmission of information to increasing numbers of students is therefore clear-cut, and the number of students starting their first degree does not look set to decrease, but a significant proportion of UK universities are planning on increasing their undergraduate cohorts in the next five years.[4]

Some alternative new methodologies of mass-information transmission have proved effective, but they’re not without their flaws. Whilst the advent of online learning may help to cope with this increase in numbers, students cannot learn online and online alone, and the argument put forward by Scott Freeman of the University of Washington, Seattle that ‘if you’re going to get lectured at, you might as well be at home in bunny slippers’ is somewhat idealistic as students will learn little in this environment.[5] The requirement of physical presence at a lecture, tutorial, seminar or any form of class imbibes interpersonal, timekeeping and social skills with other students, and the traditional lecture teaches listening and information processing skills to students, giving them the opportunity to decide for themselves which pieces of information are relevant to them and those that are not. The University of Brighton agrees, arguing in their ‘Guide for Lecturing and Teaching Large Groups’ that increased pressure on increasing student numbers is keeping the traditional lecture at the forefront of higher education teaching.[6]

A secondary effect of the increase in student numbers is to affect other methods of teaching. Smaller-grouped seminar discussions, usually designed to complement students’ individual learning outside of the classroom, are becoming increasingly too populous to allow coherent and useful class-wide discussions. A group of twenty-five or thirty students in what was meant to be a ‘seminar’ begins to look more like a lecture, or at the very least like a ‘lesson’ that one would more likely find in a secondary school. To maintain the benefits of small-group discussion, tutors are ever mo frequently required to split a large seminar group into even smaller groups. With larger seminar groups, there is also always the concern that some weaker students are able to ‘hide in the crowd’ and fall behind the rest of the group. The tutor is also often indirectly pressured to spontaneously ‘lecture’ a larger seminar group without an adequate amount of prior preparation, as group-wide discussion is simply not an option.

Happily, however, it’s not all doom and gloom. Some explorations into the usefulness and relevance of the lecture accept their presence as necessary, but instead choose to criticise their format and method of delivery. This is an attempt to find new meaning and effectiveness in the traditional lecture and to bring the format into line with more modern methods of teaching. Perhaps one of the most widely recognised changes in the format of the traditional lecture is the now almost universal use of PowerPoint to complement the lecture material. Whilst it’s been around for quite a while, this is one such universally-accepted example of the modernisation of traditional teaching methods and how they can be successfully integrated into university teaching. More recently, other methods are being widely experimented with. For example, when discussing how to structure their lecture, staff are often advised by their university to factor in interactive sessions every ten to twenty minutes to avoid monotony and keep students’ attention focused.[7] The University of Brighton’s guide clearly advises this to lecturers, promoting active learning however it also maintains the effectiveness of a well-given lecture as a tool for transferring information.[8] Whilst these attempts at modernising the lecture are yet to be fully and universally integrated into teaching, it does demonstrate how attempts are being made at modernisation, rather than outright abolishment of traditional teaching methods, and I argue that this should become the focus, rather than the exception.

I thus suggest overall that the lecture remains an effective tool for transmitting information to increasingly numbers of students in a relatively quick and structured way, and the secondary benefits of requiring students to attend lectures like teaching timekeeping and social skills are benefits that methods like online learning cannot recreate. Recent explorations into the format of lectures themselves, however, are useful for exploring how the lecture can be adapted to increase their effectiveness and increase retention of information in students. However any changes to the format of the traditional lecture in a higher education setting should take into account this increase in student numbers, as they do not look set to level off or decrease in the foreseeable future.


[1] All of the citations on this blog post are from pieces of commentary published after 2010.

[2] Pierce, D., ‘Ending the Tyranny of the Lecture’, online resource available at [accessed 25 September 2015], eCampus News (2011)

[3] Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education 2014, online resource available at [accessed 25 September 2015], Universities UK (2014), p. 5

[4] Guardian, ‘Almost half of English Universities plan to recruit more students after cap is lifted’, online resource available at [accessed 25 September 2015], (2015) 

[5] Bajak, A., ‘Lectures Aren’t Just Boring, They’re Ineffective, Too, Study Finds’, online resource available at [accessed 25 September 2015], ScienceMag (2014)

[6] ‘Centre for Learning and Teaching Study Pack: Lecturing and Teaching Large Groups’, Brighton: University of Brighton (2012), p. 2

[7] ‘Lecturing Effectively’, online resource available at [accessed 25 September 2015], University of Waterloo (No Date Given)

[8] ‘Centre for Learning and Teaching Study Pack: Lecturing and Teaching Large Groups’ … pp. 3-5



Bajak, A., ‘Lectures Aren’t Just Boring, They’re Ineffective, Too, Study Finds’, online resource available at [accessed 25 September 2015], ScienceMag (2014)

‘Centre for Learning and Teaching Study Pack: Lecturing and Teaching Large Groups’, Brighton: University of Brighton (2012)

Guardian, ‘Almost half of English Universities plan to recruit more students after cap is lifted’, online resource available at [accessed 25 September 2015], (2015)

‘Lecturing Effectively’, online resource available at [accessed 25 September 2015], University of Waterloo (No Date Given) 

Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education 2014, online resource available at [accessed 25 September 2015], Universities UK (2014)

Pierce, D., ‘Ending the Tyranny of the Lecture’, online resource available at [accessed 25 September 2015], eCampus News (2011)