Beyond the Bailey is a project that I set up with the assistance of Sheffield’s Practical Public Engagement module. It began with a creative writing workshop in which participants were introduced to online historical archives, in particular Old Bailey Online, which were then used as the stimulus for producing pieces of fiction.
As with any good project, Beyond the Bailey came together out of a series of different factors in my life. The most important was undoubtedly the fact that, even a few weeks into my PhD, my family were discussing my career prospects in hushed tones, and friends who a few weeks before I had sat in Masters’ seminars were now looking at me quizzically and asking ‘but what is it that you do all day?’ More than ever, I felt the need to demonstrate to the world around me the importance of historical research, and yet, more than ever, I found myself shuffling backwards into a shadowy corner of academia, without the tools to claw back into the light. I needed public engagement to remind me why my research mattered to people other than my eventual viva examiners.
The second factor was, and I’m sure many of my colleagues will identify with this one, a deep love of historical fiction. While I often find historical television deeply frustrating (on more than one occasion have I been banned from the living room for roaring ‘that rope wouldn’t’ve been that colour’ at the television), with novels I’ve always found that I can permit the author a certain degree of artistic licence. I see historical novels as the history that every historian would love to write, if ever we had enough sources to do so. It’s why I particularly enjoy Alison Weir’s approach to writing a ‘proper’ history monograph and then a novel afterwards, to put down on paper all the extra detail and colour that we must hold ourselves back from putting into monographs.
Thirdly, I have always been immensely inspired by the series of digitisation projects which have opened up huge new avenues of research to scholars. From almost my first undergraduate seminar my studies have been facilitated and enriched by Old Bailey Online, a website which allowed me, a drowsy eighteen-year-old with only a rough grasp of the events of the eighteenth century, to engage with normal people (albeit slightly unlucky, light-fingered normal people) talking about their everyday lives through three centuries of time, telling me their life stories. And what stories. If I have one criticism of historical fiction it is that far too much of it deals with kings and queens or made up people, as there’s just not enough information to provide even a sheen of historical authenticity on characters that weren’t from the highest ranks in society. But the Old Bailey and its fellow digitisation projects can change that.
A (perhaps slightly ambitious) desire to introduce the everyman back into historical fiction was therefore the motivating force behind Beyond the Bailey, a project which sought to introduce to creative writers the plethora of digital historical archives available to them. I ran the workshop with a fantastically talented group of writers on a Creative Writing course at the Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of Sheffield. After a brief introduction to the Old Bailey records we plunged into analysis of the case of the gruesome murder trial of Catherine Hayes, a case I had been study in minute detail for my research. Through reading a series of different sources produced around the trial Catherine’s complex and dramatic story came together. The results were marvellous, and before my eyes (or rather, ears) I heard the stories of people who I thought I had long since understood, brought to life in ways I could never have imagined. Several of the group went on to refine their work into finished pieces. (You can read some of the original workshop writing and the finished pieces on the Beyond the Bailey website.)
Perhaps the most interesting feedback that I have had about the project was from my supervisor, who asked me, ‘but are they really doing creative writing, or are they just doing history?’ This is a question I’m not yet sure I have an answer to. Public digitisation projects are allowing more and more people, without formal historical training, to access sources that would once have required years of painstaking research. I am sure that this is a good thing, if only because it means that for every novel on Jane Grey we might get another on Catherine Hayes. The worry is, of course, that people without formal training won’t know how to do history in the way that academics do, that they’ll misinterpret sources, take them out of context and end up with history that is just wrong, and with no real framework for saying why it is. But I think maybe we worry too much. The participants in Beyond the Bailey had no prior historical training, and little knowledge of the eighteenth century, and each of them was able to empathise powerfully with a repellent woman who died at least two hundred and fifty years before any of them were born. If, as Caroline Pennock has argued persuasively in an earlier article on this blog, the real point of public history is to cultivate empathy, historical sources are themselves a means to an end, a means of introducing people with their past and so widening their horizons.
So where does the line between writing creatively about a historical source and history itself fall? And, more importantly, as we enter an age in which access to historical sources is becoming more democratised, does it matter?
Anna Jenkin is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield working on perceptions of the murderess in 18th-century London and Paris. You can read more of Anna’s work at her own blog here, follow her on twitter @acjenkin and find out more about the Beyond the Bailey and using historical sources for creative writing here.
You can find other History Matters blogs on public history here.
 The University of Sheffield has a strong tradition of digital history projects, many of which have been produced in collaboration with the Humanities Research Institute, which supports the innovative use of technology in arts, humanities and heritage research as both a method of inquiry and a means of dissemination. For full details of all their projects, which include Old Bailey Online, Connected Histories and London Lives see here.