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Response to Review no. 1001

We are grateful to Ben Heller for his generous and thoughtful review of the London Lives website. In this short response we want to comment particularly on the issues he raises concerning the difficulties users may experience in consulting the resources included on the site, and on the questions he poses relating to the historical argument lying behind its creation. But first it is important to give credit where credit is due. Any resource of this scale and complexity can only be created as part of a team effort, and we would like to acknowledge the hard work and ingenuity of the staff at the former Higher Education Digitisation Service at the University of Hertfordshire, the technical officers at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield, the project manager, Sharon Howard, and the dozen data developers whose tagging of the resources makes the site work. Manifestly, the project would not have been possible without generous funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

London Lives is intended to facilitate linking documents from different sources relating to the same individual, but as Heller notes the paucity of information associated with individual names frequently frustrates the creation of reliable links.  We completely agree that this presents a substantial methodological challenge, but, as is evident in the over 1800 ‘sets’ of documents and dozens of lives already available on the site, it is a problem that can be solved with persistence and creativity. Many of the resources included, notably the Ordinary’s Accounts and pauper examinations, actually include detailed biographical information. By starting with sources like these, other relevant material can be quickly assembled, though this does not eliminate the need to exercise fine historical judgement. Heller’s suggestion that users should be able to share their experiences and research strategies is very helpful, and acting on this suggestion, the site’s wiki (now live) includes a forum to facilitate just such exchanges.

London Lives is both a collection of resources and an argument. Heller is right to point out that the argument shaped the selection of what was digitised, but we believe that the enormous range of sources included (39 document types from eight archives, plus 16 externally created datasets, comprising 240,000 manuscript pages and 3.35 million names) means that the site will not be restricted to the kind of research it was initially created to facilitate. The ‘Additional datasets’, in particular, form a legacy of over 30 years of academic scholarship (now cross-searchable for the first time), and reflect a wide range of interests and intellectual perspectives. Our experience with the Old Bailey Online has also fully demonstrated that while the designers of such resources may have one set of uses in mind, the academic community and wider public will use them differently. We are entirely comfortable with the ‘divergent research communities’ Heller notes London Lives will create, and look forward to seeing how scholars of many stripes and hues use the website to answer their own research questions.

Heller is sceptical about the argument behind the site, that these resources will demonstrate the ways in which plebeian Londoners shaped the development of modern social policy. He questions whether the sources included will really be able to demonstrate plebeian knowledge and intentionality, and he is wary of our use of the term ‘agency’ in talking about the lives of the poor. A full response to these important points will only be possible with the publication of the book we are writing on this subject, but we would like to make three basic points here. First, Heller is unduly pessimistic about the qualitative details found in the records included on the site. Petitions, letters, and depositions provide first-person testimonies which frequently reveal plebeian attitudes and strategies. The ‘agency’ that can be evidenced is nicely illustrated in sources like the letters sent from Wales by the disabled pauper Catherine Jones to her home parish of St Dionis Backchurch, with which she successfully extorted substantial relief. Second, much can be inferred from distinctive patterns of plebeian behaviour, as in the case of the networks of convicts we have identified who repeatedly escaped from prisons, the hulks and transport ships in the decade following 1776. Finally, ‘agency’ is both an important and a problematic concept for historians of all social classes. We are fully aware of the enormous constraints which shaped the lives of the 18th-century poor, but believe that, if the right sources and research strategies are used, plebeian lives can be studied with the same sensitivity to individual subjectivity and choice as is routinely accorded by historians to social elites.