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The crimes of punishment

Petty criminals and the poor were sent overseas as slaves and labourers for the new colonies. Now their stories could go on to CD-Rom. Reva Klein reports.

The House of Detention Prison Museum in Clerkenwell, London is an authentic depiction of the Victorian value system that made no distinctions between gradations of criminality, gender or age. If you were caught breaking the law, or even suspected of it, or if you were a social nuisance because of homelessness or having a child out of wedlock, you were thrown in prison and made to endure stocks, whippings or hard labour. Murderers shared cells with children imprisoned for sleeping rough, prostitutes and pickpockets.

Interesting, but what's it got to do with information technology? Bear with me, reader, and all will be revealed. From Clerkenwell Prison and from other London jails, thousands of convicts were sent to the colonies of Maryland and Virginia to work as convict labourers on the cotton and tobacco plantations. Between 1616 and 1776, as many as 60,000 men, women and children were packed into great, heaving cargo vessels. Two months later, the 50 per cent who survived the appalling journey spilled out on to colonial soil to begin their new lives as, effectively, white slaves. Their market value on the quayside markets was half the price of their black counterparts.

These transportations, as they were known, ended when America won its independence. But a decade later they started up again, this time to Australia. An estimated 180,000 were crammed into old rotting hulks for the eight-month-long, 13,000-mile journey. If and when they arrived, they became indentured labourers.

Enter the wonders of technology. If a man called Denys Avis gets his way, within weeks he may be sitting in the Australian and American living rooms of descendents of those exiled convicts, trying to fill in the great yawning gaps in our knowledge of what happened to those involuntary travellers. While in America the task may be more difficult, Australia he believes will be different: "I can guarantee I'll have direct descendants from Australia on tape when I get back." And with the information he collects from them and archival material in those countries, he is going to develop a CD-Rom database for schools and researchers that will offer a picture of a chapter of history that is, as he calls it, still "virgin territory".

A college lecturer in staff and product development at Kingsway College, on which site the underground remains of the 300-year-old Clerkenwell Prison sits, Denys Avis became fascinated with the history of the grim place years ago. This led him, in 1991, to develop the House of Detention Prison Museum in a partnership between Kingsway College and entrepreneur Leon Andrews, the man behind the London Dungeon. Avis worked out the concepts and did the research and design and Andrews put Pounds 250,000 into the renovations. The first phase of the building work was completed 18 months ago and if its first year in business is anything to go by 72,000 visitors it looks like being a success.

The idea of establishing a database seemed an obvious component of the project. "The main point of this place is as an educational resource," Denys Avis says. He was awarded a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship which is paying his travelling expenses for this next stage of the project, "Beyond the Seas a search for the convicts of Clerkenwell Prison".

He envisages the database being particularly attractive for children's research for history at key stages 2 and 4. The idea is to pull children into the subject through, if possible, a personal connection. "Anybody using the database can put their name in and do a search on the 250,000 records. If a child finds people with their name on the records, they will immediately get interested in the subject. A name search gives anybody a way into the fascinating history, a route in which to explore prisoner treatment in the 18th and 19th centuries."

Pupils would get to know individual prisoners through the database and would be led by them through the history. They will be able to learn what awaited the prisoners and, if possible, what their eventual fates were. And, if Denys Avis now hits the jackpot, there will be the option of hearing what information direct descendants have about their unfortunate ancestors.

House of Detention, Clerkenwell Close, Off Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R OAS Tel: 0171-253 9494

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