Reflections on Beyond the Bailey: My first public engagement project.

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June 10, 2013 by Amy Ryall

Anna Jenkin is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. Her PhD project examines the attitudes towards the murderess in two urban centres, London and Paris, in the eighteenth century. Her Beyond the Bailey project was the culmination of the seminar series ‘Practical Public Engagement’ which aims to introduce PhD students and Early Career Researchers in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities to public engagement, to allow them a space to critically analyse the role of public engagement in their research and to give them the opportunity to apply for funding for their own public engagement project. It has been supported this year by the University of Sheffield’s Research and Innovation Services

A few weeks into my PhD I realised that I should’ve thrown myself a ‘bon voyage’ party, because as far as my friends were concerned, I had gone on a long trip to a weird land called academia. I hadn’t realised how far away research would take me from the rest of the world. Even people who’d got as far as Masters level were asking me ‘but what is it that you do all day?’ I knew that my research was useful and interesting, but I was having a really hard time convincing anyone other than myself exactly why.

I refused to believe that my research would only be interesting to my viva examiners and the seven other people in the world that study my subject. That’s why I decided to take the Practical Public Engagement module run by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Sheffield; to find answers to that terrifying question all academics flee from. That of ‘What’s the point?’ I wanted to not only identify what was important and useful about my research but also find a way to convince everyone else that it was important and useful as well.

Initially, however, I was disappointed as I struggled to think of any possible way of making my research accessible for a public audience (I study some very gory murders of the eighteenth century). It was really hard to get my imagination to move beyond ‘public lecture,’ which my research was nowhere ready to present in that format. As a historian I struggled with the balance between bestowing knowledge on an audience and soliciting reactions from them. It was only in the very final session, when I was directly asked ‘What’s your idea?’ that I found that the concept for ‘Beyond the Bailey’ came tumbling out.

The concept itself is very simple. There are an increasing and ever diversifying series of historical archives available online for use by anyone who chooses to click on them. The archive upon which most of my research was based, and which can claim its roots from the Department of History at the University of Sheffield itself (among others), was the Old Bailey Online project. First put online in 2003 the Old Bailey Online is a digital archive of the published trial records for all cases held at the London court of the Old Bailey between 1674 and 1913. This website is great not only because its immensely easy to use, but because of the sheer level of detail contained in the trials. Moreover, other writing on many of the most famous criminals of the Old Bailey can be found using a few simple internet searches or newspaper archive searches for those of the nineteenth century and beyond. The men and women of the Old Bailey have been my friends throughout my academic career and I thought it was about time to get some more people interested in them. As my research is interested in creative responses to ‘true’ crime narratives, I decided to launch a project with the aim of getting creative writers to produce their own take on some of the Old Bailey’s most intriguing cases.

When I had the concept, putting together the funding application was pretty simple, and from that the workshop resources practically wrote themselves. But by far the hardest part of the process was getting a group of creative writers in the same room at the same time in order to run the workshop. It wasn’t that people weren’t keen, it was just that everyone has commitments, different timetables that they have to work around and other, more pressing, concerns. I was also daunted by the fact that I was effectively running a creative writing workshop, despite having absolutely no creative writing experience. Thankfully, Sandra Courtman, Programme Director for Creative Writing at the Institute for Lifelong Learning expressed an interest in the workshop pretty early on. She was putting together a programme for a module for the Institute’s creative writing course entitled ‘Creative reading,’ in which students were learning about different kinds of reading that they could do in order to develop their writing. It was a perfect fit. I would come to one of the group’s weekly sessions to run the workshop which was incorporated into the module itself.

The workshop itself was one of the biggest highs I have had in my academic career. It was immensely exciting to hear the stories of people that I study day in day out debated by other people. The group was a fantastic range of ages and backgrounds but all hugely talented. After a brief historical introduction to the Old Bailey the workshop focused on the narrative of Catherine Hayes, tried for murder in 1726. We analysed a series of different sources on Catherine’s life and death to understand her story. In the second half of the workshop we focused in particular on one (very gory) image of Catherine during the murder and the group each wrote their own interpretations of the scene from the point of view of either Catherine or one of her accomplices. Having spent the last 2 months trawling archives for every single document published on Catherine, often reading the same passage reproduced in book after book I was heartily sick of the case. Hearing the wonderful pieces produced by the workshop, I was reminded that the case was actually very interesting, as well as entertaining. I found myself looking upon a story I knew inside out with fresh eyes, as the group were, and as the readers of my sources would’ve done three hundred years ago.

There are examples of writing from the workshop, as well as writing which has been developed into finished pieces on the project’s website. For one of the finished pieces, one of the group went through the Old Bailey Online to identify for himself a case which he found inspiring. The website, Beyond the Bailey is now up for everyone to read, with examples of workshop writing and finished pieces as well as further advice for those interested in using historical sources as inspiration for creative writing.

The workshop was such a success that I left keen to do it all over again, but unfortunately I have been unable to navigate the complications that were preventing the hosting of a second group. I am still very proud of the project, and its final results. It has also brought great new perspectives to my own research, not least that the subject is interesting, useful and most importantly, engaging.

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