Dr Hannah Telling describes her archival research on violent crime and gender in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Scotland.
The Alasdair Ross Prize enabled me to conduct research into women’s experiences of justice in Scotland between 1850 and 1914 by exploring a range of archival material relating to the prosecution of violent crime in this period. My research is currently exploring violence in nineteenth-century Scotland: how it was conceptualised, how it was prosecuted, the range of responses that it provoked, and the extent to which judicial interventions were mediated by ideas of class, gender, ethnicity, status, and notions of ‘respectability’. An aspect I have always been interested in is the extent to which gender (as both a social construct and a performed, lived identity) shaped responses to violent crime and how it interacted with other signifiers of status, such as social class. As such, the opportunity to engage in a period of sustained examination of archival records of women’s alleged violent offending is facilitating an essential expansion and development of my previous research into judicial and cultural responses to male violence in this period. Undertaking research into prosecutions of female offenders has allowed me to explore in greater depth the extent to which gender mattered in relation to crime, punishment, and justice in Scotland during a period of rapid urbanisation, immigration, and industrialisation.
Through the generous support of the Scottish History Society, I was able to undertake extensive research of archival material relating to the prosecution of women for violent crimes in Scotland between 1850 and 1914. At the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh, I analysed fifty High Court murder precognitions (pre-trial documents consisting of hundreds of pages of witness depositions, correspondence between prosecutors, medical reports, and more, per case). I also analysed the often-underutilised records of prosecutions before Scotland’s lower courts. I sampled thousands of Sheriff Court prosecutions from Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen, which will allow for a real engagement with both men’s and women’s experiences of a spectrum of justice in this period. In both the High Court and Sheriff Court cases, prosecutions of men for violent acts outnumbered those of women, yet the archival material offers a valuable insight into the types of violent behaviours that women engaged in, the contexts and spaces in which these occurred, and the ways in which they were interpreted and responded to by judicial officials as violent women.
This Alasdair Ross Prize has provided me with the opportunity to engage with a broad spectrum of violent conduct in my research, from behaviours that teetered on the line between antisocial and criminal, to shocking acts of homicidal violence that generated furious (and sometimes contradictory) commentary both in court and in national and regional newspapers. The Prize has greatly assisted me in uncovering these fascinating insights into both everyday and extreme acts of violence and I am very grateful to the Scottish History Society for supporting this research.