Tattoos Became Fashionable In Victorian England

Thomas Whitton, a shoemaker and labourer from Shoreditch Victorian in east London, was born on June 13, 1836. In June 1836, he was only 13 years old when he was arrest at the Old Bailey for shoplifting print textiles. He was sentence to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land in Tasmania.

The brown-haired, blue-eyed Londoner, who arrived in Australia one year later, had accumulated some unique tattoos during his long journey. On his right arm was a tribute for a girl, with the words love thy heart. On his left were images of two men holding a bottle and a glass, a mermaid and an anchor, and the initials R.R.

Whitton, who was finally freed at 20 years old, was only one of the 58.002 Victorian convicts we discover tattoo descriptions as we data-mine the court archives. Some commentators believed at the time that people of poor reputation used tattoos as a way to identify themselves as savages, a sign that they were part of a criminal gang.

Database Victorian Shows

Our database shows that tattoos on convicts express a wide variety of positive, and even fashionable, sentiments. They were not only popular among Victorians, but also convicts.

These records enable us to see, for the first-time, that historical tattooing wasn’t just for sailors, soldiers, and convicts but was a popular and accepted practice in Victorian England. The tattoos offer a valuable window into the lives and times of those who rarely keep any written records. They provide a glimpse into the lives and emotions of ordinary people from the past.

We conducted the largest ever analysis of tattoos. We analyzed 75,688 tattoo descriptions on 58.002 convicts from Australia and Britain between 1793 and 1925. Data-mining techniques were use to extract information from broader descriptive fields in criminal records. We also linked this information with extensive evidence regarding the backgrounds and personal characteristics of our subjects. We used visualizations to help us identify patterns and juxtapositions in particular tattoo designs.

A Brief History Of Tattoos

Tattooing is a practice that has been use throughout history. The practice was document on bodies preserve in ice, which suggests that it exist as far back as 4,000 BC. Although it is difficult to track a continuous history of tattooing, evidence is available from most cultures. It was sometimes use as a form for force stigmatisation (on criminals and slaves in the Greek or Roman empires), but also as a voluntary way to express one’s identity.

Early Christians had religious tattoos to show devotion and commemorate their pilgrimages. Although tattooing was ban by Pope Hadrian in 787 in the West, it is still a common practice in other cultures such as Polynesia or Japan.

According to the traditional story, the practice was revived in Europe when Captain Cook and his crew encountered Tahiti’s tattooed residents during his 1769 visit. Recent historians Jane Caplan, Matt Lodder and Matt Lodder have discovered evidence of tattoos among soldiers and sailors in the century that preceded Cook’s voyage. Our study uses convict records from 1793 to document a widespread practice.

A Written Victorian Record

Since tattooing is a practice where the only record is the person, very few records of the process survived before the invention of photography. The exception is the written descriptions of tattoos and sketches that were kept by institutionalised persons who had to provide information about their bodies to identify them. This is especially true for three groups: criminal convicts and soldiers, as well as sailors. The convict records, which are most detailed and systematic, are the best.

These records were originally kept in large quantities for people who were transferred to Australia in 1788 (Australia was an open prison at the time).

Similar records were kept in Britain starting in 1816 to help identify escapees. The 19th century brought about growing concerns about reoffending and led to record-keeping becoming more organized.

Designs And Victorian Subject Matter

Contrary to popular belief, convict tattoos were not limited to a narrow range of designs or subjects. They also expressed positive emotions

Multiple records found that include images relate to American and British identity, as well as designs center on diverse subjects such as astronomy, pleasure and religion. The most common were expressions of love and naval themes. The most popular type of tattoo was the written name and set of initials. They found in 56% of all descriptions. Also very popular, dots found in 30% descriptions.

As some of the most popular themes, such as naval, jewelery, and astronomy, declined. So did the number of tattoos that depicted religion, nature, and death.

The evidence is mainly from convicts who were transport to Australia and a quarter of them were tattoo. While we don’t know for sure, most likely they were acquire on the long journey. Many had their year of conviction, or their transportation tattooed on them. This is a sign that they recognized that the forcible removal halfway across the globe. Likely never to return to Britain was life-changing.