Discovering Jeremy Bentham: Bentham in the Community Event

Transcribe Bentham Project

Last night I went a long to the first event in the ‘Bentham in the Community’ series of events being hosted by the Transcribe Bentham project. This event acted as an introduction to Jeremy Bentham and his ideas, as well as a bit of context of the ideas circulating at the time and also some context for the Transcribe Bentham project itself.

The three speakers were Professor Philip Schofield, Director of the Bentham Project, Lucy Inglis, author of ‘Georgian London‘ blog and soon to be published author, and Mike Paterson, Director of the London Historian‘s group.

A Young Bentham in 1790

I have to admit I didn’t know very much about Bentham before this talk. I had previously come across him when looking into Nineteenth Century Radicalism, Bentham did have correspondence with Daniel O’Connell, the Irish Reformer, but as he died in 1832 he did not have much to do with the Chartists, whose first National Petition was presented to parliament in 1839.

What I didn’t know was that Bentham was something of a child genius, attending Queens College, Oxford at the age 0f 12 years, and completing his BA by the age of 16! He clearly was an intelligent man from a privileged background, brought up as a member of Britain’s establishment, however, perhaps surprisingly, he became one of the loudest and most infamous champions of reform.

Looking at his three main points it is clear what a radical he was:

  1. To remove the current common law system and start again on the principles of his theory of Utilitarianism (simply put: what brings happiness and pleasure is good and right, where as what brings misery and pain is bad and wrong.)
  2. Abolish the current establishment, from the monarchy to parliament, creating a system accountable to the people through universal male suffrage.
  3. Euthanasia of the Church of England, slowly dismantle the religious establishment, by simply not replacing members once they retired or died.

Plans for Bentham's Panopticon, Georgian London

Through Professor Schofield and Lucy’s talk it quickly became apparent that there wasn’t a topic that Bentham didn’t have an opinion on. From his innovative design for a prison, the Panoptican, (here is link to more info on it from Lucy’s great blog) to his thoughts on sexuality; he disagreed with homosexuality being illegal, but thought masturbation was unhealthy encouraging ‘social’ sex opposed to ‘solitary’ sex.

Something that linked Lucy and Mike’s talk was the idea of collaboration. Bentham didn’t arrive at these grand ideas all by himself, he too was influence and worked with people. People like Patrick Colquhoun, who did the ground work on which Bentham would base his great philosophies and theories. Colquhoun wrote a lot about poverty in the London docks area, and particularly the link between the role of public houses as employment agencies, he was also a statistician and magistrate. In the 1790s, working with Bentham and John  Harriot, he established the Thames River Police, the first regular preventative police force of its kind. By working with people, Bentham was able to develop his ideas and well and see them enacted.

Bringing us back to the present day, it is clear that something like the Transcribe Bentham project would be impossible without collaboration. UCL holds 60,000 folios of Bentham’s papers and have so far managed to transcribe 27 volumes in the past 50 years. With an estimation that the end result probably equals something like 70 volumes, they have a long way to go. However 2010 saw the launch of an innovative project to not only increase the output of the Transcribe project, but to increase awareness of Bentham and his ideas. Through the Transcribe Bentham website anyone can sign up to transcribe parts of his work, and progress is tracked by the Benthamometer.

Benthamometer from Transcribe Bentham project

This is a project, Mike reminded us, that has only really become possible in the past few years, as historians are using social media and technology to interact and further their research. Being a blogger, tweeter and facebooker I can also vouch for the variety and insight using these tools provide to further my historical knowledge and contacts, furthermore digital humanities continues to grow and through websites such as Connected Histories it seems we are only starting to realise the possibilities. With JISC continuing the fund projects and developments of Transcribe projects like Bentham, I share Mike’s enthusiasm for what the future may bring.

The Bentham project have two more events in the ‘Bentham in the Community’ series, see here for details.



2 Responses to Discovering Jeremy Bentham: Bentham in the Community Event

  1. Pingback: Transcribe Bentham » Blog Archive » Bentham on the Streets

  2. Pingback: Peopling the Past – NMM Conference « The History Student: Kathleen's History and Culture blog

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