Standardizing Statutes

I have just added the 1689 act ‘Absence of King William‘ to the statutes text section.

I took the text from Wikisource, which in turn transcribed it from the Statutes of the Realm collection, volume 6. It is also available from British History Online, which has transcribed three volumes of that series.

Statutes of the Realm is the most complete collection of pre-Union legislation available; it was commissioned to collect all the laws up to the union with Scotland, without regard to whether an act was in force or not. The act is not included in either Pickering’s or Ruffhead’s ‘Statutes At Large’ series, presumably because it had long since expired at the time those were published, and those collections were more pragmatically focused.

The text I’ve posted is different from the other transcriptions, in that I have standardized it. The Statutes of the Realm sought fidelity to the original manuscripts, and reconciling the originals and the inrolled copies, noting their differences, omissions, and discrepancies, and strictly following original spellings. This makes for difficult, interrupted reading for humans; similarly, it is an obstacle to ‘distant reading’, that is, the digital analysis analysis of large volumes of text.

Consequently, with the help of a simple line of code and a short, hand compiled list of obsolete spellings, the version I publish is readable both for people and machines.

All the changes to the text are quite minor: replacing antiquated and inconsistent spellings with regular, modern ones, often just removing a superfluous last letter (Regal for Regall, public for publick, etc.). The list of standardization couples available on github. It’s short, just 52 pairs, but it’s a start. I haven’t uploaded a script to utilise them yet, mainly because just one line is adequate:

while read n k; do sed -i.bak "s/\b$n\b/$k/g" target/*.txt; done < word-standardization-couples.txt

This should produce corrected versions of texts in the folder called target (insert your own path), with the originals renamed to *.txt.bak.

Note this has been tested on Lubuntu 18.04 and Mac OS High Sierra; other operating systems are available.

There is obviously a great deal more to say about manipulating texts in this way, covering matters ethical, academic, technical, and typographical. For the moment I leave all that aside, but it is worth noting these issues.

A Chronological Bibliography

Following an exchange on twitter with the Victorian Commons project, I have rejigged part of my first listing of volumes of statutes, and published a chronological bibliography of nineteenth century law.

This will make it easier to locate the texts of laws in the editions held by Google Books and the Internet Archive, as long as you know the correct calendar and regnal years for an act.

At the moment, this bibliography covers the years 1806 to 1908, but many later nineteenth century volumes are missing. These will be added as they are located, and when I have time.

 

Statutes in the Parliament.UK Digital Archive

I have recently found a new digital archive of English, British and U.K. statutes, at the parliament.uk website.

It appears to have around 1,200 items of legislation, some of which are professionally photographed manuscripts, and some of which are PDFs. The vast majority are of local acts; there’s only 56 (at the time of writing) public statutes available. The reproductions of the rolls and manuscripts are of high quality, and hosted externally on a system called ‘CollectionsBase.’ There is a download button in the bottom left hand corner, which, with the ‘Gallery’ view (top right corner) allows all the pages of a document to be downloaded in .jpg format.

Unfortunately, the system for items hosted on their own site is less usable. I have not found a single PDF file with the extension .pdf, even though the links to these documents claim them to be so and have such. This can cause problems with displaying the document, whether through the browser or using a desktop app, and creates work for the user in that every PDF downloaded needs to be renamed. Many local acts have the pseudo extension .local, though I have also found .South, .Western,  and .Clydebank. I presume the latter is due to the use of multiple full stops in the file names; the processing software seems to have truncated the name at the first of them.

Furthermore, it is difficult to navigate the catalogue other than with the search function. This means that it is difficult to know what is generally available, such as how many enclosure acts are there, how many there are, and what proportion it constitutes of the total legislation passed.

However, there are ways of finding all the public and private acts using the search function. These links are on the site, but I had difficulty finding them

Find all digitized public acts.

Find all digitized private acts.

In total, right now there are over 5,000 digitized documents. Find them all here.

Witchcraft Acts

Prompted in the first place by Hallowe’en, and then getting interested in the subject, I have put up the texts of the major statutes concerning witchcraft in the British Isles. For England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom, these are:

1541-2: 33 Henry 8 c.8: The Act against Conjurations, Witchcraft, Sorcery and Enchantments

1563: 5 Elizabeth 1 c.16: An Act against Conjurations, Inchantments and Witchcraft

1580-1: 23 Elizabeth c.2: Against seditious words and rumours (This because it has clauses on prophesizing the Queen’s life span.)

1604: 1 James 1 c.12: An Act against Witchcraft

1735: 9 George 2 c.5: The Witchcraft Act

1821: 1 & 2 George 4 c.17: Repeal of the Irish Witchcraft Act

1951: 14 & 15 George 6 c. 33: Fraudulent Mediums Act

Also, I’ve added two acts from ireland, and one from Scotland, from the legislatures previous to their respective acts of union. For Ireland, 1586: 28 Elizabeth 1 c. 2: An Act against Witchcraft and Sorcerie, repealed by the 1821 act above, and 10 Charles 1 s.2 c. 19: An act for the trial of murders, &c., as it mentions murders through bewitchment. And for Scotland, 1563: Mary c.73: Anentis Witchcraft.

Updates, October to December 2018.

Work on the Statutes project for the last three months of 2018:

The big news is that I now have a complete set of volumes of statutes for the nineteenth century, courtesy of the Institute of Historical Research allowing me to photograph their copies. The OCR’d text, messy but undergoing correction, can be found on Github.

There is also now a complete set of tables of public acts for the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, 1801 to 1921. Again, find them on Github.

Laws added: the utterances of an oaf required the addition of  Statute of Praemunire; Hallowe’en led me to add some witchcraft acts from 1541, 1563, and 1604, and Bonfire night was marked with James I’s dictat for the Observance of November the 5th. Topical stuff, eh?

Also added: 1739 County Rates Act and 1838 Public Records Act.

A new section has been created for private, local and personal acts; the first text in it is the Lancashire Sessions Act of 1798.

And the usual round of automated OCR corrections.

 

Digitization of the missing late c19th volumes

Although there are many digitized collections of statutes available online, and indeed many digitizations of the same publication, I have not found a number of volumes from the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

Happily, I have now been able to digitize these volumes myself, courtesy of the Institute of Historical Research, who very kindly allowed me to photograph their copies.

I copied them using an iphone and a selfie stick designed by Sussex Unversity Humanities Lab. Althugh SHL are developing a whole workflow for DIY scanning and OCRing documents through a modern smartphone, I simply took pictures, and later ran them through Abbyy Finereader, as I have been doing with the digital volumes downloaded from Google Books and Internet Archive.

The whole procedure took a full work day, which I think quite quick given the size and number of the volumes; once I got into the rhythm, the apparatus held firm, I averaged about one volume an hour, photographing two pages at a time.

The text of these volumes can be found on github; some automated correcting has been carried out, but it is still all pretty raw, especially the tables. No doubt there will be pages I have inadvertently photographed twice, photographed poorly, or accidentally omitted, but by and large I think the quality is as good as can be expected. As with all the other volumes I have OCRd, the text is public domain.

Once again, my thanks to the IHR for access to their books and a desk at which to copy them, and to Sussex Humanities Lab for the selfie sticks. Without such help, ‘unofficial’, grassroots, lone scholar projects such as this one would not be able to develop their potential.

Tables of Statutes of the United Kingdom, 1801 to 1921.

I have now completed tables of the full, long titles of public statutes passed by the parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, from the Act of Union in 1801 up to 1921, when Ireland was divided and the south achieved independence. They can be found on github.  All these tables are public domain, and can be reused for any purpose and in any way one wishes.

I am currently working on generating tables of abbreviated titles of private and local acts for this period, using the annotated lists of local acts and private acts produced by Legislation.gov.uk.

This will be quicker than working through the full titles in the volumes of statutes for this period, although at the cost of less detail. (Tables giving full titles will be produced eventually as I work on correcting the OCR of the scanned volumes, but this will take some time.)

Once the private and local tables have been created, I will produce a more convenient package of these lists, easy to download and suitable for searching and text mining.

Updates: August and September 2018

Work on the Statutes Project done over the last two months:

A blog post: on a satyrical law against make-up and adornments, sometimes taken as real, that I’ve dated back to 1785.

New tables: There is now a complete run of tables of public acts spanning 1807 to 1912, hosted on Github.

New acts added: three on the preservation of historical monuments from 1882, 1892 and 1900; the Corruption of Blood Act, 1814; and the Transportation Act, 1718.

And the usual round of automatic corrections to the OCR’d text of the collections of statutes. Whilst still very messy, the text is readable for those volumes in a modern font, and approaching readability for those in old, ‘long-s’ typefaces. Find them on Github.

The act to protect men from false adornments

One reason I started this ridiculously ambitious project was that I found myself hearing some unbelievable tales about laws wild and wacky, none of which could actually cite the statute in question. An example of such is the following, sometimes entitled ‘The act to protect men from false adornments’:

That all women, of whatever age rank, profession, or degree, whether virgins, maids, or widows, that shall, from and after such act, impose upon, seduce, and betray into matrimony any of his Majesty’s male subjects, by the scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes, &c., shall incur the penalty of the law now in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanors and the marriage, upon upon conviction, shall stand null and void.

You can find a great many volumes citing this ‘act’, courtesy of Google Books, variously dating it to  1670, 1700, 1720 and 1770.

It is, however, a jest. Searching through all the volumes I have turned into plain text, absolutely nothing comes close to these words. Nor is there any trace of it in the tabulation of rejected bills, ‘Failed Legislation‘ (Hambledon Press, 1997).

Searching through the Burney collection of historic newspapers and the British Newspaper Archive turns up a clutch of newspapers printing this squib in August 1785. The original publisher is the Public Advertiser of Tuesday, August 23, 1785 (No. 15989), which uniquely gives a second clause:

And that such an act might be productive to the State, it might be further enacted, “that all men, boys, bachelors, widowers, or others, that shall have been so imposed upon, deceived, and seduced into matrimony, shall, upon the divorce taking place, forfeit unto our Sovereign Lord the King, one half or moiety of any sum or sums of money, lands, tenements, &c. that he or they shall have received as a marriage portion, with his or their said wife or wives; and, if no such portion or dowry as received, then shall they forfeit one hundred pounds of lawful money of Great Britain, as a penalty in recognizance of their extreme weakness, blindness, and imprudence, in being so deceived.

The first part is copied and pasted in quick succession by the Whitehall Evening Post of August 25, 1785 (No. 5973.), the Chelmsford Chronicle of August 26, 1785 (BNA link – behind paywall) and the Hampshire Chronicle of August 29. (BNA link – behind paywall).

Curiously, this item was passed off as fact in an execrable book of 1859, ‘Manners and Customs of the English Nation‘, dating it to 1770. As the Gentleman’s Magazine wrote, in an excoriating review, “We regret to say no authority is given”; it nevertheless found ironic praise for the author’s “air of originality.”

The spoof law is a genre in itself, and certainly this one can be cited as an example of late eighteenth century fears of the feminine. But it is not an example of statutory sexism.

Updates: June and July 2018.

Work on the Statutes Project done in the last two months:

New Volumes: I have scanned, and uploaded to Github, 13 volumes of the series ‘The Law Reports: The Public General Statutes’, each covering one session of parliament held between 1880 and 1898. Note that this is raw, uncorrected OCR; as yet I haven’t run my corrections list over these files. And note that this isn’t a complete, or even consecutive, run; there are still 8 years of the nineteenth century missing.

New Tables: there is now a complete run of tables of legislation spanning 1814 to 1900, hosted on Github.

One new act: for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors, 1760.

New bibliographies, of the English Statutes of the Realm series, and – of a mere three items – for legislation of Antigua and the Leeward Islands. Also, updated are the Jamaican and Indian lists.

And the usual round of automated OCR corrections, and ‘garbage removal’, of random characters and symbols.