Key research interests: Height and health in history; Body mass - a new frontier in anthropometrics; Micro-economics of the household; Penal transportation to Australia; Coercive labour systems; Colonial Australian development; Crime and punishment in Great Britain and Ireland.
Convict Maids: The forced migration of women to Australia (CUP 1996)
Convict Maids destroys the myth that the female convicts transported from Britain and Ireland to New South Wales between 1826 and 1840 were mainly prostitutes, professional criminals and the 'sweepings of the gaols'. Deborah Oxley argues that in fact these women helped put the colony on its feet. Oxley shows that the women were generally first offenders, transported for minor offences. They were skilled, literate, young and healthy - qualities exploited by the new colony, which needed them both in the labour market and as wives and mothers. This is the first major study to analyse the backgrounds of female convicts against the general labour force. It also compares the legal systems and economies of Britain and Ireland, placing the women's crimes in context. Convict Maids draws on historical, economic and feminist theory, and is impressive for its extensive and original research.
Weighty Matters: A Somatic History of the Industrial Revolution
Digital Panopticon: The Global Impact of London Punishments
Convict Australia: Coercions and Freedoms in Australian Penal Colonies
In 2013, I presented the Economic History Society Tawney Lecture on Anthropometrics, Gender & Health Inequality in History:
In 2014-17, Deborah is a Leverhulme Major Research Fellow, working on 'Weighty Matters: Anthropometrics, gender and health inequality in Britain's past'.
Deborah is also part of a team working on The Digital Panopticon, an AHRC Digital Transformations Grant, uniting the Old Bailey Online with Australian convict records to examine the long-term impact of penal policy.
Toddlers, teenagers and terminal heights: The determinants of adult male stature, Flanders 1800-76
Economic History Review
Offering a succinct approach to the vocabulary and terminology of historical and contemporary approaches to crime and punishment, it includes concise but robust definitions of key terms and concepts from expert contributors in a user ...
This companion addresses the history of crime and punishment through entries by expert contributors that select and define the central vocabulary and terminology for the study of the history of crime and punishment.
History, penal transportation, punishment
Toddlers, teenagers and terminal heights: The determinants of adult male stature, Flanders 1800-76
Does adult stature capture conditions at birth or at some other stage in the growth cycle? Anthropometrics is lauded as a method for capturing net nutritional status over all the growing years. However, it is frequently assumed that conditions at birth were most influential. Was this true for historical populations? This paper examines the heights of Belgian men born between 1800-76 to tease apart which moments of growth were most sensitive to disruption and reflected in final heights. It exploits two proximate crises in 1846-49 and 1853-56 as shocks that permit age effects to be revealed. These are affirmed through a study of food prices and death rates. Both approaches suggest a shift of the critical moment away from the first few years of life and towards the adolescent growth spurt as the most influential on terminal stature. Furthermore, just as height is accumulated over the growing years, conditions influencing growth need to be understood cumulatively. Economic conditions at the time of birth were not explanatory, but their collective effects from ages 11 to 18 years were strongly influential. Then, both health and nutrition mattered, in shifting degrees. Teenagers, not toddlers, should be our guides to the past.
Tracing London Convicts in Britain & Australia, 1780-1925
Female heights and economic development
The Oxford Handbook of Economics and Human Biology
Female heights matter. They matter for girls’ and women’s health and productivity, as a measure of inequality, and—significantly—as a bridge transferring welfare across generations. This chapter examines some of the early historiography on female stature and summarizes the historical evidence. The focus then shifts to how we understand the growth of girls versus boys and the methods used to measure historical populations. The chapter then outlines some of the risks of being stunted, identified in a set of empirical relationships among height, weight, morbidity, and mortality that are a function of both age and sex. The chapter then looks at the unique role of mothers and the way their stature not only records the accumulated experience of their own nutrition and welfare history, but how it intimately shapes the generations to come, critically influencing future economic performance.
Gender bias in nineteenth-century England: Evidence from factory children
Economics and Human Biology
Gender bias against girls in nineteenth-century England has received much interest but establishing its existence has proved difficult. We utilise data on heights of 16,402 children working in northern textile factories in 1837 to examine whether gender bias was evident. Current interpretations argue against any difference. Here our comparisons with modern height standards reveal greater deprivation for girls than for boys. Discrimination is measured in girls’ height-for-age score (HAZ) falling eight standard errors below boys’ at ages 11, 11.5 and 12 years of age, capturing the very poor performance of factory girls. But this result cannot be taken at face value. We query whether modern standards require adjustment to account for the later timing of puberty in historical populations and develop an alternative. We also test the validity of the age data, considering whether parents were more prone to lie about the ages of their daughters, and question whether the supply of girls was fundamentally different from that of boys. We conclude that neither proposition is justified. Disadvantage to girls remains, although its absence amongst younger children precludes an indictment of culturally founded gender bias. The height data must remain mute on the source of this discrimination but we utilise additional information to examine some hypotheses: occupational sorting, differential susceptibility to disease, poorer nutrition for girls, disproportionate stunting from the effects of nutritional deprivation, and type and amount of work undertaken. Of these we suggest that girls had to do arduous physical labour in the home alongside their factory work. The only (unsubstantiated) alternative is that girls were more likely than boys to be put into factory work below the legal age limit. Both represent forms of gender bias.
gender bias, heights, factory children, 19th century England
Australia's convict myths
BBC History Magazine
The popular image of transportation sees criminals embarking on brutal voyages to an unforgiving prison on the other side of the world. Was that the reality?
The Routledge Handbook of Global Economic History documents and interprets the development of economic history as a global discipline from the later nineteenth century to the present day. Exploring the normative and relativistic nature of different schools and traditions of thought, this handbook not only examines current paradigmatic western approaches, but also those conceived in less open societies and in varied economic, political and cultural contexts. In doing so, this book clears the way for greater critical understanding and a more genuinely global approach to economic history.
This handbook brings together leading international contributors in order to systematically address cultural and intellectual traditions around the globe. Many of these are exposed for consideration for the first time in English. The chapters explore dominant ideas and historiographical trends, and open them up to critical transnational perspectives.
Business & Economics
Blood and Bone: Body mass, gender and health inequality in 19th century British families
The History of the Family
In 2009, Horrell, Meredith and Oxley used trends in body mass to argue that poor London
women in the later 19th century suffered declining access to household resources over their lifetimes. The authors evaluated competing models of household behaviour, rejected the unitary model of equal distribution throughout the household, saw some support for a safety-first model, but on the whole concluded that resources were allocated in accordance with bargaining power linked to the economic worth of family members. As (particularly married) women's labour-force participation fell, so too did their share of the food diminish, and with this they lost weight. This unequal distribution was supported by a moral economy of the family: a set of shared values about obligations and entitlements which protected earners and prioritized the needs of children secured by maternal sacrifice. The current paper explores further the role of power in the family. The contention of a bargaining household can be examined through a very different but contemporaneous case study: the modern industrial town of Paisley. The paper juxtaposes a service economy (Wandsworth near London) with a modern manufacturing sector (Paisley near Glasgow) in order to contrast how economic form and opportunities in the market sector shaped relations and outcomes in the household sector. Again, our measure is lifetime nutrition and our data are drawn from prisons. This, then, is a tale of two cities, of blood and bone, of flesh and families.
I would be willing to hear from potential DPhil students regarding Anthropometrics; households and welfare; colonial Australian economic and social history or any potential Masters students looking at Economic and Social History
I currently teach:
Quantification in History
History of the Family
Advanced Paper on Crime and Punishment in England
In the Media
Bound for Australia, National Theatre Platform, 30 September 2015
Australia's Convict Myths, BBC History Magazine, Australian Edition, March 2016