New research into 19th-century criminals’ tattoos is providing insights into the lives of a group of people that left few written records of its own.

Using data from the Old Bailey, now held in the National Archives, website Digital Panopticon has analysed the tattoos of 58,002 people who were convicted at the court between 1793 and 1925.

Writing for The Conversation website, project leaders Professor Robert Shoemaker and Zoe Alker commented: “These records allow us to see – for the first time – that historical tattooing was not restricted to sailors, soldiers and convicts, but was a growing and accepted phenomenon in Victorian England.

“As a form of ‘history from below’, [the tattoos] give us a fleeting but intriguing understanding of the identities and emotions of ordinary people in the past.”

The research reveals that among the most popular subjects for tattoos were naval, religion and love, with names and initials also appearing frequently on both men and women.

In the mid-19th century there were rumours that tattoos were specifically linked to gang crime, with newspapers reporting on the case of the ‘Forty Thieves’, a group of youths notorious for robbing coaches and travellers in and around London.

Members of the gang could allegedly be identified by a distinctive tattoo comprising five dots between their thumb and forefinger.

While this may be true, the researchers found such tattoos were also popular with men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds who ended up in court.

The authors added: “The widespread use of the five dots tattoo (378 convicts between 1820 and 1880) suggests that any ‘gang’ could not have been easily identified by this tattoo alone.”

“As the simplest tattoo to create, dots were hugely popular. The left side of the body was dominant, suggesting that dots were often self-administered [and] were often used for purely decorative purposes, like rings and bracelets.”

Sarah Phillips, for example, transported to Australia in 1838 for stealing boots, wore a “seven dots ring” and “three dots” on her fingers.

The data suggests that, rather than being a marker of criminality, tattoos were used as a way of commemorating family members and celebrating important life events, with 16th birthdays, for example, remembered with tattoos of bottles.