A portal into the past: Rediscovering the lost cases of the Old Bailey

All of our first year law undergrads took part in an exercise in week one of their LLB where they escaped City and went to visit a number of buildings of significance in the local area, before tackling some research questions.

They were then asked to write a blog post inspired by their travels. 21 winners were selected from all those posts submitted – this is one of those – thanks to Oliver Lythgoe

During Group 18’s exploration of “Legal London” we visited four sights of particular significance to the development of our legal system; Old Sessions House (a former courthouse), Shoe Lane (the setting of a case notable in English contract law), Smithfield Market (one of the oldest markets in London) and the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales, or as it is colloquially known as, the Old Bailey. Of these places, it is perhaps the history of the Old Bailey which gives the best insight into the justice system of the 18th and 19th Century.

Digitising the records of the Old Bailey

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As our group walked down the road from which the Old Bailey takes its name and we discussed the numerous refurbishments which the building had undergone over the last three centuries, I pondered the fate of the records of the Old Bailey’s Proceedings. Had they perished with the numerous refurbishments the building had undergone over the last three centuries? My questions led me to an article in the Smithsonian (Digitising the Hanging Court) which detailed the remarkable work of two American academics, Hitchcock and Shoemaker who set about digitising the records of the Old Bailey Proceedings in 1999.

The project was an immense task requiring the digitisation of 52 million words from 190 thousand pages of proceedings. The efforts of these men, combined with new Ordinance Survey maps detailing London between 1863 and 1880, have provided academics an unparalleled insight into to life in the 18th and 19th century. Exploring the website myself, I searched for the number of people who had been convicted for theft between September 1799 and September 1800 at the Old Bailey and found the cases of 870 convictions from that time.

Punishments

From this I then considered the severity of the punishments given to those who committed theft related offences at this time given that now many first time offenders of theft are simply given fines or penalty notices. The results I found were a staggering representation of the severity of sentencing of the time, as of those 870 convictions, 75 were whipped publically (63 privately), 199 transported to either Australia or Canada and 269 imprisoned. Only 177 received a fine.

Did everyone meet this fate?

The answer here is surprising. Despite the vast number of minor property offences which specified death as the penalty for minor offences (widely known as the “bloody code”) a death sentence was relatively rare. In 1800 there were no deaths for theft offences, a result of partial verdicts delivered by juries and the “benefit of the clergy” which allowed any man who could prove he was a member of the church (usually by reading the 51st Psalm) to be released to church officials. This constituted a stark change from the beginning of the 18th century when between 1700 and 1750 1071 people were sentenced to death for theft offences.

In all, though I was skeptical at first as to what lessons relevant to today (and specifically our course), could be learnt from exploring the past of the Old Bailey, the exercise has served as a clear reminder as to how fortunate we are to live in a society with a justice system as developed as our own.

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