History, they say, is written by the victorious. It is also, by and large, written by those who are well educated, articulate and comparatively well-off. Even when writers like Dickens and Defoe write about people from the poorest sections of society, the voices are filtered through the lens of the authors’ understanding and the stories they want to tell. But long before the advent of audio tapes, there was one place where the voices of ordinary men, women and children were recorded raw and verbatim. And that was in court.
The Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court provides an archive of court proceedings from 1674-1913 – a total of 197,745 criminal trials. Available as a fully searchable, free, on-line resource, it’s an incredible gift for historical novelists in particular.
Unlike the court records today, these Proceedings were not kept as a legal requirement, but were done for popular publication. As such, they are not comprehensive transcripts of everything that was said in court. However, as the introduction on the website explains, authenticity was one of their strongest selling points and the reputation of the Proceedings would have quickly suffered had the accounts been unreliable. But for writers, what makes this a particularly exciting source is witness testimony – the most fully reported element of the trials.
A sister publication, also available on the Old Bailey site, is the “Ordinary of Newgate’s Account”, 1676-1772. The Ordinary was the chaplain of Newgate prison, charged with providing spiritual care to prisoners condemned to death. One of the questionable perks of the job was the right to publish an account of the prisoners’ last dying speeches and behaviour on the scaffold, together with stories of their lives and crimes. The online archive thus contains biographies of some 2,500 executed criminals.
The Proceedings reveal fascinating details of daily lives. For example, there was clearly a regular scam, worthy of The Real Hustle, being perpetrated in London through the eighteenth century. I discovered a series of cases where a woman comes to your house and offers to tell your fortunes. She tells you there is a great treasure buried under the house, and that if you are able to give her a little gold and silver (coins, spoons, buttons and buckles) she will be able to help you find it. Then by a variety of sleights of hands, these goods are then swapped or whisked away, and of course no treasure is found. Look at the wonderfully vivid language with which this scam is described by Elizabeth Ferrand, the wife of a cabinet maker.
She said, ‘Young woman I have been home and examined my books, and find there is a great deal of money hid in your house’; said I, ‘I do not believe there is’; said she, ‘I am no jew, nor no gypsey; I am the 7th daughter of a West India woman, and I wish the d—l may take me alive, and that God may never receive my soul into heaven, if I am not telling you the truth.’
Don’t think this is only of interest if you are writing about London. The jurisdiction of the court has always extended out into the countryside surrounding London (in the early days, rural Middlesex and then, as London grew, parts of Essex, Kent and Surrey). Thus the Proceedings reflect small communities and rural life as much as the hurly-burly of the capital.
The Proceedings can be eye-openers to attitudes of the time. One case, highlighted in the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Voices from the Old Bailey’, was of Katharine Hays who, in 1772, conspired to murder her violent and abusive husband. Not only was no leniency shown her as a result of the abuse she had suffered, but she was convicted of ‘petty treason’. This crime, considered particularly heinous, applied to those who murdered someone held to be in authority over them, such as a servant murdering a master – or a wife murdering her husband. As a result, rather than being hanged as a common murderer, Katharine Hays was burnt at the stake.
On the other hand, the principal of feme covert, although not often applied, meant that a woman could not be convicted of a crime committed in the presence of (or along with) her husband, since it was assumed that she must be acting under his orders. This was the basis on which Martha Rogers was cleared in 1702 of receiving stolen goods.
As well as the transcripts, the Old Bailey site also contains a wealth of summary reports. For example, there are reports on black communities, gypsies and travellers, the Irish, the Chinese, Jewish and Huguenot communities and on homosexuality. These reports also give advice on the best search terms to use to find proceedings from trials involving these communities. There are reports, too, on how London changed over the period of the Proceedings, and plenty of information about crime and punishment.
The advertisements printed with the accounts can be as intriguing as the main content. Take this one for : Dr.Richard Rock's never failing TINCTURE for curing the TEETH (price, one shilling, with directions):
Which by once or twice using, cleanses the blackest or foulest Teeth, beyond Expression, by eradicating those scorbutick scurvy Humours, which are the Occasion thereof; and gives immediate Ease to those who are afflicted with the Tooth ach, and prevents the Return of that most violent Pain.This article by Catriona Troth first appeared in Words with JAM magazine