The Old Bailey proceedings and the representation of crime and criminal justice in eighteenth-century London

The Old Bailey proceedings and the representation of crime and criminal justice in eighteenth-century London

By R.B. Shoemaker

Journal of British Studies, Vol.47:3 (2008)

An Old Bailey trial, circa 1808.

Introduction: The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, published accounts of felony trials held at London’s central criminal court, were a remarkable publishing phenomenon. First published in 1674, they quickly became a regular periodical, with editions published eight times a year following each session of the court. Despite the huge number of trial reports (some 50,000 in the eighteenth century), the Proceedings, also known as the “Sessions Papers”, have formed the basis of several important studies in social history, dating back to Dorothy George’s seminal London Life in the Eighteenth Century (1925). Their recent publication online, however, has not only made them more widely available, but also changed the way historians consult them, leading to greater use of both quantitative analysis, using the statistics function, and qualitative examination of their language, through keyword searching. In the context of recent renewed interest in the history of crime and criminal justice, for which this is the most important source available in this period, the growing use of the Proceedings raises questions about their reliability, and, by extension, the motivations for their original publication. Historians generally consider the Proceedings to present accurate, if often incomplete, accounts of courtroom proceedings. From this source, along with manuscript judicial records, criminal biographies (including the Ordinary’s Accounts), polemical pamphlets such as Henry Fielding’s Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (1751), and of course the satirical prints of William Hogarth, they have constructed a picture of eighteenth-century London as a city overwhelmed by periodic crime waves and of a policing and judicial system which was forced into wide-ranging reforms in order to meet this challenge.

Even in the 1780s, John Langbein reports, “when the sessions papers achieved their greatest detail, they were still omitting most of what was said at most of the trials they reported.” The much shorter reports earlier in the century were even more abbreviated; events that took place at a session lasting between three and six days had to be compressed into short pamphlets of between eight and a few dozen pages. This was true even when a trial attracted considerable public attention. The trial of the poet and playwright Richard Savage for murder in 1727 lasted eight hours, but the account in the Proceedings, partly presented in the first person as verbatim testimony, is only 2,447 words, which could easily have been spoken in under an hour. By the choice of what was included and what was omitted, the Proceedings could easily have presented a distorted view of events at the Old Bailey; they could also, of course, have been inaccurate in the events that they did report. But that is not the view of Langbein, the leading authority on Old Bailey trial reporting. After noting that “the greatest shortcoming of the sessions papers as historical sources is their tendency to compress the trials they report,” he goes on to say that “on the other hand, we need not worry about fabrication or invention of content.”

This article will present a less sanguine view. Building on recent research on the value of the Proceedings as an historical source, including linguistic analysis that demonstrates the limitations of the shorthand system of note taking, it will be argued that, by their choice of what was included and what was left out, as well as by occasional distortions in what was reported, the Proceedings presented a partial account of crime and criminal justice to their readers. This was first suggested some years ago by Ian Bell, who asserted, without providing much evidence, that reports in the Proceedings were “shaped, by selection, inclusion, exclusion, and emphasis” and “compose a particular version of the trials” compared to other versions “available in Augustan writing.”

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