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How to Read an Old Bailey Trial

Click on the image for a video guide. An extended text version of the same material, with linked screenshots, can be read below.

The shortest trial report in the Proceedings is precisely eight words in length. In February, 1685:

Elizabeth Draper, Indicted for Felony, was found Guilty.

The longest trial is 320 pages, and over 150,000 words long, and details the crime and conviction of William Palmer, found guilty of poisoning John Parsons Cook in 1856. In between are 197,743 other trials that average around 590 words each.

This tutorial is designed help you recognise the structure of an Old Bailey trial report, to identify the difference between the formulaic language used to record the legal process and the testimony presented to the court that purported to describe behaviour beyond the courtroom – the circumstances of the crime.

The Creation of the Text

There are two overriding factors that shape the precise form and content of a trial text. These are first, the criminal justice system, which determined which trials reached court, which witnesses gave evidence, and whose voice would be heard. And second, the process of recording the trial, initially in shorthand, and then as a published text in the Proceedings. The way the criminal justice system worked is described in the historical background pages and the changing process of recording and publishing trials is detailed in About the Proceedings. For a discussion of the types of courtroom speech which were most likely to be omitted from trial reports in the Proceedings, see The Value of the Proceedings as a Historical Source.

Exploring a single case helps to isolate the different components that you are likely to encounter when reading a trial. This is the trial of Richard Collins, who was tried for theft at the session of the court beginning 30 October 1793. Sessions normally lasted three days, so we cannot know whether this trial was actually heard on the 30th of October or a subsequent day.

The Header Box

The trial of Richard Collins for theft, 30 October 1793, indicating the location of the header box, t17931030-4.

When read on this website as a single trial, the original text is preceded by a yellow header box. The information in this box reflects a modern description of the trial assigned as part of creating this website. It includes:

  • a unique reference number, which can be used to search for the trial subsequently and should be used when citing the trial in any written work
  • standardised indications of the offence, verdict and punishment (with links to explanations of each offence, verdict and punishment type)
  • links to a database of related materials in the Associated Records database, if such materials have been located for the trial.

The Trial Number and Defendant's Name

The transcription of the original trial texts begins directly below this yellow header section. In this instance, the trial begins 676. Richard Collins...

Trial of Richard Collins, for theft, 30 October 1793, indicating the location of the header box, t17931030-4.

The number, 676 in this instance, is part of an annual series. From December 1738 each trial during the mayoral year was numbered consecutively. Because the Lord Mayor of the City of London sat as a judge at the Old Bailey, and because the City first licensed, and later subsidised their publication, each volume of the Proceedings runs from the Lord Mayors’ swearing in during the last week of October to the end of his term the following year. This October Proceedings covered the last of eight sessions published during the mayoralty of Sir James Sanderson, during which 763 separate trials were recorded. Trials were not numbered prior to June 1732, and between that date and December 1738 trials were counted by session rather than by mayoral year.

The next element of the trial is the name of the defendant – in this instance, Richard Collins. By the 1790s the spelling of most names had become largely standardised, but for most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there could be wide variations in the spelling of specific names both between and within trials. It is worth noting that the process of recording names in shorthand tended to privilege their phonetic characteristics over other aspects of spelling. The surname of Eleanor Karavan, for example, who was tried on at least two occasions in the later 1780s, was recorded variously as: Kirvan, Caravan, Kirvin and Kervin. In manuscript documents generated by the process leading up to her trials she is also named as Keirvin and Karavan.

Although the Proceedings contain 197,745 trials, it names 253,385 defendants, reflecting the extent to which multiple defendants were frequently tried in the same trial.

The Indictment

The rest of the first paragraph of this and most trials is taken up with the legal details of the case, probably read aloud in court directly from the formal indictment produced by the grand jury prior to the trial. This paragraph will normally describe the nature of the crime, its date, the items stolen if it was a theft, or the nature of the assault or murder if it was an offence against the peace, along with the name, and frequently (though not in this instance) the occupation and residence of the victim. This description, because its role is to establish the nature of the crime, is frequently truncated or partial in the published Proceedings. Items stolen, beyond the value sufficient to justify the offence charged, for instance, might not be mentioned in order to save time in court, or space on the page; while lesser crimes committed as part of a more serious offence were normally omitted.

A single individual is also normally identified as the victim, though many crimes affected more than one person. Unlike the number of defendants, the number of victims recorded in the Proceedings is nearly the same as the total number of trials (203,501 and 197,745 respectively). In the case of theft, the name of the "victim" was frequently given as the male householder, regardless of whether the goods were actually his. In 1764, for instance, Isabella Parkhouse was tried for stealing a "pair of stays", among several others items, and Thomas Bates was listed as the "victim" and prosecutor in the first paragraph of the report of the trial. Later on, however, Margaret Bates, his wife, declares that: "these stays are my property; the petticoat and apron, that the prisoner had on when taken, are my property".

This pattern of recording legal details in a separate paragraph at the start of the trial report became commonplace from the early 1720s for longer trials, but was never universal. For shorter trials, and prior to the 1720s, the first sentence, recording the indictment, was run into more descriptive evidence in the same paragraph.

Witness Statements

Trial of Richard Collins, for theft, 30 October 1793, indicating the location of the header box, t17931030-4.

From the second paragraph, or sentence for early and shorter trials, the text takes the form of statements of evidence. In early trials this is largely given in the third person, and is frequently expressed in judgemental terms. But, from the 1710s, and according to Magnus Huber's analysis of the language used in the Proceedings, particularly from the 1730s, evidence is generally recounted in the first person and from this decade onwards 85 per cent of trial accounts is made up of text bearing the characteristics of spoken language.

Whose spoken language is recorded, and how close that language was to the words expressed in court, is a different matter. As explained in The Value of the Proceedings as Historical Evidence, much of what was said in court was not reported in the Proceedings. In the case of the trial of Richard Collins, the second paragraph simply states: JOSEPH STEVENIT sworn. This is then followed by a first person statement providing details of Joseph Stevenit’s identity (in this instance, that he is the daughter of Elizabeth Stevenit, the victim), and giving basic details of the crime. The language recorded appears to be a verbatim statement, judging by the repeated inclusion of a first person pronoun (I). But it is clear both from comparison of the Proceedings with different versions of the same trials, and from the accounts of his practice left by Thomas Gurney, the most important Old Bailey shorthand recorder, that some speech was excised as dull and repetitive, or else transformed into a more readable form for publication. While it is probable that all testimony was normally transcribed by the shorthand clerk, much of it did not survive the process of publication, and therefore does not appear in the Proceedings. This tendency to truncate witness statements is particularly evident in eighteenth-century trials.

Joseph Stevenit’s statement of identity and involvement is then followed by a series of paragraphs appearing to reflect an ongoing dialogue in court, with a Q., followed by a question, and an answer from the witness. While the text of the question is provided in this and other trials at this time, it is omitted from the reports in other years, with only the witnesses' answers provided.

Trial of Richard Collins, for theft, 30 October 1793, indicating the location of the header box, t17931030-4.

Although the questioner is occasionally identified, he is not in this trial, as was frequently the case. Sometimes the questioner is described as the prosecutor or counsel for the defense, but not consistently. From 1783 to 1792 counsel were frequently named, but at other times interventions by counsel were omitted or inconsistently reported. The questioner could also be the judge, the prosecutor, or members of the jury.

Beginning in 1785 (see the trial of Roger Sweetman for sodomy in September 1785), and then more consistently from 1787, evidence that was thought to present a moral danger to the reading public was excluded. In particular, witness statements in cases of rape and sodomy were not reported after this date. The publishers of the Proceedings also regularly balanced the need to report trials with their need to make a profit. As a result, particularly up until the first quarter of the nineteenth century, trials which the publishers felt were un-interesting are reported in the shortest compass, while those deemed to be of wider interest are reported at great length. Particularly long trials, or those which might generate wide public interest, were occasionally published across two issues of the Proceedings. The inconsistent relationship between the run of evidence given in court and the trials as reported in the Proceedings is reflected in the fact that three trials involving Oscar Wilde, for malicious libel, conspiracy and sodomy respectively in the Spring of 1895, which kept newspapers rapt for months, are given precisely 22 lines in the Proceedings. Legal arguments that the City authorities worried would publicise successful legal strategies were explicitly excluded from 1850.

The number of witnesses, and the length and nature of their evidence, varied widely from trial to trial, but witnesses were normally called in a specific order, with the victim and key prosecution witnesses called first, followed by those speaking to the defence, and finally, witnesses to the character of the defendant. Character witnesses are particularly prominent in eighteenth-century trials, but their evidence is less fully reported than that of other types of witness. Frequently, a simple statement such as that recorded at the trial of Roger Goodwin in 1795 for stealing a bullock, is all that survived publication: The prisoner called four witnesses to his character.

The Defendant's Statement

Trial of Richard Collins, for theft, 30 October 1793, indicating the location of the header box, t17931030-4.

The record of trial evidence usually concludes with a statement from the defendant, normally identified as The prisoner, when they were expected to respond to the evidence against them and demonstrate their innocence. As explained in The Value of the Proceedings as Historical Evidence, this was another section of the trial record that was frequently abbreviated in the published Proceedings. When reported, however, it allows us to hear the voice of the defendant. The full text of the report of Richard Collins's defence, Prisoner. I had not had a bit of victuals for two days, I was drove out for hunger; I did it for want., is a good illustration of both how abbreviated, and how potentially revealing, these reports can be.

Verdict, Punishment and Recommendation

Trial of Richard Collins, for theft, 30 October 1793, indicating the location of the header box, t17931030-4.

The final lines of the trial begin with the verdict. From January 1789 onwards the age of defendants found guilty is recorded as part of this line, which is then followed by the punishment sentence, either on the same line or below. A recommendation for mercy from the jury is also sometimes recorded at this point, and from December 1775 the jury and the judge who heard the case are specified here. For more information, see Judges and Juries.

Conclusion

The trial accounts published in the Proceedings were edited and truncated in ways that served a number of different purposes, and which changed over time. The beginning and ends of trials offer a relatively unvarnished, but essentially bureaucratic statement of the legal process. These elements probably do not reflect the actual words expressed in court, or if they do, they represent the formulaic elements of the trial process. Witness statements are probably closer to the actual words said in court, but again were shaped in response to the changing requirements of the City of London, which licensed the publication, and the changing economic realities faced by the publisher. For a more detailed analysis of the changing nature of the Proceedings see the Publishing History of the Proceedings.

Introductory Reading

  • Devereaux, S., The City and the Sessions Paper: 'Public Justice' in London, 1770-1800, Journal of British Studies, 35 (1996), pp. 466-503.
  • Devereaux, S., The Fall of the Sessions Paper: Criminal Trial and the Popular Press in Late Eighteenth-Century London, Criminal Justice History, 18 (2002), pp. 57-88
  • Huber, Magnus, The Old Bailey Proceedings, 1674-1834: Evaluating and Annotating a Corpus of 18th- and 19th-Century Spoken English, Varieng: Studies in Variation, Contacts and Change in English, Volume 1 - Annotating Variation and Change (2007).
  • Shoemaker, R.B., The Old Bailey Proceedings and the Representation of Crime and Criminal Justice in Eighteenth-Century London, Journal of British Studies, 47:3 (2008), pp. 559-580.

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