The Urban Contexts of Crimes Tried at the Old Bailey
The centre of a vibrant new world of print and coffee houses, of world trade and new manufactures, London in the early eighteenth century witnessed the beginnings of many of the phenomena that would later characterise and define the modern world. Daily newspapers, and Britain’s first professional police force, the picaresque novel and the shop window, were either invented or became commonplace in London in these years. Among an extensive and diverse body of printed literature, the Proceedings themselves became a respectable publication, both providing evidence of a changing literary and cultural landscape and bearing witness on every page to the developments occurring beyond the walls of the Old Bailey courtroom.
Contents of this Article
- Built Environment
- Social and Occupational Structure
- Culture and Politics
- Introductory Reading
In 1715 London witnessed with mixed emotions the triumphal procession through its streets of the newly crowned George I. It was a city divided by politics and religion. Jacobitism and anti-Catholicism sat side by side, leading to both anxious government policy and popular unrest. In the decades that followed, economic instability (characterised by the South Sea Bubble), fitful population growth, fear of crime, and crime itself, all contributed to a heady mix of disappointment and possibility. It was in the decades between 1715 and 1760 that English fiction came of age, when the shape of the first British Empire was set and the lineaments of an Imperial state outlined. By 1760 there were still fragments of an older, medieval City behind every facade, but the direction of change was established.
From a population of around 630,000 in 1715 the city grew to approximately 740,000 in 1760. But this growth was spasmodic and uneven. In around 1725 a period of gradual expansion gave way to relative stagnation until the end of the 1740s. This in turn was followed by a period of strong population growth during the 1750s. Throughout this period the population remained subject to short term economic depressions and subsistence crises. The late thirties, for instance, witnessed a sustained period of bad weather, which went down in collective memory as "the hard winter of 1739", and led to rising poor rates and widespread destitution.
The "gin craze", poor hygiene, and cramped and inadequate living conditions are all frequently cited as explanations for this relatively slow population growth, particularly owing to their contribution to the period’s extremely high infant mortality rate (20.2 deaths per 100 live births by the age of 2 years in the period 1730-9).
Perhaps in response to this cripplingly high infant mortality rate, attitudes to children began to change in this period. The Foundling Hospital was established in 1741, supposedly in response to Thomas Coram’s disgust at the exposure and abandonment of the new-born babies of the capital. And in the Proceedings, changing attitudes towards single mothers are evident in a clear pattern of declining prosecutions for infanticide can be identified from the 1730s onwards.
But even to maintain a static population, London required a high level of constant in-migration, resulting in a markedly young population profile, including more women than men, and a markedly diverse set of constituent communities. Evidence for these communities can be found throughout the Proceedings. Further information on the Irish, Black, Jewish, Gypsy, Homosexual, and Huguenot communities and suggestions for search strategies can be found under Community Histories. For a more detailed demographic account see A Population History of London.
If in 1715 London was composed of a series of contiguous communities spread along the Thames, each of which was within easy reach of open fields, by the 1760s London had begun to escape the magnetic attraction of the river and to make ever-deeper inroads into rural Middlesex and Surrey.
In the West End, the new parishes carved from St Martins in the Fields in the late seventeenth century added St George Hanover Square to their number in 1724. A clear pattern of neo-classical squares came to dominate the landscape, with their consistent, stuccoed facades, and regulated, privatised green spaces. Using a pattern of development in which aristocratic landowners leased sites for short periods to speculative builders, retaining substantial control over the buildings erected, the West End became the location of some of the most elaborate and sophisticated urban architecture in Europe. A new design for domestic living was created, with a subterranean "area" below street level; separate entrances for servants, services, and the family; and separate rooms for entertaining, withdrawing and sleeping, arranged upwards through a vertiginous series of stories. By 1760 every major aristocratic and gentry family in the country maintained a house in the West End, no longer so much to be near the Court, but to participate in the increasingly important London Season. Built to the highest standards, the centre of both governance and aristocratic sociability, the West End cemented its central role in national life during these decades.
At the same time the City gradually became more focussed on its international financial role. Rebuilt after the great fire, late seventeenth-century taste remained powerfully stamped on the physical environment of the City. But, while it retained its exposed brick and Queen Ann architecture, it added new financial institutions to its more traditional function as a warehousing centre for international trade. The Royal Exchange, the Bank of England and Lloyd’s Insurance Market, the sites and products of the financial revolution, marked the physical impact of a new way of doing business which even the financial catastrophe of the South Sea Bubble did little to undermine. The City retained its disorderly neighbourhoods, lively markets and open sewers, but admixed this cacophony of life with an increasingly wealthy and self-confident financial elite, housed in the classical architecture of Georgian buildings.
The opening of Westminster Bridge in 1750 (joined twenty years later by Blackfriars’ Bridge), created new paths to Southwark and the Borough, ensuring that South London (which remained outside the jurisdiction of the Old Bailey) experienced strong growth from mid-century, and providing house room for many of the skilled artisans increasingly excluded from Westminster.
To the East, the port grew in ever greater importance; attracting more and more ships, requiring ever more labour. The disorderly neighbourhoods east of the Tower, of Whitechapel and Rosemary Lane, grew street by street, but always retained a varied set of communities brought to London by world trade. Prior to the enclosure of the docks at the end of the eighteenth century, the chaotic quays and docks of the riverside continued to provide the infrastructure of trade, creating both a fertile space for disputes over work-place perquisites, and opportunities for theft that ensured the East End and the port in particular figure frequently in the Proceedings.
Throughout London and urban Middlesex, this period also witnessed the creation of a remarkable number of new churches. Under the auspices of the "New Churches in London and Westminster Act, 1710" (9 Anne c. 17), the Commission for Fifty New Churches built or rebuilt over twenty new churches, including St George Hanover Square (1720-25), St George in the East (1714-29), St Luke Old Street (1727-33), and Christ Church Spitalfields (1714-29). Designed by architects such as Nicholas Hawksmoor, John James and Thomas Archer, these churches, coming on the heels of Christopher Wren’s post-fire architecture and in combination with the squares of the West End, have since come to define the look and feel of urban London.
London in 1715 was at one and the same time Britain’s largest manufacturing centre, its largest port, and the centre of governance, the professions, trade, and finance. Perhaps a third of the population was directly involved in manufacturing, and the capital formed the centre of many trades (perhaps most notably the silk industries). The numbers of medical and legal professionals, in particular, grew strongly from the last quarter of the seventeenth century through the 1740s when the number of professionals began to level off. Employed in an ever growing number of hospitals and institutions, in the plethora of courts (both civil and criminal) and in the army and navy, by around 1730 there were perhaps 15,000 men employed in the law, medicine, the church and the military; while during the same period around one in nine Londoners kept a shop; and a further ten percent worked in the transport sector. For the increasing role of lawyers in the Proceedings, see Trial Procedures.
This employment and economic pattern, however, was substantially skewed both in terms of gender and class. Female employment, for instance, was largely restricted to a small number of occupations, of which domestic service was overwhelmingly dominant, with perhaps half of all employed women working in service in this period (compared to perhaps five percent of men). Beyond this, women were largely restricted to needlework and laundry, and the large numbers of unskilled and poorly paid employments associated with street selling and casual labour.
But if employment was sharply divided between men and women, wealth was equally mal-distributed. The elite, the wealthy and aristocratic, made up between two and three percent of Londoners, while the "middling sort" – the professionals, large shop-keepers and manufacturers, bankers and traders – formed around a fifth of the population. Of the rest, some twenty per cent, skilled artisans and the simply lucky, might avoid poverty and dependence throughout their lives, but a full sixty per cent were likely to find themselves in receipt of charity, or parish relief during periods of unemployment, illness or old age. The 1720s witnessed the creation of a large number of parish workhouses, and by 1760 approximately 2 per cent of the population of London was housed in these institutions.
The Proceedings provide perhaps our best evidence for the day-to-day workings of many of the capital’s employments, and also of the experience of living in the city’s many charitable and relief institutions. For an example of a trial reflecting on the conditions in a parish workhouse, see the 1755 murder trial of Mabell Hughes. You can search for particular occupations using both the personal details search page (for victim and defendant occupations) and keyword searching.
Perhaps more than any other period or place, London between 1715 and 1760 is associated with the creation of many of the characteristics of a "modern" culture. The coffee houses of the late seventeenth century had, by 1715, matured into a network of venues for open political debate. The newspapers which flourished following the lapsing of the Licensing Act in 1695, had, by the same time, become an unstoppable stream of daily, bi-weekly, weekly and monthly publications to suit every pocket and political inclination. And in the shadow of this torrent of newsprint, new genres and forms of literature seemed to emerge every decade. The novel grew to a new centrality with the publications of Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (many of which were inspired by the published trial accounts in the Proceedings). Scientific literature, humour, popular medicine, travel accounts, biography and autobiography all took a newly sophisticated or at least variegated format. John Gay, with his Trivia (1716) and The Beggars’ Opera (1727); Alexander Pope, with his Dunciad (1728); and Samuel Johnson, with The Dictionary of the English Language (1755); essentially created new forms of literature, and did so in dialogue with a London that fed both their imaginations and their scholarship.
This was not, however, a London without its problems. During the second half of the 1710s and 1720s, Londoners were sharply divided over the legitimacy of the new Hanoverian regime, and infected with corrosive religious bigotries that regularly erupted in riots and assaults against both Protestant non-conformists and Catholics. See for example the trials associated with the "Mug-house Riots" of 1715-16. Vicious crimes punctuated these decades, and the Proceedings themselves, bringing as they did the lurid details of crime to a new audience, in combination with the new periodical press, ensured that a new fear of crime and anxiety about social disorder gripped the hearts of many. For the growth of printed literature about crime, see the Associated Records.
In the absence of strong leadership from the City of London, the Middlesex and Westminster Bench, in the form of three generations of magistrates led by Sir John Gonson, Sir Thomas De Veil and Henry and John Fielding, responded to these periodic "crime waves" by creating an increasingly professional police and justice system from the rag-tag collection of thief-takers and Reformation of Manners inspired vigilantes of the 1720s, eventually creating a structured service centred on Bow Street, just east of Covent Garden. For more details on these developments see Policing.
In response to many of these same pressures, this period also witnessed a remarkable flowering of institutional responses to poverty and social problems. Parish workhouses, many designed by architects such as Nicholas Hawksmoor, came to characterise local responses to poverty, while new hospitals such as the Westminster Infirmary (1719), Guys Hospital (1725), and Middlesex Hospital (1745), gradually blanketed the capital with a new wealth of medical care. And following the establishment of the Foundling Hospital in 1741, a new series of associational charities both redirected large amounts of public resources towards London’s perceived problems and created new venues for elite sociability.
- Porter, Roy, London: a Social History (London, 1994)
- George, Dorothy, London Life in the Eighteenth Century (London, 2nd edn, 1966)
- Hitchcock, Tim, Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London (London, 2004)
- O'Connell, Sheila, London 1753 (London, 2003)
- Schwarz, L.D., London in the Age of Industrialisation: Entrepreneurs, Labour Force and Living Conditions, 1700-1850 (Cambridge, 1992).
- Shoemaker, Robert, The London Mob: Violence and Disorder in Eighteenth-Century England (London, 2004)
For more secondary literature on this subject see the Bibliography.