From their inception in 1674 to the final issue in 1913
The Proceedings contain accounts of trials which took place at the Old Bailey. The first published collection of trials at the Old Bailey dates from 1674, and from 1678 accounts of the trials at each sessions (meeting of the Court) were regularly published. Inexpensive, and targeted initially at a popular audience, the Proceedings were produced shortly after the conclusion of each sessions and were initially a commercial success. But with the growth of newspapers and increasing publication costs the audience narrowed by the nineteenth century to a combination of lawyers and public officials. With few exceptions, this periodical was regularly published each time the sessions met (eight times a year until 1834, and then ten to twelve times a year) for 239 years, when publication came to a sudden halt in April 1913.
Contents of this Article
- Early History, 1678-1729
- Commercial Expansion, 1729-1778
- Official Publication, 1778-1834
- The Central Criminal Court, 1834-1913
- The End of the Proceedings, 1913
- Introductory Reading
Accounts of the lives and exploits of notorious criminals were published as ballads, chap-books, and broadsides from the sixteenth century. These inexpensive publications were designed to entertain, and they reached a wide market. In the 1670s, perhaps as a result of growing concern about crime, there was an explosion of crime literature, including criminal biographies, the last dying speeches of executed criminals, Ordinary of Newgate's Accounts of the lives of criminals, and trial accounts.
The first surviving published account of a group of trials which occurred at the Old Bailey (as opposed to accounts of notable single trials) was from the April sessions of 1674. Entitled News from Newgate: or an exact and true accompt of the most remarkable tryals of several notorious malefactors... in the Old Baily, this pamphlet, like many early editions of the Proceedings, described only some of the trials which took place at that sessions. As this pamphlet concluded, in addition to those reported there were also "divers other tryals which would be too tedious to insert".
Editions survive for most sessions in the late 1670s, but were produced by a number of different publishers. On occasion, as in January 1676, two competing accounts were published of the same session. These early Proceedings were similar to the earlier chapbooks with their sensationalist and judgemental approach, and they were very selective in the trials they chose to publish.
In October 1678 the first edition which described all the trials at a single session appeared. In December 1678 a particularly detailed account was published with a more objective tone. Perhaps in recognition of what such publications could achieve, and in order to have some control over their content, in January 1679 the Court of Aldermen of the City of London ordered that accounts of proceedings at the Old Bailey could only be published with the approval of the Lord Mayor and the other justices present. At this point a more or less standard title was adopted: The Proceedings of the King's Commission of the Peace and Oyer and Terminer, and Gaol-Delivery of Newgate, held for the City of London and the County of Middlesex, at Justice-Hall, in the Old Bailey. With some minor variations, this title remained unchanged for decades. Although sometimes referred to as the "Sessions Papers", this project has adopted the short title of Old Bailey Proceedings, or just Proceedings.
The fact that publication had to be approved by the Lord Mayor, and London Lord Mayors serve yearly terms of office from November to November, explains why later editions of the Proceedings were bound together and paginated in annual volumes, from the first sessions in the Mayoral year (November or December) to the last (October). Until the late eighteenth century printers had to pay an annual fee to the Lord Mayor for the privilege of printing the Proceedings.
Early editions of the Proceedings were between four and nine pages long, included brief summaries of trials, and were not necessarily comprehensive. Nonetheless, by the mid 1680s most trials seem to have been reported. Around 1712 the Proceedings began to include some verbatim testimonies, especially in trials which were thought to be salacious, amusing, or otherwise entertaining.
Although there is no evidence that publication was interrupted, it is not clear whether publication was constant throughout the period from 1678 to 1714. Whereas editions survive for the vast majority of sessions between April 1674 and 1698, between 1699 and 1714 editions are missing for two-thirds of the sessions, and there are three years for which no Proceedings survive: 1701, 1705, and 1706. This website includes all surviving editions of the Proceedings, but excludes publications which only report a single trial. If you know of an edition of the Proceedings which is not included on this website please contact us.
By the early eighteenth century, the Proceedings were an established periodical, read enthusiastically by Londoners seeking news, moral instruction, or entertainment. Louis de Muralt, a French visitor, reported in a letter published in 1726 but written up to thirty years earlier, that "the printed accounts... are in the opinion of many people one of the most diverting things a man can read in London". An example of their "diverting" content was the publication in 1725 of a phonetic account of the testimony of a drunken Irishman, which earned a censure from the City authorities for the "lewd and indecent manner" in which the trial was reported. For more information on this case, see Irish London.
In December 1729 the publisher introduced a number of changes to the format in order to make the Proceedings more attractive to readers, in the face of competition from daily newspapers and published compilations of trials. They were expanded to 24 pages, and included yearly indexes, cross-referencing between trials, advertisements in the back, and, most importantly, much greater use of verbatim accounts of the testimony of prosecutors, witnesses, and defendants, as well as judges' comments and questions (this was facilitated by the use of shorthand note takers). Ordinary trials were still treated very briefly, in order to allow more space for the more exciting crimes, including murders, sexual crimes, and thefts from the person (which usually involved prostitutes).
From the 1730s, the Proceedings for each sessions began to be issued in two parts as a way of further increasing the publisher's profits. Despite attempts by the City to stop the practice the number of parts per sessions increased over the years to three, four, and eventually five per sessions in the 1770s. Although still a commercial enterprise, there is evidence that the Proceedings were beginning to be viewed as providing a legal record of the court’s proceedings. Evidence of their growing respectability (and possibly declining readership) can also be seen in the decreasing number of advertisements (with the exception of those for the shorthand writers who took notes at the trials) in the 1740s.
By the late eighteenth century, public interest in the lives of ordinary criminals was waning, and other types of literature about crime, such as criminal biographies, lost popularity. The Proceedings came to provide much less sexually explicit testimony and the number of trials reported increased significantly. At the same time, accounts of what happened at the Old Bailey were reported in increasing detail in the newspapers. For all these reasons the Proceedings ceased to be commercially viable and in 1787 a subsidy had to be paid by the City to ensure continued publication (earlier, publishers had paid the City for the privilege of publishing the Proceedings).
In 1775, the City began to take a greater interest in controlling the content of the Proceedings, and in 1778 it demanded that the Proceedings should provide a “true, fair, and perfect narrative” of all the trials. In addition, the publisher was required to supply 320 free copies of the Proceedings to City officials. In part, these requirements resulted from the fact the Proceedings were being used by the City's Recorder as a formal record: they formed the basis of the Recorder's report to the King concerning which of the convicts sentenced to death should be pardoned. Moreover, at a time of social instability, the City was concerned to demonstrate to the public the fairness and impartiality of judicial procedures at the Old Bailey.
As a result of this increased scrutiny and new demands from the City, the length of the trial reports increased and some of the practices publishers used to sell copies were abandoned. The practice of providing considerable detail of the more entertaining crimes, while providing only brief details of others, ceased, and all trials now received more or less uniform treatment. Similarly, the practice of dividing reports of particularly exciting trials between two parts of the Proceedings in order to increase sales was discontinued. From this point the Proceedings became more or less an official publication of the City, though they continued to be produced by a commercial publisher. They were provided less for the purpose of entertainment than as a means of keeping an accurate public record of events which transpired in the courtroom. But their commercial viability was increasingly undermined by their length and detail, and in the 1780s publishers began to target the Proceedings at a legal audience, taking advantage of the increasing number of lawyers present at the Old Bailey.
The Central Criminal Court Act of 1834 changed the name of the court and enlarged its jurisdiction. Accordingly, the title of the Proceedings shifted to the The Whole Proceedings... of the Central Criminal Court, or, as a short title, Central Criminal Court Sessions Paper. In recognition of the increased jurisdiction, the Act provided that the judges of the court had the right to reclaim some of the costs of publishing the Proceedings from the Counties of London, Essex and Kent, though the City of London continued to bear the bulk of the cost. With few paying subscribers, the Proceedings were now essentially a publicly funded publication for the use of judicial officials.
From the 1850s the City of London occasionally attempted to save money by discontinuing publication of the Proceedings. (In 1862 the City paid £900 and the counties contributed a total of £300 to the publisher.) But while refusing to contribute any funds, successive Home Office Secretaries reported that they found the Proceedings extremely useful when dealing with appeals and questions of legal precedent and they insisted that publication should continue.
In an attempt to reduce costs, periodically the City put the job of taking shorthand notes at the trials and publishing the trials out to tender. In 1862 four bids were received, with prices ranging from £550 to £1100 per year for taking the notes and £2 15s. to £3 7s. per sheet for printing the Proceedings. The contract was awarded to James Barnett and Alexander Buckler for the total sum of £1100. In return, they were required to provide 90 copies to the City, for distribution to ministers of state, judges, sheriffs, and city and county officials. In 1903 the City cut its costs by £25 by distributing fewer copies to officials.
In 1905 the City conducted a more complicated tendering process. Firms were asked to provide prices both for publishing a condensed report (following the existing format), and for providing four typewritten copies of full transcripts of all the trials. Owing to the difficulty of estimating the costs involved several firms of shorthand writers (including Barnett and Buckler) refused to bid. Discouraged by the sums tendered (between £680 and £1100 for the condensed report and £1600 and £8125 for the full transcripts), the City opted for a cost-saving combination of the two approaches. George Walpole’s bid of £350 (plus the £500 now paid by the Counties) to provide four printed copies of the condensed reports was accepted; the copies were to be given to the Home Secretary, the Town Clerk, the Clerk of the Central Criminal Court, and the City Solicitor.
Walpole introduced some innovations to the Proceedings, including providing more detailed accounts of prisoners’ testimony and adding “carefully edited and reliable notes of any points of law or practice”. He advertised the Proceedings for sale at an annual subscription of £1 11s. 6d.; monthly parts were no longer sold separately. The limited market for this publication is evident in the fact that in February 1913 Walpole reported that he had only 20 subscribers.
The archival records which document these negotiations concerning the publication of the Proceedings provide valuable evidence of the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the published trial reports at this time, as discussed further in Value of the Proceedings as a Historical Source.
The passage of the Criminal Appeal Act in 1907 fundamentally undermined the Proceedings. The taking of full shorthand notes of trials now became a statutory requirement, with the appointment of the shorthand writer made by the Lord Chancellor, and their fees paid by the Treasury. Now that the cost of taking the notes was paid for by the Treasury, the City only had to pay for the publication of the Proceedings, and accordingly it reduced its annual payment to George Walpole to £200. However, there was no longer any compelling reason to publish the Proceedings in any form.
Walpole subsequently found that he was losing about £200 a year publishing the Proceedings, and in October 1912 he gave formal notice to the City that he would terminate his existing contract, unless they would agree to publication in a more abridged form. Given that shorthand notes of all trials were now paid for by the government, and full transcripts of any trial could be obtained whenever they were required, the City decided that the abridged version would be of no use. As the Recorder opined, “now that an official shorthand note is taken of the evidence in all criminal cases we can do without the sessions papers”. Following months of ultimately unsuccessful negotiations with Walpole it was decided in April that publication should cease.
At the conclusion of the April 1913 issue of the Proceedings, readers found a simple statement, "the publication of the C.C.C. Sessions Papers is now discontinued", thus bringing to an end the 239 year history of this extraordinary periodical.
- Harris, M., 'Trials and Criminal Biographies: A Case Study in Distribution', in R. Myers and M. Harris, eds., Sale and Distribution of Books from 1700 (Oxford, 1982)
- Devereaux, S., "The City and the Sessions Paper: 'Public Justice' in London, 1770-1800", Journal of British Studies 35 (1996), 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). 57-88
For more secondary literature on this subject see the Bibliography.