- What are the Proceedings of the Old Bailey?
- What is the Old Bailey?
- What was Newgate Prison Like?
- People in the Courtroom
- How were those Convicted Punished?
- How to search the Proceedings
Simply, they are the historical record of what was said in London's most important court of law, the Old Bailey. The very first Proceedings were published in 1674. In 1834 the title of the Proceedings changed, but publication continued until 1913.
They are a primary source, in other words, they were produced at the time - in the eighteenth century. This Old Bailey project has collected the primary sources from the libraries where they are kept and had the information in them copied onto these web pages for people of all ages to use.
As the eighteenth century went on, more and more of what the defendants and prosecution said at trials was written down and soon afterwards published. This publication became known as the Proceedings of the Old Bailey or also as the Old Bailey Sessions Papers. When you start searching the site you will find that by the middle of the eighteenth century some trials are almost recorded word for word (verbatim) while others are only recorded very briefly. See if you can find out which trials are given longer treatment and try to work out why.
Since the court met eight times a year, there are eight publications of the Proceedings per year.
It is important that you remember that this source of information can tell us a lot about people who might have never written down their own words, even if they could write. It is therefore another important way for historians to study "history from below", in other words a way to find out something about the lives of ordinary people rather than kings, queens, and politicians.
You should also remember that proceeding (with a small p) can have a different meaning, such as in the sentence 'I was proceeding down the street'. Make sure that when you use Proceedings (of the Old Bailey) that you spell it correctly!
The Old Bailey is the name of the most important criminal court in London. It was first built in the medieval period and since that time it has always heard the cases of the most serious crimes committed in the City of London and the county of Middlesex. Today, and since 1834 it also hears the most serious cases from across the whole country.
It has always been possible for the public to go to the Old Bailey to hear a case. There are strict rules nowadays for people attending. Certainly, you are not allowed to interrupt! Although the building has changed over the past three hundred years it is still in the same place - near the site of Newgate prison in the north of the City of London. Using this website and others linked to it, you should be able to find out how the building has changed both inside and out over time.
This is what the Old Bailey looks like today:
See also an image of the Old Bailey in 1740.
Eighteenth-century Newgate prison was a dangerous place. Apart from the behaviour of the other occupants, overcrowding sometimes led to the quick spread of disease. (Gaol [jail] fever or Typhoid fever was a potential killer).
Newgate prison was not a prison like the ones we have today: it was largely for holding prisoners who were awaiting trial at the Old Bailey which was only metres away. Hence, with eight Old Bailey trials a year, prisoners would normally not face more than seven or eight weeks locked up.
Another important difference to jails today is the way prisoners led their everyday life there. Although a very meagre allowance was provided to poor prisoners, most had to rely on friends and family to bring in food or else pay the Newgate "Turnkey" or jailer to keep them fed. They also had to pay for other amenities such as bedding. Visitors were allowed to the jail. (See a description by Elizabeth Fry of Newgate prison in 1813.)
Newgate was rebuilt in the 1770s and there is still a jail for holding prisoners under the present-day building of the Old Bailey.
When we think of the courtroom we perhaps immediately think of the accused - the criminal standing in the dock. However, there were many others who had a role to play in the prosecution, whether it was in the events immediately after the alleged crime or in the courtroom itself.
It was often the victim of the crime - the person who had his goods stolen - that brought the case against the accused. In those days the role of the private individual was far greater in the courtroom than now.
Parish constables and night watchmen patrolled the streets and if they found a suspected criminal they would take him or her to the local Justice of the Peace. Rather like policemen today they had a regular "patch" to patrol. Some were more effective than others; some preferred to tell a suspect off rather than drag him or her through the court system.
The Bow Street Runners were established by the Fielding brothers, Henry and John, in the 1750s. The Bow Street Runners were a type of police force that used skills of detection and information gathering to apprehend suspects. Bow Street is near Covent Garden, and there is still a magistrates' court located there today. More offices like Bow street were set up in the 1790s.
It was not until 1829 that the Metropolitan Police force was formed in London: you will therefore find no reference to modern types of police in the Proceedings until the 1830s.
As the Old Bailey was the most important criminal court in London, judges normally came from one of the High Courts. They would decide on the sentence, give advice to the jury, and keep order in the court.
There were two types of jury.
- The Grand Jury. When people were first caught all the evidence was examined by a group of people called the Grand Jury. They decided whether or not to send the case to trial. They did not want the court's time to be wasted by cases that they felt did not have enough evidence to result in a successful prosecution.
- The Trial Jury. Twelve people, always men in those days, listened to as many as ten or more cases a day. They heard the trial and the foreman told the judge what the jury had decided the verdict should be. Generally verdicts were: not guilty, a partial verdict, or guilty. At the Old Bailey there were normally two juries: one to hear trials for crimes that occured in Middlesex and another for the City of London.
Nowadays courtrooms are full of lawyers and we are very familiar with the way they work from the many television series about them. They were hardly used before the 1730s in England and even afterwards most people could not afford to employ them. You will find more of them working in the Old Bailey in the later part of the eighteenth century.
People could be punished in many different ways in the eighteenth century, though it is also important to remember that many people who were tried at the Old Bailey were found not guilty and were therefore not punished at all.
Others were found not guilty as charged, but guilty of a lesser crime. This is known as a partial verdict. For example, if somebody stood accused of stealing goods to the value of 10 shillings that could put them in a very dangerous position: at that time, according to the law, some thefts of more than 5 shillings could be punished by death. Juries often thought the law was far too harsh and even though they would find the accused guilty, they would often declare the goods to be worth less than 5 shillings. This was a partial verdict and would result in a lesser sentence - the convict could be fined, whipped, or transported instead of being hanged. Information about Pounds, Shillings and Pence.
Nowadays in the UK one of the main punishments is to put someone in prison. That did happen in the eighteenth century, but generally people were only imprisoned for short periods, in order to wait for their trial. It was only after the 1770s that putting people in prison was thought to be one of the best ways to punish and perhaps to reform or change people's behaviour.
The images below show some of the main forms of punishment. More detail is given about each of them on the Punishment page on this site.
Convicts were branded with a hot iron on their thumb (with a 'T' for theft, 'F' for felon, or 'M' for murder. In the eighteenth century the branding iron was often not heated up.
See more information about branding.
Most people sentenced to death were later pardoned or had their sentence changed to some lesser punishment, but a large number were hanged at Tyburn (where Marble Arch is today in London). Thousands of people would pay to watch these executions.
See more information about the death sentence.
After 1752 the hanged were sometimes dissected and anatomised by surgeons. Many people would not have wished this to happen to their bodies after death.
See more information about death with dissection.
Men guilty of treason were hanged, cut down while still alive and then disembowelled, castrated, beheaded, and their body torn into quarters. This was a very rare punishment in the eighteenth century.
See more information about being hung, drawn and quartered.
After the 1770s prisons were used far more. Sometimes people were imprisoned on ships known as "Hulks".
See more information about imprisonment.
With both arms and head locked in the pillory, the crowd could pelt those found guilty with rotten fruit or worse! Some died when bricks and stones were thrown; others, like Daniel Defoe, the famous author, were cheered and given flowers! This punishment was abolished in 1837.
See more information about the pillory.
After an act of 1718 many people were transported to do hard labour in America for a period of seven or fourteen years. After 1787 transportees were sent to Australia, some for life.
See more information about transportation.
Some offenders were stripped to the waist and flogged "at the cart's tail". This public whipping took place near the scene of the crime.
See more information about whipping.
The Punishment page has details about the whole range of punishments inflicted on defendants at the Old Bailey.
There are thousands of trials in the Proceedings and it is possible to search for many different types of information.
For example, you could search for a particular name, though you should remember that in the eighteenth century not all names were spelt the same as they are now - they were sometimes spelt as they were heard, phonetically. Another way to search is by using a place name such as an alehouse, a street, or a parish. You could find out what offences that took place in the parish of St Giles in the Fields were tried at the Old Bailey; you could even browse by date and limit the dates of your search between two dates. You may wish to see whether the Bowl Inn pub in St Giles, the one which convicts on the way to the gallows stopped at, was ever mentioned.
Apart from this, the crime, the court's decision or verdict, or the punishment may be your main interest. The keyword search makes it possible for you to ask whether something was mentioned in the trials. For example, you can search for the word pub or tavern. Sometimes, even when something, like a pub, is not the place of the crime, evidence in the Proceedings can give you new and interesting information about the way people lived in the eighteenth century. You can learn a lot about the varied experiences of Londoners from different backgrounds. How to do a keyword search for black people.
Once you have found out how to search in these ways, you may want to try a more difficult or advanced search. You can also count numbers of crimes, for example the number of thefts between two dates. This is called a statistical search. You can then use the pie charts, bar charts, and tables you make to discuss how crime and punishment changed during that time.
You may need advice about the best ways for searching the Proceedings. More detail is given elsewhere in these pages, but you should also ask your teacher for tips.
For more details about searching the Proceedings, consult the search pages.
For the rest of the site, go to the Home Page.