While the richly detailed evidence presented is generally accurate, the Proceedings do not provide a full transcript of everything that was said in court, and it is important to be aware of the types of information routinely omitted throughout the period from 1674 to 1913. But as the character of the publication changed over this period, its value as a historical source also changed.
Contents of this Article
- From Popular Literature to Quasi-Official Report
- Selective Reporting
- Witness Testimony
- The Prosecution
- The Defence
- Legal Arguments
- The Judge's Summing Up
- Jury Decision-Making
- Sexual Offences
- Introductory Reading
According to John Langbein, the Proceedings are "probably the best accounts we shall ever have of what transpired in ordinary English criminal courts before the later eighteenth century". Although initially aimed at a popular rather than a legal audience, the material reported was neither invented nor significantly distorted. The Old Bailey Courthouse was a public place, with numerous spectators, and the reputation of the Proceedings would have quickly suffered if the accounts had been unreliable. Their authenticity was one of their strongest selling points, and a comparison of the text of the Proceedings with other manuscript and published accounts of the same trials confirms that what they did report was for the most part reported accurately. At the same time, the Proceedings are far from comprehensive transcripts of what was said in court. For further information on this topic, see How to Read an Old Bailey Trial.
As discussed in the Publishing History of the Proceedings, from 1679 publication of the Proceedings required the approval of the Lord Mayor of London. Although most trials seem to have been reported, early editions provided only brief summaries of each trial, often in sensationalist or judgmental language. In the early eighteenth century the language became more sober and from 1712 some verbatim testimony was reported. This became common practice in the 1720s, facilitated by the use of shorthand note takers. Over the next few decades trial reports became lengthier and provided more detailed testimonies of prosecutors, witnesses, and defendants, and also began to report some judge’s comments and questions.
Although there is little evidence of direct regulation, the City intervened occasionally to ensure that the language of reports was respectable (see Sexual Offences). During the eighteenth century the Proceedings began to be treated as a legal record of the trials heard at the Old Bailey, and they formed the basis of the reports by the City Recorder to the King on prisoners convicted of capital offences so that they could be considered for a pardon. In the 1770s the City began to exercise more scrutiny, and in 1778 it required that the publisher should provide a “true, fair and perfect narrative” of the trials. Consequently, the trial reports became even more detailed, and the Proceedings started to provide more uniform coverage, rather than focusing attention on the most entertaining or newsworthy crimes.
Owing to the growing cost of the Proceedings and competition from newspapers, during the nineteenth century readership was largely restricted to lawyers, City officers, and Home Office officials. The Proceedings were used by the Court for Crown Cases Reserved (established in 1848) when considering cases involving difficult legal issues which were referred by the judges, and by the Home Office when considering applications for pardons. Every time the City tried to discontinue publication for reasons of cost, Home Office officials rejected the request because they claimed that the Proceedings were in “daily use” and of “high value”. In 1862, for example, they reported that the published reports of trials involving frauds, forgeries, and bankruptcy offences were “more full and complete” than the judges’ notes of these cases. Court officials also praised the Proceedings for containing “an accurate report of the evidence given” and noted that judges referred to them when considering cases where prisoners had been previously tried by the court and those involving difficult legal issues. In addition, the police used them to trace the careers of habitual criminals. In 1913, the City Solicitor used evidence from the Proceedings when testifying before the Parliamentary Select Committee on Motor Traffic.
Nonetheless, as the discussions surrounding the end of publication in 1913 demonstrate, limitations of space and cost considerations meant that the Proceedings were never able to provide complete coverage of trial proceedings. Even in 1913 there were complaints that the reports were “often confused and difficult reading and occasionally quite erroneous”.
Early editions of the Proceedings did not report every trial held at the Old Bailey, and considerations of marketability meant that the most fully reported trials were those which involved sex or violence, or were thought to be entertaining or amusing. Even when coverage became more systematic, large amounts of material still had to be omitted. As the editor of the four volume collection of Select Trials published in 1742 explained, although more substantial notes were taken down in court, when the trials were first published “abridgements were frequently unavoidable, for want of room”.
The length of trial reports varied considerably within each edition of the Proceedings, depending on the duration of the trial itself but also editorial decisions by the publisher. Very brief reports of some trials were combined with many longer reports. There were also significant variations over time. Trial reports in the first six decades of publication were rarely over 130 words, but from the 1720s to the 1750s reports of many trials grew longer although a significant minority were shorter. There was an overall growth in trial lengths from the 1780s to the very early 1800s, followed by a slight decline in the early nineteenth century. In the 1830s and 1840s the spread of trial lengths increased dramatically, with a large number trial reports under 50 words combined with a continuing large number of much longer reports. In the 1880s and 1890s these shorter reports became even more frequent, though in the early twentieth century the length of the shortest reports once again lengthened.
Even in the longer reports, however, the Proceedings only provided partial transcripts of what was said in court. To have published complete transcripts would have rendered the Proceedings excessively long and uneconomic to publish. The trial of Charles Stokes and three others for theft in 1787, for example, lasted six hours according to the report in The Times, but the account in the Proceedings is only 468 words. Even in 1905 it was reported that although full shorthand notes were taken of what was said at trials, the reports in the Proceedings were “much condensed to save the cost of printing”.
Certain types of cases were frequently omitted, or reported in only the most cursory form. Trials for crimes deemed relatively trivial, such as thefts of small value items, were reported very briefly in “squibs”. By the early nineteenth century reports of trials for sexual offences provide little more evidence than the names of the accused and the verdict. And, following the expansion of the court’s jurisdiction in 1856 to include trials from anywhere in England and Wales when it was deemed necessary to move the trial to avoid delay or ensure a fair trial, cases from outside the metropolis were rarely included.
Alternative accounts of some trials (found in criminal biographies, separate published trial accounts, pamphlets written by authors sympathetic to the defence or prosecution, and newspapers) provide evidence of the types of material that were frequently abridged or omitted from the Proceedings. Witness testimony was often edited to reduce repetition, and statements by defendants and their witnesses were frequently summarised or omitted. But the largest amount of missing evidence concerns the role played by lawyers, when they were present. The activities and even names of prosecuting and defence counsel are not consistently reported. Statements by counsel, such as the opening statement by the prosecution, cross examinations of witnesses, and arguments between counsel and judges, are often left out. In addition, the judge's summing up of the case and convict’s statement before sentencing were normally excluded.
Collectively, these omissions shaped the meanings of the trial accounts presented to readers of the Proceedings.
Over the course of the eighteenth century the level of detail provided of the typical trial increased considerably. A key development was the switch from publishing third-person summaries of witness testimony to first-person accounts which began in the 1710s.
Even in the 1780s, however, as John Langbein has written, the Proceedings "were still omitting most of what was said at most of the trials they reported". At the very least, in an attempt to save space, minor details and repetitions, perceived as unimportant, were frequently left out of recorded testimony. In addition, evidence produced under cross examination was often integrated into the original testimony to make it appear as a single statement. This omitted testimony, however, could include valuable information. When William Bury was tried for bigamy in 1742, several letters read out in court were not fully reproduced in the Proceedings. These letters had been sent to Sarah Proctor, the woman Bury allegedly married while his first wife was still living. A separate pamphlet reported the content of the letters more fully. This provided further incriminating evidence against Bury, including his professions of undying love for Proctor and evidence of his desire that his marriage to her should remain a secret.
In general, however, witness testimony is the most fully reported element of the trials published in the Proceedings. Publishers sought to make the trials readable and entertaining by presenting testimony unencumbered by legal and procedural details. As discussed below, however, the testimony of defence witnesses was often less well reported than that of those testifying for the prosecution.
Trials began with the reading out of the charge against the defendant, followed by the opening statement of the prosecution counsel, if present. The reporting of both in the Proceedings was frequently incomplete.
The full formal criminal charge made against the defendant, as recorded in the manuscript indictment, was often briefly summarised in the Proceedings. To determine the precise legal charge under which a defendant was tried, and where relevant the statute criminalising their actions, it is sometimes necessary to view the original indictment located among the sessions rolls held at the London Metropolitan Archives. Although indictments followed standard legal formulas (and were written in Latin until 1733), they nonetheless frequently provide details concerning the offence and the charge which were not reported in the Proceedings.
When prosecution counsel was employed they normally made an opening statement, which introduced the case against the accused and outlined the arguments they intended to make during the trial. Since much of this evidence would later be stated by witnesses, its frequent omission from the Proceedings, even at the end of the period, is not a significant problem. However, these statements often advanced more general arguments and contextual evidence which does not appear elsewhere. In Edward Clark's trial for murder in 1750, his counsel, Serjeant Hayward, told the court that the killing had occurred in a duel, and reminded the jury that duelling was an illegal activity based on a false concept of honour which, he argued, needed to be severely punished.
A key aspect of the trial which is frequently significantly abridged in the Proceedings is the case for the defence. Often defendants had very little to say because the evidence against them was so strong, but even their short statements were sometimes left out, perhaps because the publisher deemed them trivial or irrelevant.
More substantial statements by defendants and their witnesses were often briefly summarised. When in 1723 John Stanley was tried for the murder of his former lover (Hannah Maycock), there were, according to the Proceedings, three points to his defence: his admission he had stabbed her; his plea "in palliation" that she had "struck him, gave him ill language, etc. which rais'd his passion to give her the wound not knowing what he did"; and the fact "he called several persons, who would have perswaded the court to look upon him as a person lunatick". Evidence from other published sources, however, indicates that he further elaborated his claim of self-defence by testifying that
Furthermore, in support of the insanity defence, witnesses testified that
Once he had attempted to stab himself with a penknife "only because some Latin was repeated in his company", and another time he put "himself into such violent storms of passion, as once frighted a woman and her family out of the house, without any provocation given".
While the gist of the defence case is usually given in the Proceedings, important details like these are often left out. But it should be noted that key prosecution evidence was also occasionally omitted, such as in Stanley’s trial the testimony of a witness, Mr Leaf, who said "Mr Stanley declared five or six months before, that he would kill Mrs Maycock for her cruelty", thereby establishing that the killing was the result of premeditated malice, indicating that he should be convicted of murder. The Proceedings contain selective accounts of both sides of the case. On average, however, more material was omitted from the case for the defence.
Possibly the reason defendant statements were less likely to be reported is that for most of this period they were not given under oath (to spare defendants the incentive to commit perjury). However when under the Criminal Evidence Act of 1898 prisoners were allowed to give sworn testimony, the Proceedings continued, according to the publisher, to “ignore altogether, or to ‘boil down’ to a few lines” the accused’s testimony. When George Walpole took over publication of the Proceedings in 1906 he aimed to provide “for the first time… an adequate report” of the prisoners’ evidence. However, even he did not publish their speeches addressing the jury. Thus when the suffragettes Emmeline Pankhurst and Mr and Mrs Pethwick-Lawrence were tried at the Old Bailey in 1912, their defiant speeches to the court were simply reported as “the defendants E. Pankhurst and F.W.P. Lawrence addressed the jury.”
Also frequently abridged or omitted was the testimony of witnesses who testified to the defendant's good character, with not even the names of the witnesses provided. Thus the report of William Baker’s character witnesses in his trial for forgery in 1750 simply states
There was often no mention at all of female character witnesses, such as those who testified at Thomas Wright’s trial for Sodomy in 1726 and at the trial of Rhynwick Williams, “The London Monster”, in 1790.
Like those for the prosecution, defence counsel (when present) had the opportunity to address the judge (though not, until 1836, to directly address the jury), and their speeches are also often omitted from the Proceedings. According to the separate published account of James Hackman's murder trial in 1779, his lawyer
Cases where the defendant was acquitted were often given extremely cursory treatment in the Proceedings. When William Hawke was tried for robbing Thomas Croucher in 1774, the Proceedings only report the charge and indicate that he was acquitted. Biographies of Hawke, however, explain why: Croucher, his prosecutor, refused "to swear positively to him" and Hawke refused to say anything in his defence, suggesting that the two may have reached a private accommodation out of court prior to the trial. On average, reports of acquittals in the eighteenth-century Proceedings were 40% shorter than those of convictions. One reason why acquittals were not fully reported was that the City did not want to provide information on successful alibis and other defence strategies to criminals who might be tried in the future. For this reason, between 1790 and 1792 the City actually prohibited the publication of such trials.
The cumulative effect of the omission of all or part of the case for the defence was to weaken that case in the eyes of readers of the Proceedings. In consequence, the case for the prosecution was made to look stronger, helping, in the process, to justify to the wider public the convictions and punishments meted out in the Old Bailey courtroom (and in the case of acquittals, to ensure that the defendant would remain under suspicion).
Arguments between lawyers and judges over courtroom procedures, points of law and the admissability of evidence were often left out of the Proceedings. For example, a manuscript account of an exchange of arguments between Justice Heath and the famous defence lawyer William Garrow at a trial in 1786 over whether testimony from a "deaf and dumb" witness should be allowed runs to fourteen pages, while the Proceedings devote only a few lines to the exchange. Comparison of the manuscript and printed accounts of this exchange (see the trial of William Bartlett for both) illustrates how much could be left out of the Proceedings.
These arguments were important, not only for legal reasons but also because they could shape perceptions by the jury and others of the defendant's guilt. The argument made by Timothy Murphy's defence lawyers at his trial in 1753 for forgery that his prosecutor, Thomas Nodes, should not be allowed to testify because he was an interested party (since he had been indicted by Murphy for the same offence), together with the response by Nodes's lawyers, takes up 36 paragraphs of text in a separate published account of the trial. In addition to arguing over the point in law, Nodes's lawyers used the opportunity to discredit Murphy by arguing that his counter indictment was filed in order to "evade justice". Although the Proceedings note that this argument occurred, they do not report what was said.
In an attempt to sell more copies of the Proceedings to lawyers, the publishers occasionally sought to report legal arguments, but the pressures of City regulation and the costs of publication meant that such experiments did not last. When Edward Hodgson published the Proceedings between 1783 and 1792 he identified lawyers by name and included some of their speeches and arguments, but in 1805 the City prohibited the publication of legal arguments since it was worried that criminals might learn tricks for evading justice. In the nineteenth century lawyers were occasionally named, and their cross-examinations occasionally reported, but this reporting was not systematic, and opening and closing statements continued to be omitted. In the 1894 trial of the anarchist Francis Polti for possession of bomb making equipment, his lawyer introduced several points in his summing up (concerning the danger of succumbing to “popular prejudice” and claiming that it had not been proved that Polti had violated the specific provisions of the relevant statute), but these are not reported in the Proceedings. When George Walpole took over publication in March 1906 and introduced several improvements he included some legal evidence in the form of “carefully edited and reliable notes of any points of law or practice”, together with an index to these points. By 1913, however, he had come to the conclusion that publication of the Proceedings was uneconomic and he refused to renew his contract (see The End of the Proceedings, 1913).
After all the evidence was presented the judge normally summed up the case before the jury was asked to give its verdict. These statements were rarely reproduced in the Proceedings throughout its 240 year period of publication. Such statements frequently repeated evidence already presented, so they may have been thought to be uninteresting to readers, but it is possible that the publishers thought that the permission of the judges was needed before their statements could be published, and the haste with which the Proceedings were published made this impractical. In any case, to have included such comments would have interfered with the publisher’s aim of presenting trials as simple confrontations between the victim and the accused.
Judges' comments were, however, important, because the particular "spin" they put on the case could strongly influence the jury's decision. Although judges could no longer force juries to arrive at specific verdicts, their powers of persuasion were considerable and juries often followed their directions. For example, in William Dodd's 1777 trial for the forgery of a bond Dodd pleaded that he had had no intention to defraud, as he had fully intended to repay the money, but the judge saw things differently, summing up as follows:
Dodd was duly convicted, though with a recommendation to mercy. This account of the judge's summing up was reported in the separate account of the trial published by one of Dodd’s supporters, who complained of the judge's partiality:
In other cases, judges criticised the prosecution evidence and sided with the prisoner, but these statements were also not included. In the accounts given in the Proceedings verdicts can sometimes appear to readers to be at odds with the evidence presented. This is often because, unlike the juries, readers do not have access to everything that was said at the trial, particularly the judge's comments.
How juries arrived at verdicts--whether or not they withdrew from the courtroom, how long they deliberated, any conversations they had with the judge--is only rarely reported in the Proceedings. Occasionally this information can be found from other sources. In James Hackman's trial, for example, we learn from the separate account that "the jury consulted for a few minutes" before they brought in their verdict of guilty.
One dialogue between the jury and the judge not reported in the Proceedings occurred in the trial in 1722 of John Hawkins and George Simpson for robbing the Bristol mail. The Proceedings report that the trial concluded as follows:
According to another source, however, the jury was indecisive, requiring the judge to intervene to obtain the guilty verdict. Hawkins rested his defence on a claim that he had been in London at the time of the crime. He attempted to prove this alibi by producing a receipt written by William Fuller. Questions about its authenticity arose, however, because the receipt appeared to be written in two different colours of ink. As later reported in the Malefactor's Register,
If this account is to be trusted, the account of how the jury arrived at its verdict in the Proceedings was positively misleading.
Defendants who were convicted of capital crimes were given a chance to address the Court before they were sentenced, but, perhaps because the publisher did not wish to give any favourable publicity to the convict, these statements rarely appear in the Proceedings. Some convicts continued to plead their innocence, but even when they were repentant the speech was not reported. When the highwayman William Hawke was convicted of robbing Charles Hart in 1774, according to a published account of his life,
Hawke was a notorious robber, however, and the court did not spare him from death (nor did the Proceedings publish his speech).
The speeches judges gave when passing sentences were also not reported. In sentencing the anarchists Guiseppe Farnara and Francis Polti to respectively twenty and ten years penal servitude for possession of explosives in 1894, Justice Hawkins stated that they had been found guilty of a “foul, abominable, wicked, and cruel design to cause explosions in this country” and that there were no extenuating circumstances in mitigation; but this was not reported in the Proceedings.
Prisoners sometimes reacted defiantly to their sentences, evidence of which we can find in the newspapers but not the Proceedings. According to the Times, on hearing their sentences Polti cried out “shame” and Farnara shouted “Vive l’Anarchie! Today you make the laws, another day we shall make the laws.”
The punishments reported in the Proceedings are only sentences; whether they were actually carried out depends on whether or not the defendant managed to obtain a pardon. Information about whether those sentenced to death were subsequently pardoned or executed is sometimes reported in later editions of the Proceedings; if such information was reported, it can be found by searching for the defendant's name. In some cases (as with Dr Dodd), sentences were respited by the court pending an appeal on a specific point in law, and the results of the appeal, and the sentence when the guilty verdict was confirmed, are reported in later issues. This information can also be found by conducting a name search.
For example, in May 1771 Robert Powell was convicted of forgery and sentenced to death. In the same issue of the Proceedings, the punishment was reported as respited by the court. In December of the same year the Proceedings report that Powell was sentenced to death, and in January 1772 we learn that he, along with two others,
Information about pardons, delayed sentences, and executions, however, was not consistently provided. To obtain further information, it may be useful to look in the manuscript records of the National Archives, which include correspondence and warrants concerning pardons, accounts of sheriff's expences in conducting punishments, and registers of convicts transported; and contemporary newspaper accounts (the best collection is at the British Library), which provide accounts of executions.
Owing to changing cultural attitudes the reporting of trials for sexual offences was radically curtailed in the late eighteenth century. Already in 1725 the publisher was censured by the City when he reproduced phonetically the testimony of a drunken Irishman who accused Susan Grimes of picking his pocket during a sexual encounter. Over the course of the eighteenth century the reporting of thefts by prostitutes from their clients, sodomy cases, and rapes became less sexually explicit, though the nature of the activity described was still clear, such as when Francis Hay testified in a sodomy trial in 1772 that Robert Jones had “put his c - k into my b – e”.
In 1785 reports of testimony in sodomy cases ceased. In the trial of Roger Sweetman following the charge and verdict the Proceedings reported that “This prisoner being acquitted on this indictment, the Court ordered the evidence to be suppressed, as too indecent for publication”. In fact, reports of convictions for this offence from that date also contain no testimony, and the crime itself was increasingly described, particularly in the nineteenth century, euphemistically as “an unnatural crime” and “a detestable crime”, or using the abbreviation “b-g-y” (or even “b--y”).
Similarly, testimony in rape trials ceased to be published after 1798. In the report of Abraham Ottey’s trial in May 1798 it is stated that “The Court ordered that the evidence upon this trial should not be published” and from that date no details were published of such cases.
Such censorship also affected the reporting of other cases involving sex, such as thefts by prostitutes, where the reporting of sexual activity became muted. Publishers who failed to adhere to the City’s expectations were censured, as in 1816 when Robert Butler was criticised for including indecent material in the Proceedings.
There is no reason to question the accuracy of most of the rich details provided in the trial accounts published in the Proceedings. But they are not full transcripts of everything that was said in court, and many types of information were regularly omitted, notably details of defence cases and legal arguments. For this reason, one should not argue from silence--one should not conclude that because something was not reported in the Proceedings, it was not said or did not occur in court.
The case for the defence was most affected by these omissions. In comparison to the case for the prosecution, speeches by the defendant and his or her counsel and the testimony of defence witnesses were more likely to be abridged or entirely omitted, especially when the defendant was acquitted. This had the cumulative effect of making those tried at the Old Bailey seem more culpable in the Proceedings than they appeared in court, and can make it difficult to understand why so many defendants were acquitted. Because the Proceedings sought to represent convictions and punishments as justified, less attention was paid to defence arguments.
Contemporaries, however, did not necessarily imbibe this message uncritically. They had access to alternative accounts of trials at the Old Bailey and appear to have read all trial accounts, including those in the Proceedings, sceptically. Similarly, historians should be aware that competing accounts, where they survive, often advanced the point of view of only one side of the case. Just as the Proceedings appear somewhat biased towards the prosecution, other accounts are more sympathetic to the defence. It is only by reading all available accounts of a trial that one can achieve the most balanced possible understanding of the case.
It is, therefore, important to take advantage of the fact that other historical documents, both published and unpublished, survive for many trials. As outlined in the explanation of the associated records, this website presents detailed information about such sources for the period from 1674 to 1834, linked to the relevant trials. In addition to the printed documents referred to on this page, the sources listed include: informations, depositions, and examinations of criminal suspects taken by justices prior to trials; prosecution briefs; materials relating to the pardoning process, including petitions and judges' reports; and registers of convicts who were transported or incarcerated in the hulks. For the nineteenth century, trial reports in newspapers such as the Times can be extremely valuable.
To achieve as full an understanding of the circumstances surrounding a trial as possible it is necessary to consult not only the account of the trial in the Proceedings but also, where available, these associated materials kept in libraries and archives.
- 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
- Langbein, J.H., The Origins of Adversary Criminal Trial (Oxford, 2003)
- May, Allyson, The Bar and the Old Bailey, 1750-1850 (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and London, 2003)
- Shoemaker, Robert B., “The Old Bailey Proceedings and the Representation of Crime and Criminal Justice in Eighteenth-Century London”, Journal of British Studies 47 (2008)
For more secondary literature on this subject see the Bibliography.