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A guide to unfamiliar judicial and historical terms.

See also the explanations on separate web pages of individual:


Acquit: Find not guilty.

Anarchist: Extreme radicals, often political refugees from the continent, who sought to undermine the capitalist system and the state. From 1892 onwards, many were tried at the Old Bailey for possessing bomb-making equipment or causing property damage.

Associated Records: The term used on this website to refer to documents, books, and other primary sources which contain further information about the crimes tried at the Old Bailey.

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Beadle: Full time officials in the City of London with the responsibility for maintaining order during the day and organising the night watch in their ward of the city.

Benefit of Clergy: A right to be excluded from the death penalty.

Black Act: 1723 statute, passed in response to an outbreak of poaching committed by men who disguised themselves by “blacking” their faces, which created several capital offences including damage to property and poaching. Repealed in 1823.

Bloody Code: Laws introduced between the 1690s and about 1750 which dictated that those convicted of specified crimes should receive the death penalty.

Bobbies: Nickname given to the Metropolitan Police (founded in 1829) owing to the fact that the man who pushed hardest to create them was Sir Robert Peel.

Bow Street Runners: Thief-takers hired by Henry and John Fielding from about 1750 and based at the Fieldings' office in Bow Street, Covent Garden. After crimes were reported, the runners were sent out in order to detect and apprehend the criminals.

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Cant: A secret language used by some criminals.

Central Criminal Court: The name given to the court held at the Old Bailey by the Central Criminal Court Act of 1834.

City Marshall: An officer of the City of London with the responsibility for arresting vagrants and supervising the policing of the City's streets.

City of London: The oldest part of London, somewhat larger than the area inside the Roman and medieval city walls. Governed by the Lord Mayor and City officials independently from the surrounding county of Middlesex. Today sometimes called "The Square Mile".

Clipping: Removing gold and silver from the edge of coins. The 'clippings' were then melted down and sold for their intrinsic value.

Common Council: The main representative body of the City of London.

Common Law: The primary code of law in England, dating from the middle ages and supplemented by legal decisions over the centuries. Not written down in any one place. Supplemented by statute laws passed by Parliament.

Constable: Officer appointed in each parish to make arrests and uphold law and order.

Counterfeiting: Forgery, often of money.

Court of Burgesses: The body responsible for governing Westminster.

Criminal Investigation Department (CID): Detective police force established in the Metropolitan Police in 1877 following a scandal in the previous detective department.

Crown: Five shilling piece.

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East End: District east of the City of London, dominated by the docks and industrial activities. Home to many immigrants, including Huguenots, the Irish, Jews, and Chinese. In the nineteenth century increasingly dominated by slums.

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Farthing: One quarter of a penny.

Felony: A serious crime, one which at some time in history was punishable by death.

Fenian: A term used since the late 1850s for Irish nationalists who opposed British rule in Ireland. The original Fenians were a secret organisation established about 1858 with the aim of establishing an independent Irish republic.

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Gaol Delivery: A court which met to hear the accusations against the prisoners in a jail and decide their guilt or innocence. The Old Bailey was the court of gaol delivery for nearby Newgate Prison.

Garotting: The name given by the press to robbery in the street particularly in the 1850s and 1860s. The popular assumption was that it involving strangling the victim with a cord or a cane, but it appears to have been used to describe any form of attack.

Gordon Riots: From Friday 2 June 1780 and for a week afterwards, a series of anti-Roman Catholic and Irish riots which raged through London and spread to some provincial cities. Numerous buildings were burned and plundered, including Newgate Prison and, to some extent, the Old Bailey Courthouse.

Great Fire of London: The fire which began on September 2, 1666 and consumed around a third of the medieval fabric of London.

Guinea: A coin first minted in 1696 and worth twenty-one shillings.

Gypsy: Travellers, also known as Egyptians, who worked in a variety of itinerant professions, including hawking, peddling, and fortune-telling. Believed to have originated in India.

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Habeas Corpus: Latin for “you have the body”. A rule used to prevent people being imprisoned illegally.

Habitual Criminal: Defined by the 1869 Habitual Criminals Act as “suspicious persons” who had previously been convicted of more than one offence.

Hackney Coach: Horse-drawn taxi licensed to take one or two passengers.

Hanoverian: Having to do with the rule of the Hanover family, the ruling family of Britain between 1714 and 1837. Often used to refer to the eighteenth century more generally.

House of Correction: A prison where offenders (usually those accused of minor offences) were put to hard labour.

Hue and Cry: The traditional obligation of householders to chase after and apprehend anyone who had committed a felony.

Huguenot: French Calvinist Protestants who fled to London following the suppression of Protestantism in France after the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

Hulks: Ships in the Thames used as prisons following the temporary suspension of transportation in 1776. Following the resumption of transportation in 1783 used continually until the mid nineteenth century for those awaiting their sentence.

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Indictment: Formal accusation charging someone with a crime. Takes the form of a written document containing brief details of the accusation.

Jacobite, Jacobitism: Supporter of the claim to the English throne of the exiled Stuart family after 1688; support for this cause.

Justice of the Peace: Also known as a JP or a magistrate. Heard criminal complaints brought to them by victims and constables, and decided how suspects should be treated—whether subject to further legal action or released. They also acted as judges at the Sessions of the Peace.

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Lascar: East Indian sailors who came to London in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Last Dying Speech: Speech given by convicts just before they were hanged, normally providing a confession of their sins and acknowledgement of the justice of their punishment. These were often published.

London County Council (LCC): Metropolitan-wide government of London established in 1889, taking over from the Metropolitan Board of Works.

London Refuge for the Destitute: An institution founded in 1806 for able-bodied men and women used by Old Bailey judges as a reformatory for young convicts.

Lord Mayor: Senior official in the City of London. Chosen by the Court of Aldermen annually to serve one year from November to November.

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Magistrate's Court: Presided over by one or more justices of the peace, these courts had both civil and criminal juridiction. The majority of criminal cases brought before these courts were tried summarily, rather than being forwarded for trial at the Old Bailey. In London from the late eighteenth century these courts became more professional and were presided over by stipendiary magistrates who were increasingly drawn from men with legal qualifications. Following the passage of the Criminal Justice Act in 1855 their criminal jurisdiction expanded to include a much wider range of offences, particularly thefts, and the number of cases heard increased considerably.

Mark: Unit of currency worth 13 shillings 4 pence.

Metropolitan Board of Works: Established in 1855 to oversee the provision of city-wide services such as water, sewerage, streets, housing and the creation of public parks. Wound up in 1888-89, following the creation of the London County Council.

Metropolitan Police: Centralised police force established in 1829, with the primary purpose of preventing crime through regular patrols; its jurisdiction did not extend to the square mile of the City of London proper which continued to have its own police arrangements.

Misdemeanour: A minor crime, which, unlike felonies, was never punishable by death. Few misdemeanours were tried at the Old Bailey; most were tried at Sessions of the Peace.

Molly, Molly House: Homosexual man, and alehouse associated particularly with homosexual culture in eighteenth-century London.

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Neck Verse: Colloquial expression referring to the passage from the Bible (the 51st psalm) that defendants who were eligible for benefit of clergy were asked to read out in court. Knowing or reading it would allow the defendant to avoid a death sentence.

Newgate: Prison located next door to the Old Bailey Courthouse, which held prisoners awaiting trials and convicted criminals awaiting punishment. Site of public executions between 1783 and 1868.

Newgate Calendar: Collections of notable trials first published in 1773 and frequently republished.

Night Watch: See (The) Watch.

Noble: Unit of currency worth 6 shillings 8 pence.

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Omnibus: Horse-drawn bus designed to carry 12-15 passengers. First entered regular service in 1829.

Ordinary's Account: Biographies of executed criminals and accounts of their last dying speeches compiled by the Chaplain (Ordinary) of Newgate Prison and published between the 1670s and 1770s.

Pardon: Being forgiven for an offence. A free pardon meant the convict would receive no punishment. A conditional pardon meant the convict would receive a lesser punishment. For example, those pardoned from the death sentence were sometimes transported instead.

Parish: The smallest unit of English local government. The parish is normally governed by a vestry, which appoints officers such as churchwardens, scavengers and overseers of the poor.

Peine Forte et Dure: Ordeal to which those who refused to plead to their indictments were subjected. Abolished in 1772. See The Defendant’s Plea.

Penitentiary: Type of prison authorized by the 1779 Penitentiary Act, with strict discipline and hard labour, designed to reform as well as punish convicts.

Punishment Summary: The term used on this website to refer to the lists of punishment sentences given after the final trial account at the end of most editions of the Proceedings (rather than at the conclusion of each trial) until 1800.

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Quarter Sessions: See Sessions of the Peace.

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Recognisance: A legal document which required an individual to perform an obligation, or pay a large penalty if they failed to do so. Usually the obligation was to appear in court; sometimes it was to be of good behaviour for a specified period of time. Normally guaranteed with sureties.

Recorder of London: The chief legal officer of the City of London. He was one of the judges who heard cases at the Old Bailey. He sent reports to the King (later the Home Office) about all the cases in which convicts were sentenced to death, so that the King or his ministers could decide whether or not to pardon them.

Respited: To postpone, for example a verdict pending a review, or a sentence or punishment. Some respited sentences were never carried out.

Rotation Office: Office staffed by Justices of the Peace at fixed times during the day, where victims could go to report crimes, and from which constables could be dispatched to find and arrest the culprits. Those arrested were subjected to preliminary examinations there. One of the first such offices was at Bow Street.

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Sessions of the Peace: Courts presided over by Justices of the Peace where misdemeanours were tried. They were held separately in London, Middlesex, Westminster, and each of the surrounding counties. The London and Middlesex courts met eight times a year. In most of the rest of the country they met four times a year and were called Quarter Sessions.

Sessions Papers: This term is used in two ways by historians. First, it refers to the manuscript documents (such as informations and depositions) taken concerning accused criminals, which were kept by the courts and are now preserved in record offices. Second, as "the Sessions Papers", it is used (and was used at the time) as another name for the printed Old Bailey Proceedings.

Settlement: The legal claim exercised by a pauper on their own parish to entitle them to relief. Settlement could be established by birth, marriage, apprenticeship or service.

Shilling: Twelve old pence (5 new pence). There were twenty shillings in a pound. For more information on the currency of the time, see Coinage, Currency and the Cost of Living.

Spitalfields: East End parish on the boundary of the City of London which was home to large immigrant populations, including Huguenots, the Irish, and Jews. Was a centre of silk weaving in the eighteenth century.

Suffragettes: Campaigners for the vote for women from 1866.

Summary Jurisdiction: The power possessed by Justices of the Peace to try some types of crime acting alone, or in pairs, outside court, and to sentence those convicted to punishments such as a stint in the house of correction.

Sureties: Persons guaranteeing that those bound over would fulfill the condition of their recognisance (normally, for those convicted at the Old Bailey, to be of good behaviour), by promising to pay a stipulated sum of money if the promise was not fulfilled.

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Thief-Taker: Man who profited from rewards obtained from arresting and convicting a criminal and/or arranging for the return of stolen goods.

Transportation: The punishment of sending convicts overseas, first the West Indies, then America, and later Australia.

Treason: A serious crime committed against the state or the monarch.

Turnkey: Jailer.

Tyburn: The place (where Marble Arch now stands) where most public executions took place until 1783, when they were moved to outside Newgate Prison.

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Vagrant: A poor person who did not stay in their parish of settlement, but moved about the country begging and engaging in odd jobs. Frequently suspected of petty crimes. See also Gypsies and vagabonding.

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(The) Watch: Men who patrolled the streets at night to prevent crime.

West End: A western part of London, largely confined to the administrative district of Westminster. The West End was largely developed during the eighteenth century and was characterised by neo-classical architecture.

Westminster: An administrative district within London and the county of Middlesex to the west of, and separate from, the City of London. Until 1900 Westminster was governed by the relatively weak "Court of Burgesses", and was characterised by strong parish government.

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