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Judges and Juries

The Decision-Makers in Criminal Trials

Throughout the period the decision-makers in Old Bailey trials were men of property. Trials were conducted by some of Britain's most distinguished judges, and the jurors who determined defendants' fates came from the broad middling ranks of society. In addition to providing background information about judges and jurors, this page also includes advice on how to search for them in the Proceedings.

Contents of this Article

Who Were the Judges?

An etching that appears to represent an older man's head in profile, in a long flowing white wig against a dark background. 'Head of a Judge. A Representation of the Ice, in the Fountain of Garden Court in the Temple, on Monday the 26th. of Jany. 1795'. Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Judges were empowered to hear cases in specific courts by government commission. At the Old Bailey the common law judges from the High Courts at Westminster, other officers of state, and magistrates from the City of London, including the Lord Mayor, the Recorder (the principal legal officer of the City) or his deputy, and the Common Sergeant, (the legal adviser to the Court of Common Council) could all sit as judges. Only two common law judges, however, actually attended. Justices of the peace for the County of Middlesex were not included in the commission and were not allowed to sit on the judicial bench (the City claimed there was insufficient room), but they did attend the court.

Trials of serious offences were normally conducted by one of the High Court judges, while the Lord Mayor or other City magistrates conducted the remaining trials.

To a man (and they were all men) judges were drawn from the public schools; in the nineteenth century they were also university educated. Most had trained as lawyers, but their appointment to the bench was as likely to be a reward for political services, as it was a recognition of legal expertise. The Recorder and the Common Serjeant were both appointed by the City of London.

Although there was no retirement age for judges, there were attempts, especially in the nineteenth century, to encourage them to leave the bench while still breathing. Taking the English judiciary as a whole, 65 per cent of judges died in office between 1727 and 1790, and 37 per cent died while still in service over the next eighty-five years. As a result, the generally young working class men and women who appeared in the Old Bailey dock and whose experience is recorded in the Proceedings were confronted, judged and frequently condemned to death by men of a very different age and social background.

Searching for Judges

A head and shoulders portrait of an older man in a dark nineteenth-century suit.  His complexion is ruddy, and his hair is cut short.  His eyes are looking to the left of the camera. Sir James Alexander Cockburn, Lord Chief Justice. Cockburn is recorded as having sat as the presiding judge at the Central Criminal Court on five occasions between 1867 and 1880. From Legal London: A Pictorial History (1999). Mark Herber

A list of the judges present at each sessions is reproduced at start of each edition of the Proceedings. These sections of the Proceedings can be located and browsed by choosing Sessions Papers> Front Matter from the draw down menu labelled Search In on either the Search or Custom Search pages. The names of specific judges can be found by using the Personal Details search page and specifying Judiciary Name from the draw down menu labelled Context of Name. Interventions by judges are often referred to in the Proceedings as "The Court".

Some editions of the Proceedings record which judge conducted which trial. This is sometimes indicated by the use of a footnote marker at the start of each trial, keyed to the names of the judges listed at the beginning of the Proceedings. In other editions the name of the judge is listed at the beginning or end of the trial.

Grand Juries and Trial Juries

Following the legal principle that Englishmen accused of crimes should be tried by their peers, separate grand and trial juries were appointed for the two legal jurisdictions covered by the Old Bailey: the City of London and the County of Middlesex. Fifty potential grand jurors were summoned by the Sheriff of London to attend the first day of the Guildhall sessions in the City, out of which seventeen were chosen; after meeting for two days in the Guildhall, the London grand jury moved to the Old Bailey to assess the indictments for serious crimes. The Middlesex grand jury was summoned by the Sheriff of Middlesex to sit at Hicks Hall. The indictments for serious crimes which they approved were then transferred to the Old Bailey. The role of the grand jury was to decide which cases had sufficient evidence to merit putting the defendant on trial.

A courtroom scene, with a elderly judge on the left having evidence explained to him by a lawyer.  The witness is on the right, looking uncomfortable.  The jury is sitting in its box at the rear of the picture. 'The Deaf Judge, or Mutual Misunderstanding' (1796). Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Potential trial jurors from both the City of London and Middlesex were summoned to attend the Old Bailey on the first day of the sessions, when separate juries of 12 were chosen for each jurisdiction. Although defendants had the right to challenge (reject) members of the jury, they rarely did so. Trial juries often heard ten or more cases a day, and agreed their verdicts after very short periods of deliberation: see The Trial. The growing number of trials from Middlesex, a result of the gradual expansion of urban London, led to the introduction of a second Middlesex jury in the 1780s, third and fourth juries in the 1810s, a fifth in 1827, and a sixth in 1832.

The criteria for selecting members of the grand and trial juries are not known, except that jurors were always men, had to meet a property qualification, and were supposed to be geographically representative. The Juries act of 1825 required that the men possess property and be aged between twenty-one and sixty. Research by John Beattie has shown that, during the eighteenth century, jurors were from the "broad middling ranks" of society; they were gentlemen, merchants, professionals, and wealthier shopkeepers, tradesmen, and artisans. This also appears to have been the case for the nineteenth century but the fact that a series of Law Commissioners’ reports and parliamentary select committees complained about the poor educational standards of jurors suggests that the social position of jurors may have declined. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, following demands from the Trades Union Congress, a trickle of working-class men begin to appear upon the jury lists. Members of the grand jury tended to be wealthier than trial jurors, but this was not invariably the case. There were no female jurors until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919.

Twelve figures sit in a jury box.  Some are chatting, others look bored.  One is yawning widely. 'The Jury', John Morgan (1861). An Assize court jury, hearing trials held at County Hall, Market Square, Aylesbury. Buckinghamshire County Council.

Significantly, jurors tended to serve on more than one occasion, which meant that almost every jury included experienced members who were familiar with court procedure. This helps explain why trials could be conducted so quickly. Appointment to a jury was considered prestigious, and many jurors held other civic offices, such as constable, churchwarden, overseer of the poor, and member of the Common Council of London. Unlike today, it was considered an advantage if jurors knew the background to a trial, and the individuals involved. As a result knowledge of their communities (particularly of its more disreputable members) gained through service in parochial offices was considered a distinct advantage to jurors.

When foreigners were tried special juries, which included some jurors from their own country, were appointed.

Searching for Jurors

Because grand jurors were chosen at sessions which took place in the Guildhall (for the City of London) and Hicks Hall, or from 1760, the Sessions House (for Middlesex), lists of grand jurors are not provided in the Proceedings. This information is contained in the manuscript sessions rolls held at the London Metropolitan Archives.

A plain page of printed text, headed 'List of Jurors' and including five seperate lists with twelve names on each, headed in turn 'First Jury', 'Second Jury', etc. The jury list as it appears on the fourth page of the Sessions of 7 July 1845.

The names of the trial jurors for each sessions are provided at the start of each edition of the Proceedings up until the October sessions of 1850. These sections of the Proceedings can be located and browsed by choosing Sessions Papers> Front Matter from the draw down menu labelled Search In on either the Search or Custom Search pages. The names of specific jurors can be found by using the Personal Details search page and specifying Juror Name from the draw down menu labelled Context of Name. Jury lists were divided into London and Middlesex juries; and are not provided after 1850.

It is often possible to find out which jury heard each case. If it took place in the City of London, the case was tried by the London jury; if it took place in Middlesex, the case was heard by the Middlesex jury. The specific jury is sometimes indicated with an M (for Middlesex) or L (for London) next to the defendant's name; in other years the name of the jury (e.g. "third jury") is given at the start of the trial or after the verdict.

Introductory Reading

  • Beattie, J. M., "London Juries in the 1690s" in J. S. Cockburn and T. Green, eds, Twelve Good Men and True: The Criminal Trial Jury in England, 1200-1800 (Princeton, 1988)
  • Beattie, J. M., Policing and Punishment in London, 1660-1750: Urban Crime and the Limits of Terror (Oxford, 2001), chapter 6
  • Bentley, D. English Criminal Justice in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1998), chapter 10
  • Green, T., Verdict According to Conscience : Perspectives on the English Criminal Trial Jury, 1200-1800 (1985)

For more secondary literature on this subject see the Bibliography.

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