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Using the Proceedings in University Teaching

The online Proceedings are widely used in university teaching in several disciplines, and at all levels of the curriculum. While they provide a wealth of primary source material, the sheer scale of this resource can appear an obstacle when designing a course. Based on our own experience and interviews with fellow academics, this page is intended to provide some suggestions of possible contexts and strategies for using the Proceedings in teaching. Please contact us if you have further ideas.

Contents of this Article

General Advice

Historical Background index page

Students new to the site should be encouraged to read or listen to the Getting Started and the Guide to Searching tutorials. Depending on the specific topic studied, they should also be directed to one or more of the background pages, which provide extensive information about the Proceedings themselves and their historical background. These include information on Crime, Justice and Punishment, London Life, London's diverse Communities, Gender in the Proceedings, and The Old Bailey Courthouse. Each page includes a section with recommended introductory reading as well as a link to the more comprehensive site Bibliography.

Citation guide

There are many ways in which the Proceedings can be used for assessed coursework. Since most students are unsure about how to cite internet sources in their work, and there are particular issues to address when citing the Proceedings, students should be directed to the Citation Guide if they use material from the website in their writing.

Crime, Justice and Punishment

The most obvious use for the Proceedings in teaching is for courses on crime, justice and punishment. Whole courses can be designed around this single resource, or it can be supplemented with other sources, or the website can form the principal source for one or two seminars within a larger course. The long time span covered (1674-1913) means it provides an ideal opportunity to consider questions of historical change. A year-long course can easily be divided into sections which reflect the narratives of both crime and the criminal justice system, reflecting the practices of apprehending criminals, pre-trial procedures, the trial, and punishments and pardons, with perhaps a preliminary section critiquing primary source materials. It is important to acknowledge, as explained on the Punishment Sentences page, that the punishments listed in the Proceedings are only sentences, and were not necessarily carried out.

Home page of London Lives website.

The chief disadvantage of this approach is the unrepresentative nature of the content of the Proceedings. The Old Bailey almost exclusively heard felony cases, and provides little evidence of the vast majority of lesser crimes. To supplement the Proceedings, evidence of other prosecuted crimes in eighteenth-century London can be found in the Justicing Notebook of Henry Norris, and in London Lives, 1690-1800, the sister website to the Old Bailey Proceedings Online. London Lives contains the records of Bridewell (the house of correction for the City of London), and the manuscript sessions papers from all quarter sessions courts in London. For other jurisdictions, published collections of quarter sessions records could be used. Newspapers, such as the online collections of British Library newspapers from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, provide evidence of the large number of crimes which were not prosecuted.

Cultural and Social History

The rich contextual details found in the trial accounts also make the Proceedings an ideal source for courses which address a much wider range of topics. For example,

  • Material culture and the history of consumption can be studied through the descriptions of stolen goods in theft trials (which comprise over three-quarters of all trials in the Proceedings). These provide valuable evidence of the types of goods in circulation, the financial and personal value Londoners placed on their possessions, the display of goods in shops and markets, the ways Londoners stored and used consumer goods, and the circulation of second-hand goods.
  • There is plenty of evidence concerning gender in the Proceedings. The statistics function demonstrates significant differences between men and women in patterns of accusation, verdicts and punishment sentences, as well as some significant commonalities. Trial accounts provide extensive incidental detail on men's and women's lives, and on relationships between the sexes. The background page on gender in the Proceedings provides advice on Researching Gender in the Proceedings.

Infanticide trial

  • Sexual behaviour outside marriage is frequently documented in the Proceedings. The erratically published crime of sodomy can be studied in the eighteenth century (nineteenth-century trials were censored); see the background page on Homosexuality. Infanticide, almost always committed by single mothers, was also tried at the Old Bailey. There are a number of prosecutions for rape, though details of this crime were not published after 1798. Eighteenth-century rape trials are primarily concerned with assaults on children, and contain substantial and harrowing detail. Although not a crime prosecuted at the Old Bailey, prostitutes feature in numerous trials both as victims and defendants, and these accounts provide valuable evidence of their practices.
  • Ideas of space and place are evident in the patterns of public and private behaviour found in trial accounts, for example the use of coffee houses. Street behaviour can be studied by examining trials for many offences, particularly those in the killing and breaking the peace offence categories, notably riot. The mapping function is no longer available, but Locating London's Past allows crimes from 1674 to 1834 to be mapped onto contemporary maps of London, allowing one to examine social relations in particular districts of the city.
  • Those studying literature can read the Proceedings for narrative strategies, for example those found in victim testimonies in rape trials, and these can be compared with novels and other works of fiction.

Skills Teaching

The Proceedings are frequently used in foundation modules, particularly for history degrees. A number of key skills concerning the interpretation of primary sources can be taught through assigned exercises. Students can be taught how to:

Value of the Proceedings

  • assess the limitations of a primary source by reading selected trials in the Proceedings alongside the background page, The Value of the Proceedings as a Historical Source. Students can also be asked to compare accounts of a particular trial with alternative accounts of the same crime and trial found in other sources such as the Ordinary's Accounts, pre-trial depositions, newspapers, the Newgate Calendar, criminal biographies, and ballads. References to many of these sources are listed in the assocated records and links to these are provided from relevant trials. Many are available online.
  • consider techniques for reading sources created for one purpose against the grain to obtain information about completely different questions, such as about gender or "space and place".
  • reconcile evidence in primary sources with the arguments of historians. There are a number of historiographical debates and controversial views about eighteenth-century crime and punishment, such as in the works of Douglas Hay, John Langbein, and Peter Linebaugh (all listed in the Bibliography), which can be tested against the primary evidence, and students can be asked to draw their own conclusions. Students can thereby develop their skills in constructing an argument and supporting it with evidence from primary sources.

Page: How are the Proceedings Different When Read Online

  • use keyword searching effectively to make the most of electronic resources, and to evaluate the effectiveness of such searching.
  • evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of electronic editions of primary sources, as discussed in the study guide, How are the Proceedings Different when Read Online?
  • compile and interpret statistical measures, as discussed in the next session

Teaching Statistics

The Statistics Search Function provides a user-friendly method of introducing humanities students to quantitative analysis. The Doing Statistics tutorial provides a basic introduction to using this facility, after which students can be set specific tasks, such as:

A graph of results.

  • chart the number of trials per year for a particular offence, or set of offences, over time
  • examine the distribution of particular offences by gender or age of the defendant, or gender of the victim
  • examine patterns of verdicts and punishment sentences by type of offence

Time and care need to be devoted to interpreting the results, particularly when tables are compiled. Students need to be reminded that percentages are often the most useful figure for comparing results in more than one column (or row) of a table, but they need to choose the correct figures (percentages of row totals are on the lower left in each cell, while percentages of column totals are in the upper right). It is often useful to to ask "percentage of what?" to ensure that the correct figure is being used.

Detail of a table of results.

Care also needs to be taken in defining the search query precisely. When comparing two variables, for example gender and punishment, it is helpful to narrow the search to a particular offence category or type of offence, in order to ensure that the results actually reveal something about the variables examined, rather than an extraneous variable such as type of offence. For example, a tabulation of punishment by gender shows that proportionally slightly more women were sentenced to corporal punishments than men (5.8 per cent vs 5.25 per cent). But that is largely because women were more likely to be convicted of offences which were punished by corporal punishment. If we narrow the calculation to a single offence, grand larceny, we discover that women were less likely than men to be sentenced to corporal punishments (13.1 per cent vs 16.3 per cent).

A more difficult issue is to assess the significance of differences in the percentages obtained. Is a difference of 0.5 per cent (or even 5 per cent) between two figures important or trivial? It is unlikely that students (or their teachers) will have the skills necessary to answer this question using statistical techniques such as regression analysis, so more subjective measures need to be adopted. One way of answering this question is to look at the absolute numbers involved; if the numbers are low and the addition (or subtraction) of a few trials would signicantly change the percentage, the difference means little.

Any time spent compiling statistics will demonstrate the truism that numbers and percentages can mislead as often as they inform. But one of the less appreciated virtues of the statistics function on this website is that the user is able to query the statistics produced by clicking on the numbers in individual cells. This will produce a list of all the trials which make up that cell, allowing the user to interpret the results using qualitative evidence. For example, a tabulation of riot by year reveals that 72 riots, or 40 per cent of the riot cases for the whole 240 year period, were prosecuted in the 1780s; clicking on the number 72 takes one to a list of trials which makes it clear that the overwhelming majority of these cases came from the Gordon Riots in June 1780. Students should be encouraged to use the statistics function in this way by combining qualitative and quantitative analysis.

Suggestions for Seminars: Individual tasks and Group Activities

There are many possibilities:

  • For a seminar on a specific topic, such as gender and crime, each student can be assigned to report on a specific crime or category of offences, asking them to combine statistical analysis with a reading of actual trials to attempt to explain patterns.
  • Students can be asked to use keyword searching to locate evidence about a specific topic, for example looking at the use of the word "gang" in the Ordinary's Accounts. Similarly, they can be asked to find evidence of policing practices over time by looking for evidence of how suspects were identified and apprehended, by choosing keywords/phrases such as "constable", "called out watch", "stop thief", "runner", "police", etc. Or, they can be asked to test historian's theories about the causes of theft by searching for keywords such as "necessity", "gin" or "perquisite".
  • Students can be asked to save and share their results by saving them in Zotero and creating one or more separate groups for your course, as explained in the tutorial on Organising Your Research with Reference Managment Tools.
  • Seminars can also be organised around well documented cases, where the trial account can be supplemented by other online sources such as newspapers or printed biographies. An exercise like this can be used to teach source criticism, as explained under Teaching Skills, as well as content.
  • For an understanding of how criminal justice worked in the past, students can be asked to dissect an individual trial account, identifying each of the stages of the trial, while also paying attention to the types of courtroom interventions which often went unrecorded, as explained in The Value of the Proceedings as an Historical Source.
  • One can also adopt a practice pioneered by Dr Drew Gray at the University of Northampton, and devote one or more seminars to student reenactments of trials. Students can be asked to research a trial in advance and assign roles, with the roles of the jury and judge played by individual students (or the teacher). When followed by a discussion, this exercise can be used to illuminate the distinctive nature of the criminal trial at different times (depending among other things on whether lawyers were present), as well as demonstrate the limitations of the trial accounts in the Proceedings (as it will quickly become clear that not all dialogue was reported).

Dissertations and Individual Research Projects

The sheer size and diversity of the online Proceedings make them an ideal primary resource for individual student projects. Whether used on their own or (preferably) in conjunction with other sources, the possibilities are endless. To give students some ideas about the types of research which can be conducted using this resource, they can be referred to the List of Publications which Cite the Old Bailey Online.

Some relatively underused features of the site where students might find valuable evidence include:

  • The Ordinary of Newgate's Accounts (biographies of the convicts who were executed at Tyburn)
  • The Advertisements which appeared in the back of early editions of the Proceedings
  • The Associated Records database, which lists over 25,000 primary source books and documents related to trials contained in the Proceedings. This database, which enables users to identify other rich collections of sources for their research, can be searched by type of offence, document type, keyword, and library or archive. Many of the printed sources are available on EEBO and ECCO.