The Old Bailey Online Demo
The Old Bailey Archive focuses on the various crimes and trials throughout the Victorian Era in England. The site is maintained by Open University, University of Hertfordshire and University of Sheffield, and was last updated in April of 2013. The Old Bailey, as the site itself notes, was active from 1674 until 1913. Throughout its duration, the Old Bailey modified the definitions of many crimes and their punishments. Most of the cases heard here were deemed serious, and punishable by death.
When one first enters the Old Bailey site, one sees not only a table of contents on the left side of the page, but descriptions of those contents in the main window. Of primary note to most people is the first link, “Crime, Justice and Punishment.” This link brings one to another page with links to pages that explain “How suspects were apprehended,” “Explanations of types and categories of indictable offences,” “How trials were conducted at the Old Bailey,” and “Explanations of jury decisions.”
These pages explain various aspects of the Old Bailey before one delves into reading the actual trials. Transcripts of the trials that occurred in the Old Bailey can be found in the “Search” tab at the top of the screen, where one can look for specific trials or browse the existing documents.
In exploring the Old Bailey site, I came across two very interesting trials. The first one was the trial of Elias Smith on September 10, 1686, a twenty-seven year-old button maker from Worcester. The court explains that Elias “once…had a full Employment of his Trade, but addicted himself to idleness, he soon became Poor, and cast about in his thoughts to get Money for his vain Expences.” As a result, Elias stole a horse to try to make up for his debts. In court, Elias becomes repentant and “[S]ays that his heart is ready to break for the transgressing Gods Laws.” This trial, though there are many like it, reminded me strongly of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is a terrible person throughout the entire book and, like Elias, steals from others (though Scrooge is perhaps more malevolent). Unlike Elias, who was executed for his crime, Scrooge gets a second chance and turns his life around. Seeing Elias’ sorry state and keeping in mind that he only stole a horse, one might wonder whether he might have turned a new leaf had he been given the chance.
The second interesting trial I found was that of Benjamin Hammilton, who married a second wife while his first was still living. This case is, of course, strongly reminiscent of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, in which Mr. Rochester attempts to marry Jane whilst Bertha is living. Mr. Rochester, however, is not punished for this, and Jane is blameless in it. In Hammilton’s case, not only is he caught and branded on the thumb for his crime, but his second wife is complicit: She has a spouse yet living as well! While scenarios such as Jane’s and Mr. Rochester’s seem outlandish, court cases such as these prove that situations like this did indeed occur.
The Old Bailey Online is an extremely useful database for any who wish to dive further into England’s criminal past, and I recommend it strongly for those who are looking for primary sources to use.