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The Old Bailey proceedings and the representation of crime and criminal justice in eighteenth-century London

By R.B. Shoemaker


The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, published accounts of felony trials held at London’s central criminal court, were a remarkable publishing phenomenon. First published in 1674, they quickly became a regular periodical, with editions published eight times a year following each session of the court. Despite the huge number of trial reports (some 50,000 in the eighteenth century), the Proceedings, also known as the “Sessions Papers”, have formed the basis of several important studies in social history, dating back to Dorothy George’s seminal London Life in the Eighteenth Century (1925). Their recent publication online, however, has not only made them more widely available, but also changed the way historians consult them, leading to greater use of both quantitative analysis, using the statistics function, and qualitative examination of their language, through keyword searching. In the context of recent renewed interest in the history of crime and criminal justice, for which this is the most important source available in this period, the growing use of the Proceedings raises questions about their reliability, and, by extension, the motivations for their original publication. Historians generally consider the Proceedings to present accurate, if often incomplete, accounts of courtroom proceedings. From this source, along with manuscript judicial records, criminal biographies (including the Ordinary’s Accounts), polemical pamphlets such as Henry Fielding’s Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (1751), and of course the satirical prints of William Hogarth, they have constructed a picture of eighteenth-century London as a city overwhelmed by periodic crime waves and of a policing and judicial system which was forced into wide-ranging reforms in order to meet this challenge

Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Year: 2008
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