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Crime and justice: a research guide

Connected Histories includes a rich body of evidence on crime, the prosecution of crime, and the development of judicial and penal policy. Beyond the most obvious source, the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online, many of our resources contain valuable documents, on topics such as efforts to apprehend criminals, crimes which went unprosecuted, pardons and punishments, and the passage of legislation.

Contents of this article

Crime and the courts

The most extensive source in Connected Histories explicitly concerned with crime are the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online, which include virtually all felonies tried at London's central criminal court. This source also includes the Ordinary's Accounts, biographies written by the chaplain of Newgate Prison of condemned criminals who were executed at Tyburn, between 1676 and 1772. As well as incorporating the Proceedings from 1674 to 1819, London Lives, 1690-1800 includes evidence of a much wider range of crimes which took place in London. These can be found in the manuscript sessions papers, criminal registers, coroner's inquests, and, for petty crimes in the City of London, the Minute books of the Court of Governors of Bridewell (the house of correction for the City of London).

Many of those sentenced to transportation between 1787 and 1867 are listed in the Convict Transportation Registers Database. This resource, which primarily includes those transported from England, Wales and Scotland, provides the convict's name (including any known aliases), the place of trial, the duration of the sentence, the name of the transportation ship and date of departure, the place of arrival in Australia, and other miscellaneous information.

Other resources include evidence of the prosecution of offences we no longer consider as crimes. The Cause Papers in the Diocesan Courts of the Archbishopric of York include cases of defamation and vice (adultery, fornication, and cursing), which were tried by the church courts until the nineteenth century. Accounts of witchcraft trials can be found in Witches in Early Modern England.

British History Online contains books published by Local Record Societies which include transcripts of court records, particularly of quarter sessions, such as the Middlesex Sessions Records and the Cardiff Records. The Justicing Notebook of Henry Norris and Hackney Petty Sessions Book is particularly useful, as it includes records of petty crimes which were mediated informally by a justice of the peace and never made it to court.

The most important non-judicial source for the study of crime in Connected Histories are the newspapers included in British Newspapers 1600-1900. Although the level of coverage varies, these include reports of unsolved crimes, pre-trial hearings, crimes tried at a wide range of courts, and punishments (particularly hangings). Although the majority of the papers are from London, several provincial and North American titles are also included.

Stories about crime, in ballads, last dying speeches, and other printed broadsides, can be found in the John Johnson Collection of Printed Epherema. Those which relate to trials at the Old Bailey have been linked to the relevant trial account in the Proceedings. Witches in Early Modern England contains narratives and polemics about witchcraft. Images of notorious criminals and notable punishments can be found in the British Museum Image Collection.

Judicial and penal policy

Government interventions in the prosecution and punishment of crime are recorded in the Calendars of State Papers in British History Online, which include correspondence concerning notorious criminals and orders to local magistrates to enforce particular laws. The passage of new statutes punishing specific crimes, or authorising new punishments, which accelerated from the 1690s when parliament began to meet more regularly, is documented in the Parliamentary Papers, which include committee reports and parliamentary proceedings concerning draft statutes. The role of individual MPs in such legislation may be documented in the History of Parliament Online,

Public discussion of judicial policies took place in the columns of newspapers in British Newspapers 1600-1900, as well as, increasingly in the 19th century, in individual pamphlets. These pamphlets, which were published in an attempt to put pressure on Members of Parliament, can be found in the Nineteenth-Century British Pamphlets. The unpublished thoughts of one of the leading eighteenth and nineteenth-century philosophers of punishment, Jeremy Bentham (inventor of the panopticon), are available in the Transcribed Papers of Jeremy Bentham.

Strengths and weaknesses

The criminal and judicial records included in Connected Histories are overwhelmingly concentrated on London. The combination of the Old Bailey Proceedings, London Lives, 1690-1800, and British Newspapers 1600-1900 allows for in-depth research from a variety of perspectives. Those interested in criminal justice in other parts of Britain will find some useful information, particularly in the newspapers and The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, but the evidence is dispersed and far from comprehensive.

Even for London, however, the evidence is concentrated on serious crimes (felonies) and crimes which were formally prosecuted. While the newspapers contain reports of numerous unprosecuted crimes, more evidence will be found in sources outside Connected Histories, including diaries and correspondence. With the exception of cases of defamation and vice in the Cause Papers in the Diocesan Courts of the Archbishopric of York, evidence of the prosecution of petty crimes is mostly still only available in unpublished manuscript records. While some contemporary comment on crime can be found in the Nineteenth-Century British Pamphlets and Transcribed Papers of Jeremy Bentham, for the 17th and 18th centuries it is necessary to consult Early English Books Online and Eighteenth-Century Collections Online.

Search strategies

Even within formal judicial records, the terminology used to describe crime varied considerably, depending on the legal category of offence. Thefts could be described as robbery, burglary, housebreaking, shoplifting, embezzlement, or simply larceny (grand or petty). Murder can be described as killing, slaying, strangling, shooting, assaulting or simply causing the death of someone. The language is even more inconsistent in other sources, where thefts are described using words such as stealing, taking and pilfering. To obtain a full set of results relating to any type of crime, therefore, it is necessary to use a variety of keywords as search terms.

Further reading

  • J. M. Beattie, Crime and the Courts in England, 1660-1800 (Princeton, NJ, 1986)
  • J. M. Beattie, Policing and Punishment in London, 1660-1750: Urban Crime and the Limits of Terror (Oxford, 2001)
  • C. Emsley, Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900 (4th edn., London, 2010)
  • T. Hitchcock and R. B. Shoemaker, Tales from the Hanging Court (London, 2006)
  • P. King, Crime, Justice and Discretion in England, 1740-1820 (Oxford, 2000)
  • P. Linebaugh, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the 18th Century (London, 1991)
  • J. A. Sharpe, Crime in Early Modern England, 1550-1750 (1984; 2nd edn., London, 1999)
  • R. B. Shoemaker, Prosecution and Punishment: Petty Crime and the Law in London and Rural Middlesex, 1660-1725 (Cambridge, 1991)

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