Contents of this article
The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online is a fully searchable edition of the published accounts of 197,745 trials held at the Old Bailey, London's central criminal court, between 1674 and 1913. Initially inexpensive, and targeted at a popular audience, the Proceedings were produced shortly after the conclusion of each sessions or meeting of the court. With the growth of newspapers and increasing publication costs the audience narrowed and by the 19th century was confined to lawyers and public officials. In total, the Proceedings comprise 127 million words of text, providing detailed accounts of witness testimony and court activity. In addition to the evidence provided about crime and criminal justice, the Proceedings provide richly detailed accounts of daily life in London. While most offences took place within London and Middlesex, from 1834 the court's jurisdiction expanded to include urban parts of Kent, Surrey and Essex. From this date a small number of more serious cases from other parts of England and Wales can also be found.
The website also includes all surviving editions of the Ordinary of Newgate's Accounts, biographies of approximately 2,500 executed men and women, compiled by the prison chaplain.
The text in the Proceedings was digitised by a combined process of double rekeying and some OCR processing. All text up to 1834 was transcribed twice, by two different typists. The two transcriptions were then compared by computer and differences were resolved manually. Material from 1834 to 1913 was transcribed once, and then OCRed, with the two version being used for comparison. Names, trial details (crime, verdict, punishment etc.), occupations, places and dates were then tagged by a process of manual and automated markup. The process and nature of the tagged data is explained more fully on the site's About this project page.
Strengths and weaknesses
The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online gives access to the largest body of historical texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published. The trial accounts contain incidental details of everyday life in addition to evidence about crime and criminal justice. These are not, however, verbatim transcripts. Up until the 1720s trial reports are brief and contain little verbatim testimony. Between the 1720s and the early 19th century, while more text purporting to record witness statements is included, the transcripts are selective, omitting some testimony, and much legal argument. The 19th-century Proceedings are much fuller, but as a matter of policy exclude sexual details, particularly in relation to trials for rape and sodomy. What was included is, however, largely accurate. The same combination of selective treatment and accuracy is evident in the Ordinary's Accounts.
Besides the historical importance of the text itself, the site's greatest strengths lie in the thorough and comprehensive mark-up included, and the accuracy of the transcriptions (99.99%).
About the project
The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online was a collaborative project between the Universities of Hertfordshire and Sheffield and the Open University. Primary funding was provided by the Big Lottery Fund and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (and Board). Project Directors were Professors Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker and Clive Emsley. The Project Manager was Dr Sharon Howard. Implemented by the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield and the Higher Education Digitisation Service at the University of Hertfordshire, The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online was published by HRI Online Publications. For further information, see the project's About this project page.