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London's Old Bailey Records Now Online

Perhaps you've been fortunate enough to know who Rumpole of the Old Bailey is. Now, you can delve a bit deeper into the the Old Bailey and the Proceedings that went on there.

Just like the modern-day Court-TV, but in written form. It was 18th century England, where kidnapping a 16-year old girl was a misdemeanor but pickpocketing a capital offense. And it is all documented on, an internet archive containing contemporary accounts of practically every trial at the Old Bailey courthouse, the country's largest and most famous criminal court.

The court's sessions, which happened eight times a year, were preserved thanks to "The Proceedings," a broadsheet that went into print in 1678. It began as a profitable venture that entertained the public with accounts of the more lewd, humorous or scandalous cases, but was eventually overseen by the city, which used it as an official record of trials.

The website, which went online March 5, is the brainchild of two British historians, Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, who realized that technology could make the documents a lot easier to access and read. Otherwise, you can take six months to read it in its original form in microfilm.

There are a number of stark differences between the judicial system then and now. First, lawyers were almost never used in the early 17th century. The victim of the crime was responsible for prosecuting the offender, and the person accused had to handle his own defense. Witnesses could be questioned by either party and also by the judge and even the jury.

Defendants were also not presumed innocent, they had no right to remain silent (indeed, they couldn't since they were their own lawyers) and no evidence was excluded. While today a person's prior crimes are not admissible, during an 18th century English trial, anything and everything about the accused was fair game in court. In fact, it was considered best if jurors knew the defendant or his family personally because they could then make a more informed judgment about his guilt.

Posted by J. Craig Williams on Sunday, March 21, 2004

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