Tracing London criminals
Guildhall Library has many sources for tracing London Criminals, including an extensive collection of Old Bailey Sessions Papers. The history and the changing nature of the information found in these is described in some detail with notes on London criminal courts, transportation, indictments and guidance on further research.
A brief summary of other printed sources relating to London criminals including the Accounts of the Ordinary of Newgate, the British Trials microfiche and the Criminal Register Indexes is also listed below.
During the 17th-19th centuries the courts administering justice in London were geographically scattered. While a number of major legal institutions such as the Courts of Kings Bench and Chancery were grouped in Westminster Hall, the equivalent of quarter sessions and assizes were dispersed through London. Hicks Hall in Clerkenwell, Guildhall in the City of London and St Margaret’s Hall in Southwark were all locations for the trial of routine crimes ranging upwards in seriousness from petty pilfering. However, as London and Middlesex were never covered by an Assize Circuit, the Old Bailey Sessions acted as an equivalent.
The Sessions House in the Old Bailey was the principal centre for the hearing of serious criminal cases drawn from the City, Westminster and Middlesex at large. This building was adjacent to Newgate, the main prison where those accused of serious crimes were confined prior to trial at the Gaol Delivery Sessions and the General Sessions of Oyer and Terminer. However, prisoners awaiting trial at the Sessions House could also be kept at other prisons in London, notably the New Prison at Clerkenwell and the Compters (Sheriffs’ prisons) such as Poultry, Giltspur Street and Wood Street, until they were transferred to Newgate to be tried at the next sessions.
The court at the Old Bailey sat eight times a year and the proceedings of the court were published for each session and are commonly known as the Old Bailey Sessions Papers (OBSP). However the OBSP follow the convention of the City of London in resetting the calendar in November when the mayoral office changed hands. Thus the OBSP annual volumes run from the December sessions of one year through to the October sessions of the next (there were not normally sessions in November though very occasionally the first or last session of the year started or finished in November).
The Old Bailey Sessions Papers are made up of printed transcripts of both London and Middlesex trials and usually contain more information about the accused and the circumstances of the offence than the formal official records. However, despite the fact that the title page of the OBSP states that they include ‘whole proceedings’ of the sessions this is in fact not true, as cases tried at the Sessions of the Peace are not included. Guildhall Library has one of the largest collections of OBSP covering 1673 to 1913 though with some gaps in the early period.
Early Old Bailey Sessions Papers
The Old Bailey Sessions Papers (OBSP) grew out of several similar commercial publications printed during the 1670s, some of which were just single sheet accounts of particularly interesting trials. From these beginnings the OBSP run in a substantially continuous series for nearly two and a half centuries. By the 1680s the first of this long running serial was being published under various titles but most usually The Proceedings at the Sessions of the Peace and Oyer and Terminer for the City of London and County of Middlesex. The publishers of the OBSP bought the right to publish from the Lord Mayor and later from the Chamberlain. The publication had a semi-official role as it represented the only printed record of the proceedings. The size and number of pages changed a number of times during the early 18th century due to changes in tax, increase in popularity and competition with newspapers. However, from 1729 onwards it appeared as a quarto pamphlet of between twenty and twenty-eight pages selling at 6d. Several of these pamphlets could be published to cover all the cases tried at a particular sessions and these are usually numbered in parts.
Each of the eight sessions of the Old Bailey began a new pamphlet and in certain respects the contents were stylized. The opening paragraph lists the presiding judges followed by the names of the members of the two twelve-man juries, one for City of London and one, or occasionally two, for Middlesex crimes, that tried all cases. On the final page or pages of the concluding pamphlet for each session, after the last case report there is a list of the sentences pronounced. These are grouped in order of gravity: first those sentenced to death, then those to transportation, to whipping, and so forth. By the middle of the 18th century the editors of the OBSP were also including post verdict developments which had taken place since the publication of the last pamphlet - mostly executions and pardons. Thus it is sometimes useful to check the last pages of subsequent pamphlets to trace the fate of a capital convict.
In the early years of publication the cases reported were considerably edited and much information was omitted. From the later 1710s the cases are reported in greater detail and include testimony of individual witnesses and defendants, though this was still often in summary. By the 1730s some reports had begun to record questions and answers exchanged in court. By the 1740s the OBSP were attempting to report, however briefly, all cases from the relevant sessions. There are instances of cases that were missed from one session being tacked onto the next session’s pamphlet. The OBSP, as a commercial enterprise, always reported more fully the more interesting or salacious cases, whilst others of less interest might be dismissed in a line or two.
By the middle of the 18th century it became the practice to paginate consecutively the pamphlets for the sessions held each year and the editors began to assign an identification number to each accused. At the end of the Mayoral year the OBSP published an alphabetical index of the accused arranged by surname referenced to these assigned numbers. If an accused was tried on a second indictment at the same sessions he was not assigned a new number. The numbering began anew each Mayoral year.
Old Bailey Sessions Papers 1777-1834
The OBSP for this period continue to have an annual index with a few exceptions. From 1800-1801 onwards there are indexes for each session. Up to 1824-25 letters in the index indicate sentences received and the crimes of those sentenced to death. Some cases detailed at the end of a session under the heading ‘misdemeanours’ appear in fact to be Oyer and Terminer cases (see eg. 1812-13). Occasionally Admiralty cases are included in the printed volumes though these are not included on the microfilm copies at Guildhall Library nor online.
Old Bailey Sessions Papers 1834-1913
From November 1834 the sessions were widened with the establishment of the Central Criminal Court at the Sessions House, Old Bailey. Sessions were now held twelve times a year and, though they continued to be Oyer and Terminer and Gaol Delivery sessions, they now had jurisdiction over London, Middlesex and parts of adjoining counties such as Surrey (including the Borough of Southwark), Essex and Kent. The Central Criminal Court could try capital and other offences, such as murder, forgery, perjury, conspiracy and assault. It could also try crimes committed on the high seas or abroad. In the printed OBSP there is a volume for each session with the London and Middlesex cases appearing first, followed by cases from the other counties. It should be noted that in the later 19th century evidence of a salacious nature was sometimes suppressed in the printed sessions papers.
Old Bailey Sessions Papers 1913 to date
The publication of Central Criminal Court proceedings was discontinued in April 1913. Trial records of the Central Criminal Court are held at The National Archives.
The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online - is an online project that include scans of original pages and transcripts of trials from all Old Bailey Sessions Papers 1674-1913. Access is free and all pages can be downloaded. Particularly useful are the indexes and the ability to search for any keyword. The site now also includes all known Ordinary of Newgate’s Accounts and other supporting material.
Although the printed sessions papers are detailed accounts of the trials and include depositions by witnesses and in many cases, especially in later years, give the age of the accused, they do not include the full indictment. For the family historian the indictment, usually to be found in the sessions file, is the key document because it often gives the place of residence of the prisoner, a record which is not always found elsewhere in the proceedings. Readers will need to consult the original records for the relevant sessions at the various offices detailed below. Care should be taken with earlier records where a parish of residence is given which is in fact the parish where the crime took place, a legal fiction which apparently made the prosecution of the crime easier. In the same way with City cases in the printed sessions papers, the accused was invariably described as a ‘labourer of London’ rather than stating the real occupation or precise parish of origin. Recognisances, also to be found on the original sessions files though not for all cases, may include a more accurate description (e.g. the occupation of the accused).
Transportation was increasingly used as an alternative to capital punishment from the 17th century onwards. Initially this was mostly to America until the War of Independence brought it to an end in 1776, though a few convicts continued to be sent to other British colonies in North America including Quebec and Nova Scotia. Transportation was resumed in 1786, this time to Australia and later to South Africa. By the early part of the 19th century transportation had become the normal method of punishment for the majority of serious offences less than murder. The number of convicts transported began to drop in the 1840s and the last transport ship sailed for New South Wales in 1867.
There were a number of Sessions (or courts) in London and Middlesex at which prisoners were sentenced to transportation, each with their own separate records:
The Sessions of Delivery for the Gaol of Newgate and Sessions of Oyer and Terminer for the City of London and the County of Middlesex held at the Old Bailey tried capital offences such as murder, highway robbery and counterfeiting and could therefore impose the death sentence. The court also imposed the vast majority of sentences of transportation. These should all be found in the OBSP.
The Quarter Sessions of the Peace for the County of Middlesex tried all the run-of-the-mill criminal cases arising in the county, most of them petty larceny. This Court had the power to impose such sentences as burning in the hand, public whipping or periods in the pillory or in a House of Correction. It met eight times a year and began to impose regular sentences of transportation from about 1749. These will not be found in the OBSP and the original records for this Court should be consulted at London Metropolitan Archives.
The jurisdiction of the Quarter Sessions of the Peace for the City and Liberty of Westminster extended to cases arising within the City of Westminster which covered half a dozen parishes. The first sentence of transportation noted at these sessions was passed in June 1763. These are not recorded in the OBSP; the original records are held at London Metropolitan Archives. Indexes of transported convicts can be found in the printed sources listed below.
Published lists for Transported Convicts
- Cobley, J The Crimes of the First Fleet convicts. Angus and Robertson 1970
- Cobley, J The Crimes of the Lady Juliana convicts, 1790. Library of Australian History 1989
- Gillen, M The Founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet. Library of Australian History 1989
- Flynn, M The Second Fleet: Britain’s grim convict armada of 1790. New edition, Library of Australian History 2001
- Flynn, M Settlers and seditionists; the people of the convict ship ‘Surprize’ 1794. Angela Lind 1994
A name index of indictments for City of London cases 1714-1854, recording all people indicted, the nature of the offence and the date of the indictment session, is held at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). Some indexes exist for Middlesex crimes and are also to be found at LMA.
Peter Wilson Coldham’s Bonded Passengers to America seeks to index many of those transported from England between 1617-1775. Vols II and III cover Middlesex and London and in most cases the index gives the month of the session at which the felon was sentenced. When referring back to the OBSP it should be remembered that in the second half of the 18th century it was not just the sessions at the Old Bailey that could pass sentence of transportation (see Transportation above). British Trials on microfiche has an index which covers most of the pre-1700 OBSP and some from the 18th and 19th century.
Calendars of convicted Middlesex and City of London prisoners in Newgate Gaol can be found, along with other relevant series, amongst the records of the Home Office (reference HO26/1-56) at The National Archives. Covering the years 1791-1849 these calendars provide personal information about each prisoner – name, age, place of birth (given variously as a country, county, town or parish), occupation, colour of hair and eyes, complexion and height. Details of the crime, date and place of trial, sentence and date sentence was carried out are also contained in these calendars.
Original records of the Old Bailey Sessions are held in the following repositories:
London Metropolitan Archives which holds material for those tried by City of London juries. (see CLRO Research Guide 3: Transportation and Emigration and Information sheet 14: Sessions Records in CLRO) These records were formerly held by the Corporation of London Records Office. Material relating to cases tried by the Middlesex juries is also held at LMA (see LMA Information leaflet No. 4: Convicts transported from Middlesex).
After 1834 records of the Central Criminal Court can be found at The National Archives [Ref: CRIM 1].
The Ordinary of Newgate was the chaplain of Newgate Prison appointed by the Court of Aldermen of the City of London. As such he was in a position to hear the condemned prisoner’s story first hand and would publish these accounts to supplement his income. The proper title for this work is usually The Ordinary of Newgate, His Account of the Behaviour, Confessions, and Dying Words of the Malefactors who were Executed at Tyburn. Like the OBSP these accounts started life as a commercially produced broad sheet which rapidly developed into a sixteen or twenty-eight page pamphlet recognised by the City officials as a perquisite of the Ordinary.
The format of the Ordinary’s Account remained little changed throughout the 18th century and it usually contains five sections:
- The first described the basic facts of the trial – its date, the magistrates present, the members of the two juries and a summary of the proceedings.
- The second part cited the Biblical texts from which the Ordinary preached to the condemned and provided a synopsis of his sermons.
- The third and most valuable part of the Account contained descriptions of the life and crimes of each of the malefactors condemned to death.
- The fourth part of the Account contained various items – sometimes a narrative purporting to come from the condemned or a brief essay on some topic related to crime that was thought appropriate.
- The final section, entitled ‘At the Place of Execution’, recounted the events at the hanging including reports of any escape attempts.
As a source of biographical detail about criminals they appear, despite the preaching or moralising tone, to be reasonably accurate and often add detail not found in the official records or the OBSP. However it should be remembered that of the many thousands of criminals who passed through the London courts it would appear less than 1200 individuals are recorded in the Ordinary’s Accounts mostly dating from the end of the 17th and the first 70 years of the 18th century. In theory one was published for each session of executions, but many have now been lost. Guildhall Library holds a significant run of these from 1687-1764 though with many large gaps which can be filled to a certain extent by those at the British and Bodleian Libraries. For a list of issues available at Guildhall Library search the catalogue under the title The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account.
The Old Bailey Online now has digital copies of all known Ordinary’s Accounts.
British Trials 1660-1900 (microfiche published by Chadwyck-Healey) gathers together the non-official printed reports of the trials of some three thousand defendants and plaintiffs in both criminal and civil cases from courts in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The types of crime recorded are those which the original publishers thought would sell the pamphlet or book. Most commonly these are concerned with serious criminal offences. Murder trials, particularly involving the famous or wealthy, were popular as were cases of cruelty, highway robbery, forgery, burglary and duelling. The series also includes civil trials particularly those relating to economic or political concerns or which were scandalous, often involving sexual impropriety. There are also cases involving libel and disputes over trade, wills and elections. Most of the 17th century Old Bailey Sessions Papers are reproduced here. The guide which accompanies the microfiche contains a full listing of each fiche and indexes to defendants, plaintiffs, victims, locations, subjects, dates, magistrates and place of publication.
The Newgate Calendar
The Newgate Calendar is not one publication but a number of different works with various titles generically called the Newgate Calendar. It takes its name from the original documents listing prisoners in Newgate called the Calendar which was invariably used as a ‘wrapper’ for the sessions files. The first publication to be known by this name was The Malefactor's register, or The Newgate and Tyburn calendar of 1780 which brought together narratives of the lives of many notorious criminals. This work was subsequently plundered over the next two hundred years and published in various forms most of which have 'Newgate Calendar' in the title. It should be remembered that only the more sensational crimes or famous criminals will be found in these works and care should be taken where facts are sacrificed for the benefit of a good story.
Select Trials etc.
A series of volumes given the generic title ‘Select Trials’ and published in the first half of the 18th century were the precursors of the Newgate calendar but often include lesser criminals. They also include details not found in the OBSP and would appear to be edited versions of these, Ordinary’s Accounts and other printed lives. They can be found on the catalogue at Guildhall Library under the title Select trials at the Sessions-House in the Old Bailey for murder, robberies, rape etc. One edition of this work is also included in British Trials described above.
The Criminal Registers are now available to search on Ancestry.co.uk 1791–1892 recording persons charged with indictable offences in England and Wales. Full information is provided: names, aliases, court, offence and sentence/acquittal. The early registers give a physical description, place of birth, place of committal, the crime, where and when tried and the sentence. The most important piece of information is the date and place of the trial. You may then search for the trial documents among the appropriate court records. Guildhall Library holds supplementary indexes on microfiche including executions, treasonists, rioters and machine breakers 1805-17. The Library also has indexes to Prisoners Pardoned (HO 13 – from 1782) and Criminal Lunatics (HO 20/13 - Bethlem Hospital and County Asylums, 1799-1843).
Newspapers have always been an excellent source for reports on criminal activities. The early London newspapers were limited in what they could report and often filled space with reports on crime and criminals. Guildhall Library has a collection of early London newspapers on microfilm and in hardcopy. The Library is also able to provide digital access to The Times from 1785 full text, as well as digital versions of 17th to 19th century newspapers all of which are full text and searchable by keyword.
- Linebaugh, Peter The London hanged; crime and civil society in the eighteenth century. 2nd edition, Verso 2003
- Cockburn, J. S. ed. Crime in England 1550-1800. Princeton University Press 1977
- Hawkings, David T. Criminal ancestors: a guide to historical criminal records in England and Wales. Alan Sutton 1992
- Beattie, J. M. Crime and the Courts in England 1660-1800. Princeton University Press 1986
- Gatrell, V.A.C. The Hanging tree; execution and the English people, 1770-1868. Oxford University Press 1994
- Sears, Matt Victorian Londoners. The author 2001