The Old Bailey is London’s primary criminal courthouse and has been for quite some time. Someone has done something rather extraordinary — compiled and made searchable on the internet records of every case the Bailey handled from 1674 to 1913. You can search by name, by crime, by sentence, by date. For instance, I found nine convictions for highway robbery in 1690, including this apparently utterly ordinary sort of report:
Francis Osborn, an Highwayman, was tryed for robbing one Mr. Hugh Wells, on the 9th of August, at Benbridge-Hill; about 8 Miles off in Hertfordshire, and taking from him a Stuff Coat, value 4 l. a Rapier with a Silver Hilt. value 40 s. and 10 s. in Mony. The Evidence was Mr. Wells, &c. who said, That 3 Men met him at Benbridge aforesaid, and knockt him off his Horse and stript him, and took away his Mony and Coat, and then rid away; but being pursued the Prisoner was found crept into a Hedge near Paddington, and being passed out and search’d 4 half Crowns were found about him; The Evidence swore positively. That he was the Man that robbed Mr. Wells, but the other two were got away. The Prisoner denyed it, and said, That he knew not the two Men that were with him, and run into the Hedg, being affrighted, at the Pursuit: But the evidence was very positive against him, yet the Court gave him Leave to call some of his Neighbours, who gave a favourable account of his former behaviour; so upon the whole Matter he was found Guilty.
Not much of an appeal to go on, really, but that wasn’t going to slow down the courts in 1690. Things moved a little bit faster then — Osborn was sentenced to death for his crime in what appears to have been a collective sentencing later that same day:
Tryals being over, the Court proceeded to give Sentence as followeth,
Burnt in the Hand 9: William Smith, Alexander Clark ,Grace Hedges, Richard Denham, John Williams, H – Z – , Mary with, Mary Davis and Trimmer Salesbury.
Ordered to be Transported 5: William Banister, Thomas Alien, Richard Faton, James Arden and Susannah Tyrrell.
Received Sentence of Death 11: Thomas Yarrold, John Daynter , M – Q – , Anne Yates, Mary Jones, G – W – , James Smith, Frances Osborne, Thomas Cox. Joan Brown, Anne Hereford alias Roberts. M – Q – ,
Anne Yates, Jean Brown and Anne Harsford, Pleading their Bellies, a Jury of Marrons were empanelled whose Verdict was, That Q – , Brown and Hereford were with Quick Child, but Yates was not.
Ordered to be Whipt 13: Frances Woolley, Anne Smith, Mary Spinke. Thomas Turner, Henry Hawkins, Barbara Pomfrett, Millisent Humberston, Mary Beard , Jane Pager Elizabeth Jones, Margaret Banett Elizabeth Wode, Joyce Fletcher.
The Notorious Murther that was lately committed upon the Body of a Strange Man, in White-Fryers, who was thrown into the Thomas, is now in discovered, and two of the Persons suspected viz. one Mitchel and Bowman are continued in Newgate to answer it at the next Sessions.
John Staples, who was lately committed to Newgate, by the Lord Chief Justice Holt, upon the Oath of Lydia C ny, for cheating her of three Pound five shilling in Mony, was discharged, no Evidence coming against him, but not without a caution from the Court, To beware for the future, &c.
For a law geek like me, this is really cool stuff. And in it are not only some of the roots of our common law but also a look into a part of history one rarely gets to see — the ordinary struggles and problems of ordinary, non-elite people, the doings of men who were not the illustrious masters of the law like Lord Coke or Blackstone; people who encountered nobles and other Persons Of Quality only rarely.
Modern criminal lawyers would look at this sort of record of proceedings, the sentence as compared to the crime, and the remarkable dispatch with which the court handled its work (note that 38 prisoners were convicted in one day, with no record of the acquittals, and all the convicted were given very serious punishments ranging from transportation to disfigurement to death) and be appalled. But when I put on the rosy glasses, I can see that the rule of law was in full force and effect. For instance, John Staples was released from prison despite Lord Chief Justice Holt’s apparent misgivings, because there was no evidence against him. So while the justice was a whole lot rougher back then than we’d tolerate today, the courts were meaningful institutions and the judges clearly did not believe themselves to be able to simply act as they pleased. There were rules and power had to be exercised according to those rules.