Monday, 23 February 2015

Old Bailey records

Proceedings at the Old Bailey, 1809
Yesterday, I was Googling nineteenth century London bookbinders when I came across a witness statement by one at the Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court of England and Wales). Although the item from 1857 had very little to interest me, I could not resist exploring further. I remember walking by the Old Bailey many times when I was a kid and it would always bring back flashes of memories of crime novels, TV shows and movies.

Abandoning my thoughts about bookbinders, and being a numismatist I became curious about incidents of uttering counterfeit coin. There were quite a few for that year and a guilty verdict brought about months or years of "penal servitude". The sentences for actually forging coins got much longer sentences, but going back to the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the risk was being sentenced to death for high treason. Curiously though, at that same time, many sentences of merely uttering false coin would be punished only with a fine. I found records of how money was forged and how it was detected (often by bending the coin in the teeth).

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, what we now call a mugging would often get the death penalty if a weapon was involved, but burglary could often mean transportation, at first to America, and then (after the American Revolution) to Australia. There were also other sentences we do not see today in England such as whipping or branding.

Apart from the sensational, I became quite interested in the language used in these records. I even found a coinage term that I had never heard before: "a seven shilling piece" and it took me a second or so to realize that we now commonly call that George III gold coin a third guinea. If I ever write a novel set in the early nineteenth century, I plan to have some character order a "half quarten of gin" at the local inn(1/8th pint).

If you are conducting historical research, or just want to gain more verisimilitude in your novel, don't neglect these records. If you are just curious, I'm sure you will find much to entertain. Visit


  1. Fascinating records, John! I shall be stuck for hours reading them. Interestingly, the site also offers the original document to peruse, as well as the updated text. Good stuff...makes me think sometimes the internet hides a bit of gold here and there among the massive amounts of sewage it normally emits. Thanks for a bit of gold!

    1. Thank you, James, I am pleased to hear that someone found these records as fascinating as I did. I agree completely about such "internet gold" and I am always pleased to share such discoveries!