London’s Old Bailey criminal court puts archive online

>LONDON (AP) – In the scales of justice in 19th-century London, the theft of two coats, two pairs of trousers, two waistcoats, a handkerchief, a pair of gloves and a notebook equaled one life.

John Alberson was 13 years old when he appeared in the dock at the Old Bailey criminal court in January 1835, and was sentenced to death.

Alberson’s voice is heard very briefly: “Did not the prosecutor say he would not hurt me, if I said where the clothes were?” The prosecutor denied any promise.

That’s one brief life, one tragic tale among records of 100,000 criminal cases which became available Monday on a searchable Web site.

That brings the total number of cases at to nearly 200,000 from 1674 to 1913.

New additions include notes of the trial of the notorious wife-killer Hawley Harvey Crippen in 1910; the destitute Emma Elizabeth Ashton who killed her sons aged 18 months and 4 months in 1880; the suffragette Emily Davison who attacked a post box in 1912; and the trial in 1905 of Marion Seddon, who was sentenced to death after surviving a suicide pact with her husband. The jury urged mercy.

The Old Bailey Proceedings Online site is a project of the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield.

The project director, professor Robert Shoemaker, head of the history department at the University of Sheffield, calls it “the largest body of published material about the lives of ordinary people ever.”

The earliest records in the database are quasi-journalistic reports, but Shoemaker said the City of London gradually exerted control and made the reports more official.

The records are not extensive. The account of Alberson’s trial runs just a few pages, with brief summaries of the testimony.

“It’s the witness statements that are usually most thoroughly reported because those were deemed to be of the most interest to readers,” Shoemaker said in an interview.

The project, which put its first records online in 2003, has cost about $2.2 million, Shoemaker said.

Scholars can use the database to track trends in criminal law and justice, details of ordinary life and changes in the spoken language, he said.

Or it can just reward idle curiosity.

Shoemaker said he had searched the site for the earliest reference to “pajamas,” and found it in 1895 in a reference to a person “described as having an American sort of voice and having a suit of pajamas.”

The new Central Criminal Court, commonly called the Old Bailey, was built in 1907 on the site of Newgate Prison, which was demolished five years earlier.