The Old Bailey Online website, which details nearly 200,000 criminal trials held at the Old Bailey in London, marks its tenth anniversary this weekend. Yesterday, I published a case study taken from it – the tale of the Winchcombe highwayman.
This case shows how the site can be useful not just for people researching London crimes and criminals, but for those looking at those in other geographical areas. The site has so much scope for looking at patterns of migration – how many defendants were servants who had travelled to London from more rural areas in search of work, for example? How many criminals went to London to commit crime, hoping that they could be anonymous in the metropolis when they couldn’t in their own small communities?
I hope to be able to look in more depth at Cotswold connections in the Old Bailey Online records at some point in the future (the database klaxon is blaring as I write), but that will take a bit of time. So in the meantime, I had a quick look at how Gloucestershire is represented in trials between 1750 and 1800.
The county is mentioned in nine separate cases – one of infanticide, six of grand larceny, one of theft under the value of a shilling, and one of bigamy. Two of the cases (both grand larceny) each involves two defendants.
In the infanticide case, from 1755, the defendant is a servant, Frances Palser, who was born at Wotton-under-Edge. She is stated to have moved to London from Gloucestershire 18 months prior to her trial. Witnesses who knew her as a child in Gloucestershire testify to her good character, and she is found not guilty.
The other female defendant who was born in Gloucestershire is Elizabeth Aspinal, charged with grand larceny in 1758 after being accused of trying to sell a silver tankard. Elizabeth, it appears, still lives in Gloucestershire, but after the death of her father, had travelled to London to try and sell some of his possessions – including the tankard, which she says friends told her to break into pieces in order to make it harder to steal en route. Elizabeth’s story shows a suspicion and fear of highwaymen and thieves outside of the county, and particularly on the journey to the capital. Elizabeth was believed, and found not guilty of theft.
In a further case, from 1759, Sarah Pittfield, a widow, is charged with stealing clothes belonging to a soldier – an opportunistic crime. We are told that she “came from Gloucestershire”, but it is unclear whether she lives there, and is just visiting London, or whether she has moved permanently. She is found guilty of grand larceny and transported.
The case of Martha Tame and Ann Kendall, from 1759, shows how women could meet in Gloucestershire and then maintain that relationship later, in London. Ann Kendall was a butcher’s wife living in Cheltenham. She also had her own job running a puppet-show. Martha Tame had travelled down to Cheltenham from an unknown destination, presumably in search of work in service, and met Ann. The two women became friends, and later both worked as servants for the same master in London. When they were caught, they were sleeping in the same bed in lodgings. When both were accused of stealing from him, friends spoke of Martha’s good reputation and Ann’s poor one – Martha was found not guilty, whereas Ann was transported.
In one case of theft, Thomas Fryer claims that all his friends live in Gloucestershire, and that he has no friends in London, implying that he is a recent migrant to the city (unless he is, of course, attempting to protect friends locally by denying all knowledge of them!). In another, the trial is told that a witness “is gone down to Gloucestershire” and can’t be contacted.
One grand larceny case sheds light on the working lives of Gloucestershire men. A predominantly rural county, in the eighteenth century, the majority of men outside of the main towns of Cheltenham and Gloucester would have been involved in agricultural work. This had peaks and troughs, and travelling round in search of work was sometimes necessary. In tis case from 1786, two Gloucestershire men, John Langford and James Ireland, had travelled to London in July in search of harvest work – haymaking. They had gone drinking in a pub, the Red Lion at Stanmore, Ireland, an agricultural labourer from Whittendon, admitting he had “come up to make the best of my time to work”.
Something happened between the two countrymen, and Langford was accused of stealing clothes from Ireland. He was found guilty and sentenced to be publicly whipped at Stanmore.
The last case, of bigamy, went to trial at the Old Bailey in May 1800, but involved events over the previous 35 years. William Beard had married his wife at Hanover Square, London, in 1791. At his trial, however, a native of Badgworth in Gloucestershire came forward with the information that Beard had married another woman back in 1765, in the Gloucestershire village. Witnesses spoke of having seen this first wife as recently as 1798. Beard admitted the facts, but stated that as he and his first wife had decided to part, the second woman was legally his wife.
This shows the beliefs of some members of society that if they had equably decided to part with their spouse, that this was pretty much the same as a legal separation – the marriage was at an end – and was therefore no obstacle to a remarriage. Beard may also have felt, however, that nobody in London could possibly come to hear about his earlier marriage, which had taken place miles away. But witnesses could be found who would travel to the Old Bailey and give evidence against him. William Beard was found guilty of bigamy and transported for seven years.
These cases show that a variety of Gloucestershire folk were involved in Old Bailey trials, as prosecutors, defendants, and witnesses. Gloucestershire origins could be an excuse for naive behaviour, for honesty and good character, or simply for innocence. But taken on its own, this argument would not necessarily be believed; witness statements were important, and the type of crime involved might have an impact on how a person was perceived. A widow stealing from a soldier in a pub was seen as beyond the pale; a young servant from the country, with a good reputation, would escape a conviction for infanticide (a crime that some were unwilling to convict girls for, in any case).
But the cases also show that there were strong communication links between Gloucestershire and London even in the eighteenth century. Witnesses could be called from the country to give evidence or character statements at the Old Bailey – and even to remember events from nearly half a century earlier.