A few weeks ago, I started writing about Newgate Prison and promised a follow-up to the experiences of anyone unlucky enough to be incarcerated and facing trial in the 18th and early 19th century. I think it can be summed up as: to be avoided at all costs!
The original Session House, which was located next to Newgate Prison and connected to the prison by way of a connecting tunnel, was built in the early 17th century and underwent extensive renovations and rebuilding following the Gordon Riots (the same riots that destroyed Newgate Prison). It was retired as an active court in 1920 and currently serves as a conference centre.
In 1793, one observer, Mr. Pennant wrote of the rebuilt building:
- The Sessions House, in which criminals of the county of Middlsex, and the whole capital, are tried, is a very elegant building, erected within these few years. The entrance into the area is narrow, to prevent a sudden ingress of mob. Above is the figure of Justice.
So, what did a typical trial at the Session House involve exactly? This account from 1727 is very detailed and lays out the typical course of a court session during the Georgian period. There were changes, as legal expectations and practice changed, but on the whole, this description would ring familiar for anyone from the period, whether they were at the bar, testifying, watching as a spectator, serving as a jury member or standing in the dock.
- [The] Sessions is kept Nine or Ten times every Year, at Justice Hall, commonly called the Sessions House ; as well for the City and Liberty hereof, as for the County of Middlesex. This Justice Hall is a fair and stately building, very commodious for that affair, having large Galleries on both sides or ends, for the reception of Spectators. The Court Room being advanced by Stone Steps from the Ground, with Rails and Banisters inclosed from the yard before it. And the Bail Dock, which fronts the Court, where the Prisoners are kept until brought to their Trials, is also inclosed. Over the Court Eoom is a stately Dining Room, sustained by ten Stone Pillars; and over it a Platform leaded, with Rails and Banisters. There be fair Lodging Rooms and other Conveniences, on either side of the Court. It standeth backwards, so that it hath no Front towards the Street, only the Gateway leading into the yard before the House, which is spacious. It cost above £6000 the building.
- And, in this place the Lord Mayor, Recorder, the Aldermen and Justices of the Peace for the County of Middlesex do sit, and keep his Majesty’s Sessions of Oyer and Terminer, for the Trial of all Malefactors, for Treason, Murder, Felonies, Burglaries, and all other Riots and offences, committed within the City of London, and County of Middlesex.
- This Court, or Sessions, is holden, most commonly, some Days before, and after, every one of the four Terms ; also, once in the time of Lent, and once in the Long Vacation, about Bartholomewtide.
- Upon those days which the Sessions are held, which commonly lasts three Days, every morning before the Court sits, the Prisoners to be tried are brought from Newgate to this Place ; where there are two places provided for them to be kept in, until they are called to their trials : the one is for the Men, the other for the Women. And, at Night, when the Court breaks up, or adjourns to another Day, the Prisoners are returned back to Newgate under the conduct of the Sergeants and their Yeomen, who are the Sheriff’s Officers, and take their turns to attend the Court for that purpose.
- The Lord Mayor is Chief Judge of this Court, but assisted by the Recorder of the City ; and, of times the Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench and some other of the Judges upon matters of High Treason.
Handsome though the building might have been, there were significant differences between a modern trial and a period trial. The notion of swift justice was very different from our own. The accused could linger for up to three months before their case was heard, because of the practice of holding criminal trials during on a roughly quarterly basis was the norm at the time.
Yet given that there were more than 250!! crimes for which hanging was the punishment, the typical trail lasted less than eight minutes and the defendant was not permitted to speak in his or her defense. They could call character witnesses during the sentencing and their barrister (the lawyer who argued in court, as opposed to a solicitor, who solicited clients and wrote contracts) could cross-examine witnesses and offer witnesses in the accused’s defense. Otherwise, appeals were almost non-existent and capital offenses, unless pardoned by the Sovereign during a Council Session, were carried out with startling swiftness.
Both court trials and executions, especially of notorious criminals, fascinated the public (shades of O.J. Simpson) and their experiences were often published in sensationalistic pamphlets or Calendars of ‘notorious offenders’ like this one and this one.
Less sensational but perhaps even more interesting is the fact that the Proceedings of the Old Bailey from 1674 until 1913 are now online. They aren’t transcripts as we know them, and they were selective in the trials they published and recorded, but they offer a fascinating insight into the legal and social culture of the era.