Beyond the Old Bailey Online: Archival Sources for Trials

We’re often asked how to find out more about defendants than is contained in the digitised Proceedings. This guest post by Chris Barnes explores some of the most significant related records (particularly from the late 18th century onwards) held by The National Archives, London.

On the 10th June 1840 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert took their customary early evening drive up Constitution Hill in an open carriage. The Queen was four months pregnant with their first child and was fond of taking the air. As the carriage made its way around Green Park a young man stepped forward and fired two pistols at the Queen, neither hitting Victoria. The man was immediately disarmed and put up no fight stating ‘It was I, it was me that did it’.

This man was named Edward Oxford. On the 9th July 1840, at the age of 18, he was put on trial for treason at the Old Bailey; he was eventually to be judged not guilty on the grounds of insanity and spent twenty seven years of his life at Her Majesty’s Pleasure in both Bedlam and Broadmoor. You can read the proceedings of Edward’s trial on Old Bailey Online but it is the records of the Central Criminal Court which are held at The National Archives that I will be presenting today. These records can really help to flesh out the story of any proceedings you find on The Old Bailey Online. Using Edward’s case I’m going to show you how you can navigate through the different sets of records that we hold at the archives to gain the whole story.

Before Trial

HO 16-7

The first sets of records are the pre-trial lists ‘Returns of Committals for Trial at the Old Bailey and Central Criminal Court’ in record series HO 16 and the ‘Newgate Prison Calendar’ in HO 77. The lists of prisoners awaiting trial at the Old Bailey in HO 16 are arranged by month and list those from ‘London’, Middlesex, Essex, Kent, Surrey and those facing trial at the High Court of Admiralty. They give the name, age, charge, verdict and sentence.

The lists in HO 77 are similar, but pre printed, and they also have the advantage of being indexed. These records are lovely to look at as the verdict and sentence are hand written in at a later date. The HO 77 volumes also give monthly summaries of sentences handed out and the crimes which were heard that month.

CRIM 4-143

The indictments (formal statements of the charge against the accused) for the Old Bailey are in record series CRIM 4. These are again arranged chronologically not only by year and month but also by whether the crime is a felony or a misdemeanour. These records are typically filthy bundles of parchment and great if you want to look at a stereotypical ‘record’. The details included on the indictments are usually sparse but you can get information on the names of jurors and sometimes, as in this instance, the indictment is annotated with a list of witnesses.

For serious cases (including murder, treason and sedition) you may also find a set of depositions (testimony of witnesses
taken before trial) in record series CRIM 1. These records are name searchable on Discovery, our catalogue, so a quick check will reveal if any depositions survive which they do in this case in CRIM 1/1/15. The depositions include witness statements and affidavits which were produced prior to the trial and you may find details of some evidence or witnesses which were not presented to the court. Looking at these records may, therefore, reveal details of interest not found in the proceedings on Old Bailey Online.

CRIM 1-1-15

In this instance, for example, there is the sworn evidence of Lord Colchester who witnessed the attack on Constitution Hill but who was not called to testify in court. There are also affidavits produced by Mr Pelham, acting as attorney for the defence, who produced the text of a speech by the infamous Irish MP Daniel O’Connell which Pelham claimed would prejudice the mind of the jury against Oxford.

Similarly if the case was of some repute you may find either a Home Office (HO) or Metropolitan Police (MEPO) case file on any investigation undertaken prior to the trial. Edward later asserted that the pistols did not contain any bullets, only powder, and that the ‘assassination attempt’ had been nothing more than an attempt at notoriety. This may have gone some way to explain why neither the Queen nor Prince Albert was hit. Again a keyword search in Discovery returns a result for Metropolitan Police file MEPO 3/17  which includes a great deal of correspondence into the details of the criminal investigation, including the search for the elusive ‘missing bullets’.

After Trial

Of course, conviction does not mean the end of our quest for records. There are several series of registers, or calendars of prisoners, which confirm the sentences handed out by the court. The most easily accessible of these are the criminal registers in HO 26 or HO 27 which have been digitised by the website Ancestry. However, these records will not usually give you any further details than you will already have discovered in the proceedings.

Also, we must remember that those in prison do usually get released at some point. We have two sets of important records relating to those in prison seeking the revocation or reduction, or a remittance of a portion, of their sentences.

These records can be found in HO 17 or HO 18 (depending on the date of the petition) which is accessed via a chronological index in HO 19, available in hard copy at The National Archives. There is a bit of trial and error when searching for a petition as an application could be made at any point during the sentence. The index in HO 19/9 shows an entry for Edward Oxford dated 15th July 1840. You would use the date, along with a number code found in the index, to find the petition itself in the correct volume of HO 17 or HO 18.

HO 12-42-10963

HO 12/42/10963

In this case, the petition itself would usually have be found in HO 18/27 however as Edward’s was a case which generated lots of correspondence the petition has been extracted and can now be found in the papers of the Criminal Department of the Home Office in HO 12/42/10963.

If Edward had been held in a regular prison (instead of at Bedlam and Broadmoor) you may find a record of an early release amongst the records of prisoners released on license. These records are in series PCOM 3, which can be name searched from 1853-1863, otherwise available via a chronological index in series PCOM 6.

You will not find a record for Edward in this series of licences as he was eventually discharged under the opinion of the Doctors of Broadmoor that he was of a sound mind. Details of the deliberations surrounding Edward’s release can be found in the file HO 12/42/10963.

Edward was eventually released in October 1867 whereupon passage was found for him on the ship Suffolk departing London on the 20th November 1867. The Suffolk would take him to Melbourne where Edward lived out the remained of his days in peace under an assumed name.

The details relating to all the record series I have mentioned are described in some detail in our research guides Trials in the Old Bailey and the Central Criminal Court and Criminals and convicts.

If you feel inspired to make a visit to The National Archives to research a Criminal Ancestor please do read our Visit Us page specifically for details of our opening times and the identification requirements to obtain a Reader’s Ticket.

Chris Barnes has worked at The National Archives for over three years and is a Modern Domestic records specialist. He has an interest in a variety of topics including crime, disease and local politics.

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2 Responses to Beyond the Old Bailey Online: Archival Sources for Trials

  1. Thanks, Chris. What an outstandingly useful post! I’m a huge supporter of the OBO and the many other great digital resources out there now, but I’m always a bit worried that many researchers forget that there is these online texts are only the tip of the icebergs. I’m eternally grateful to archivists like yourself who seek to open up this wider world of records to people who might be interested in going further but aren’t sure how to get started.

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