The Old Bailey was the central criminal court in London, England. The court’s records shouldn’t be overlooked as you search for British ancestors even though you may think they weren’t criminals. True, the court was based in London and was the highest court in England, but you may be surprised at what you can find, even if the person is not the accused but gives testimony during the trial. For example, if you are related to William Spendelow, who lived in London in January 1794, you may want to read about his trial and conviction for bigamy. The witnesses who were called include Joseph Green, Margaret May and James Miller.
The Old Bailey Proceedings Online is a fully searchable “edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing 197,745 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court.” Not only are the original records transcribed, but in many cases the original copy of the court record is linked.
The site contains a sister publication, Ordinary of Newgate’s Accounts: Biographies of Executed Criminals, 1676-1772. This section includes all surviving accounts relating to convicts tried at regular sessions, published under the name of the Ordinary of Newgate. It records the lives, attitudes, and dying behavior of executed convicts.
Two other items on the site that you may find interesting are:
- A glossary, which is an alphabetical list of judicial and historical terms mentioned in the records of the Old Bailey. For instance, when I think of the term “noble” I visualize a person from a wealthy family. In the glossary, the term “noble” is defined as a “unit of currency worth 6 shillings 8 pence.”
- The Old Bailey Community Wiki, which is in its early stages. The wiki is looking for help in creating pages for biographical information about a person or family mentioned in the court records, teaching aspects for students in school or university, and historical background.
Try searching for your British ancestors in the Old Bailey Online site. They may be witnesses and not defendants. You can select a case—any case—to read. The details are fascinating and can give you insight into the lives of English people.