Tales from The Old Bailey: Writing A New History from below
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Reviewed by
Tales from the Old Bailey: Writing a New History from Below, University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, 050607 2004

The Old Bailey Proceedings On-Line project has been a phenomenal success. In posting nearly 100,000 criminal trials to the web, organizers Bob Shoemaker and Tim Hitchcock have opened up the daily struggles of the London poor in the long eighteenth century to a wider public than ever before. And given the popular nature of both the resource and its audience, it is fitting perhaps that its first conference should take as a sub-theme the practice of writing a 'new' history from below. Primepumping the proposition that 'new' might be qualitatively different from old, a second sub-theme privileged 'tales' over dialectics, and an interest in the representational strategies of protagonists at law coloured several contributions. There has, of course, been something of a revolution in history from below in recent years, instigated less by academic conferences than by legions of enthusiastic amateurs in pursuit of a plebeian ancestry. Although barely mentioned at Hatfield, this will undoubtedly be the website's largest user group, and its effect upon their practice may be profound. But let's not presume accessibility will make crafting a new history any easier for the rest of us. Dissonant plebeian voices may yet produce little more than a cacophony of anecdotes, and extrapolating collective experience from so much individual evidence is fraught with difficulty, particularly when, as Dana Rabin pointed out, the power of speech was mediated by the gate-keeping of an often hostile institutional framework.

Detailed, voluminous and richly layered they may be, but as transcripts of actual trials, the Proceedings are often frustratingly incomplete. Several contributors urged caution against drawing ill-considered conclusions from too much 'random pillaging' (as Nick Rogers put it) with keyword searches. The Proceedings should be read in association with non-digitized gaol registers, contemporary newspaper and periodical reports, the prison Ordinary's Accountand popular publications like the Newgate Calendar. Moreover, as Jennine Hurl-Eamon emphasized, trial transcripts are, at best, 'representations, not voices from the past'. Nevertheless, the potential of the digital Proceedings for the crafting of new master narratives about the Hanoverian 'bloody code' is enormous. Heather Shore and Vic Gatrell both looked forward to some revision of traditional understandings of criminology that chart progress between titillating interest in 'incorrigible rogues' to abject fear of a 'criminal class'. Pete King, on London's Irish community, Nick Rogers, on the retrieval of maritime history, and Simon Devereaux, who contrasted the text of the Proceedings with trial reporting in the London press, all offered useful working papers on how to slip creatively between digital and non-digital sources. Given the complex and detailed literary nature of the Proceedings, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of the case studies showcased here were concerned less with attempts to quantify unequal power relations at Law than with broader qualities of plebeian social experience. [End Page 282]

Whatever one's misgivings about keyword searching, it has clearly increased the practicality of recovering the lives of plebeian prostitutes like Mary Clayton's Charlotte 'the harlot' Walker (twelve prosecutions in twentythree years), or the experience of non English-speaking defendants (Susan Ballyn and Lucy Frost's paper). Moreover, as Jennine Hurl-Eamon and Meg Arnot's papers showed, it permits readings against the grain of the Proceedings, offering opportunities to subvert the ordering imposed by jurisprudence. By searching for female defendants, prosecutors or witnesses who were married to soldiers and sailors, Hurl-Eamon built a compelling and sympathetic picture of conjugal fidelity amongst a class of people often pejoratively represented as promiscuous. Arnot found evidence for popular scepticism about medical expertise in cases of infanticide; Mark Jenner tracked the cultural use of the public privy as a plebeian space in London life; and Anne Wohlke searched for and found thirty-three cases in which Fairs had formed a social context for crime. It was not the dynamics of the law itself that informed these papers, but the access it afforded to plebeian mentalités.

But any proposal for making a new history from below must also take account of...