Proceedings of the Old Bailey
Oldbaileyonline.org is a rich playground for those interested in resources about love, romance, marriage, and gender roles. Since its launch in 2003, this website remains a unique port of call for a broad community of historians. Academics, genealogists, and the naturally curious flock to this site for its capacity to mine hundreds of years of history at London’s central criminal court, the Old Bailey.
The Proceedings of the Old Bailey was essentially a serial publication offering accounts of many of the cases that came before the Old Bailey between 1674 and 1913. There can be little doubt that the novelists of the age took some inspiration from its pages, as it reached a wide readership. As a criminal court, the Old Bailey saw the harsher elements of life and thus the Proceedings sheds far more light on the tragic side of romance. Its pages contain far more on jealousy, abuse, and rape than on fidelity and the joys of companionship. Corbet Vezey’s murder trial is a dramatic tale of adultery, intrigue, and domestic violence that illustrates the disadvantageous position of wives in 18th-century society. Alternatively, the assault complaint by Maria Astill against Jacob French in 1859 reveals the complex dynamic between a 17-year-old girl and a married man of “excellent character,” who find themselves alone together in a third-class rail car.
Though these are dark tales, it is not impossible to catch glimpses of happy conjugality in other cases. For example, a theft case in 1756 contains a witness statement by an elderly woman named Hannah Tindal. In the course of her testimony about the crime, she inadvertently reveals her love for her husband, an ailing soldier, who rested his head on her shoulder as they ate their supper.
Those interested in capturing more than a fleeting snapshot of love in the 18th century would be best served by a search of particular crimes. This can be accomplished using the “Search Home” option in the left margin and choosing from specific categories in the scroll-down box labeled “Offence.” Those within the broader categories of “Killing” and “Sexual Offences” are especially likely to yield relevant material. A simple keyword search of “love/loving/lovingly,” “sweetheart,” “courting/courtship,” “buss” (another term for “kiss” in use before the 1770s), “kiss,” “embrace/imbrace” can be conducted either within these offence categories or with no limiters whatsoever. Also, consider shifting the “Search In” category to “trial accounts,” or the results will include advertisements of novel titles on sale at the time. However, this limiter will exclude the Ordinary’s Accounts, a companion publication to the Proceedings, so serious researchers will want to take the extra time to trawl through results that include it.
The greatest value of this site for those interested in historical romance is in the plebeian nature of its content. Nowhere else are the ranks of the poorest classes represented to such a degree. Though filtered through the authors and editors of the Proceedings, the words of pauper plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses have been largely preserved. Though the precision of the transcription is sometimes in doubt, the speech patterns and emotions undoubtedly reflected reality.
Jennine Hurl-Eamon is an Associate Professor of History at Trent University, Canada. She is the author of several articles and three books, including Marriage and the British Army in the Long Eighteenth Century: 'The Girl I Left Behind Me', published by Oxford University Press in 2014. Find out more about Jennine Hurl-Eamon.