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Response to Review no. 897

We would like to thank Dr Gray for his very generous review. In this brief response, we address the thoughtful comments Dr Gray makes at the end of his piece, and suggest that the forthcoming launch of the London Lives, 1690–1800 website in May 2010 will address some of his concerns. Before we do so, we would like to acknowledge the invaluable work of the former Higher Education Digitisation Service (at Hertfordshire) in carrying out the digitization of the enormous body of text in the Proceedings, and of the Humanities Research Institute (at Sheffield) in developing the sophisticated search engine which runs the website.

Dr Gray identifies three potential problems arising from the ease of access to the Old Bailey Proceedings created by their digitization. First, he notes that ‘the Proceedings do not contain all of the trials that took place at the Old Bailey between 1674 and 1913’. This is certainly true, but this limitation should not be exaggerated. It is only in the period up to 1714 that a significant proportion (a third) of the editions of the Proceedings have been lost. For the remainder of the period, all editions survive. With the exception of Admiralty trials only coincidentally held in the same building, the Proceedings include every trial, and increasingly come to act as an official record of cases heard at the Old Bailey. A greater problem, as Dr Gray notes, is that, despite appearances, the published accounts do not offer verbatim transcripts, though he acknowledges that the website clearly draws users’ attention to this fact.

Second, he worries that overuse of the Proceedings will lead to the neglect of other sources, creating a misleading understanding of the history of crime (and other topics).  This is a concern we share, and which motivated us to create the ‘Associated Records’ feature he describes in his review. This resource on the Old Bailey Online points users to other, mostly non-digitised, sources held in libraries and archives which relate to trials held at the Old Bailey. Regrettably, and because of funding limitations, this resource only covers the period from 1674 to 1834. Dr Gray is also right to point out that the Proceedings are dominated by capital offences, raising the possibility that the study of lesser crimes (which were more numerous and arguably therefore more important) could be neglected. We have begun to address this problem through the London Lives website, which, among a wide range of primary sources on poor relief, medical care, and criminal justice, will contain the records of Bridewell, the house of correction for the City of London. These document the experience of large numbers of men and women accused of vagrancy, petty theft, and prostitution.  London Lives will also include the manuscript sessions papers for the City, Middlesex, and Westminster, encompassing a wide range of additional sources concerning the prosecution of petty crime. Although we have not been able to include the remaining records of Quarter Sessions, where trials for misdemeanors were held, or the records of the Mansion House and Guildhall petty sessions, London Lives will present a much broader picture of crime than can be found in the Proceedings, and allow users to read criminal justice records in conjunction with related materials in parochial and other archives. One of the advantages of digitization is that connections between sources, so often lost in the journey from one archive to another, can be linked in hyperspace, allowing scholars to make new connections and to read sources in a wider context.

Finally, Dr Gray expresses a more general concern that the ease of access to digital sources will devalue those which have not been digitized, and possibly prevent scholars from accessing original documents. We share this concern, but feel that it suggests the pressing need for new policies, both to protect access where necessary to original documents, and to increase investment in the creation of online resources, rather a reason to turn our backs on the process. A useful parallel is the much older practice of creating printed editions of manuscript sources, such as the Diary of Samuel Pepys.(1) The publication of Robert Latham and William Matthews’ magisterial 11-volume edition of this diary no doubt discouraged scholars from looking at the original manuscripts, and funneled scholarly attention towards this single diary at the expense of the numerous others available for the period. To some extent this was unfortunate, but few would argue that this edition of the Pepys’ diary should have been strangled at birth. Not only did the printed edition allow an infinitely greater number of scholars and students to have access to this complex source (written in shorthand), but it threw a new scholarly light on to a uniquely rich diary. No other early modern diary provides such detailed evidence on the mental state of its author, and on the life and times in which he lived. The richly detailed witness testimonies in the Proceedings similarly provide unparalleled evidence not only of the history of crime, but of daily life in 18th- and 19nth-century London. There is a reason that this was the first criminal justice source to be digitized, but clearly it should not, and will not, be the last.


  1. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Robert Latham and William Matthews (11 vols., London, 1970–83)Back to (1)