My work experience with Layers of London

by Harry Taylor

Reaching the end of my placement with Layers of London it is time to reflect on the experience. My brief was to use the Old Bailey Online database to map historic crime in the capital. For ease of use and to stop the project getting out of control I chose to focus on my local Deptford / Greenwich / Woolwich area. Given their diverse nature, these areas have a lot of potential for interesting findings.

Old Bailey Online logo

Historically dominated by the docks and barracks they have always had a wide variety of people, predominately working class but also including very well-to-do areas around Blackheath and what is now termed Historic Greenwich and elsewhere. The presence of the navy pensioners, for example, is felt throughout the period covered by the proceedings with these men being perpetrators, victims and eyewitnesses to all sorts of crimes. Furthermore, the Hospital provided a clear local landmark that has made my job a lot easier and centred many of the proceedings.

After narrowing down the search area geographically the next step to make the results more manageable was to refine by specific crimes. I chose to start with death related crimes before moving on to others. This decision was motivated partly by the headline-grabbing nature of these crimes but also by the fact that they tend to offer distinct and identifiable locations that can then be more easily plotted on the map. Results are returned chronologically and so it was simply a case of trawling through the tens, sometimes hundreds, of results for each search. Each case had to be read through in order to work out whether it fell in my area (many only appeared because one of the witnesses happened to live in the area) and then see if the scene of the crime was sufficiently identifiable to be put on the map. The vast majority of cases did not meet these criteria and so could not be used.

Even if the proceedings did include enough information there was then the task of locating it on the modern map. As this area of South East London changed so dramatically over the period covered by the database (1674-1913) it was often difficult to pinpoint the exact modern location. Naturally, of course, this became easier as the cases got more modern but even then, the tendency of roads to change name or be removed and redeveloped added an extra complexity to the placement. Helpful in getting around this are the lists of old to new road names compiled online by some local London historians.

Greenwood map of Deptford from the 19th century

Often the most effective method was to use the layers function on the Layers of London website to overlay historic street maps. The OS maps were by far the best for this due to their accuracy and detail. On more than one occasion I found myself painstakingly going over every grid square in the broadly defined area of ‘West Woolwich’ or ‘North Lewisham’ hoping to spot the street I was looking for – or worse estimating where exactly ‘one hundred yards from the elm tree on the High Street’ is. Add to this the inconsistent spellings used in the proceedings and plotting locations suddenly became quite time consuming. However, the variety of sources available meant that there was only one case that was impossible to locate, with the others eventually turning up plausible spots.

Although the cases are diverse there are some general observations that can be drawn. Many of the trials are illustrative of broader trends in society, as would be expected from the proceedings of London’s most important court. For instance, I noticed a trend in the mid nineteenth century for cases in which a ship’s captain was charged with manslaughter after his ship crashed into another and caused a death. In almost all of these cases, however, the captain was acquitted. The reasons for this are not clear. It could simply be that juries did not think these men were at fault, but it seems unlikely that this was always the case and furthermore if a captain was not realistically going to be found guilty then there would be little logic in having a trial in the first place. More likely is that, although there was some fault in many of these cases, injury and death was common on the busy river, particularly on its bends, and so it was hard to establish fault and there was a reticence to convict the socially superior captains for the deaths of young deckhands.

On top of this, the consistent number of domestic violence cases is striking. Often these involved a married or cohabiting couple, but they also brought in other family members, including children. In many cases, a fatal outcome was something of an accident. For instance, in the trial of Matthew Blake, who pushed over his relative, Richard Walsh, outside The Golden Anchor. Walsh hit his head on the pavement causing fatal internal injuries. In other cases, though, murder seemed to be more premeditated and speaks to a period in which much of London was ridden with social problems. Indeed, it is probable that some of the ‘accidental’ cases involved more intent than it first appears, particularly in those cases that describe a longer history of violence and abuse.

Chief among the problems provoking outrage in Victorian society was the epidemic of drunkenness. The Golden Anchor is just one of a huge number of pubs that appear in the proceedings. Indeed, public houses feature in almost every one of the cases in one way or another. To a large extent this is simply due to their social role a meeting places, but it is inescapable that the pubs of London were venues for regular heavy drinking and therefore naturally become volatile. In an era before modern understanding of mental health problems, it is hard to establish whether or to what extent alcoholism was a symptom, cause or unrelated factor in crimes where it is mentioned. Some insight on this is given in later cases when doctors were invited to give psychological assessments of the defendants. These resulted in many defendants being found guilty with diminished responsibility or recommendation for mercy and therefore sentenced to custodial sentences rather than death. However, in other cases the judge would ignore the recommendation for mercy and still give the death sentence. Thus, although there was some awareness that people might struggle with poor mental health, this did not always have a bearing on how they were treated by the law and the approach of doctors and lawyers used language that would be deeply troubling today. It also appears that judges were more likely to be lenient when sentencing men, citing ‘provocation’ as an extenuating circumstance.

Example of a record from the Old Bailey Online

Furthermore, the general impression is of a relatively violent society where fighting and domestic violence were common occurrences. Reading criminal proceedings would naturally give that impression but deeper consideration of the contents of the proceedings suggests that this is not a groundless impression. Not only do these cases of accidental death demonstrate that brawling was common but the tendency for rioting is also pronounced. Whilst reading riot cases a few major incidents came to light. The most interesting of these was a case in 1839 in which the attempts of two policemen to arrest a soldier escalated into a full riot in the middle of Greenwich with perhaps over a hundred soldiers attacking the police before being dispersed. This violence between two uniformed services is surprising but only one of a number of cases where off duty soldiers caused disorder in the local area. The strong anti-police feeling among the rioters also demonstrates the unpopularity of this new force in society. Antagonism towards the police is visible in other cases that I looked at but generally as the period progressed the police gradually became a more accepted and respected feature, though they continued to be the subjects of discontent.

The database is on the whole very easy to use and navigate, with the results being returned logically and all the information available on a single page. There are a few pitfalls to avoid, though most of them will be familiar to any user of a database like this. Spelling is a particular issue to be aware of. As with anything transcribed from original documents of variable quality, it is not uncommon for the version of the case that appears on the website to contain small errors where the original has been misread. These are generally easy to spot though and can be resolved by cross-checking with the original, which is helpfully supplied in facsimile form, where it is straightforward to work out the original spelling. The greater problem comes when the original is incorrect. The guidance on the website explains that this is because the proceedings are different from verbatim transcripts and so are liable to spell words as they sound rather than as they are spelt. This presented an obstacle in trying to find the locations of crimes as some more obscure street names were spelt wrong and so guesses had to be made based on personal local knowledge and phonetics. Other than spelling the main struggle is the perpetual one of having to get used to archaic meanings for certain words or trying to decipher long dead turns of phrase. The fact that trials proceeded to a formula, with police giving evidence first, doctors giving evidence last and everyone else in a set order in between, makes it much easier to read large numbers of cases than it might otherwise be. For example, when looking for a location the addresses of witnesses often provide strong clues and will be found towards the top of the trial when family gave evidence.

Exploring an area's past through the crimes that took place there gave me a new insight into London's history and the day to day life in the city. Using this database, historic map layers and other sources paints a rich picture of this always changing part of Southeast London.