Friday, March 01, 2013

Regency Justice

I’ve just completed the edits for Beguiling the Barrister, the second in my  Forsters series. The hero is a barrister struggling to make a living by defending common people, who often couldn’t pay him, against the draconian laws of the day. I’m learning quite a lot about the British legal system during the Regency period and about that grand old institution, The Old Bailey, in particular.

The Old Bailey, also known as Justice Hall, the sessions House and the Central Criminal Court is located just off Newgate Street and next to Newgate Prison in the City of London. The Bailey was rebuilt several times from 1674 onwards but the basic design of the courtrooms remained the same. They were arranged so as to emphasise the contest between the accused and the rest of the court. The accused stood at the bar, or in the dock, directly facing the witness box, with the judges seated on the other side of the room. Before the introduction of gas lighting a mirrored reflector was placed above the bar, reflecting light from the windows onto the faces of the accused. This allowed the court to examine their facial expressions and assess the validity of their testimony. A sounding board was also placed over their heads to amplify their voices.

The jurors sat on the sides of the courtroom to both left and right of the accused but from 1737 were brought together in stalls on the defendant’s right, close enough to be able to consult each other and arrive at verdicts without leaving the room. Seated at a table below where the judges sat were clerks, lawyers and the writers who took the shorthand notes which formed the basis of the proceedings.

When the courtroom was remodelled and enclosed in 1737, the danger of infection increased and at one session an outbreak of gaol fever (typhus) led to the deaths of sixty people, including the Lord Mayor and two judges. Subsequently the judges spread nosegays and aromatic herbs to keep down the stench and prevent infection.

A further reconstruction of the Bailey in 1774 saw the area surrounded by a semi-circular wall to provide better security for prisoners and prevent communication between them and the public. The passage between Newgate Prison and the Bailey was also enclosed with brick walls.

The new building provided a separate room for witnesses so that they were no longer obliged to wait their turn in a nearby pub. I bet they still did, though!


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