Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Old Bailey

Did you know that you can view reports of criminal cases going back hundreds of years by logging onto the Old Bailey website?

In writing the novel A Canopy of Stars, I used the facts and the proceedings taken from the Old Bailey record of the trial of Peter Shalley, REF: T17900113-17 that took place in 1790. It is therefore actually 30 years before the date of David Neander’s trial and the proceedings may have changed in that period. I have sacrificed some accuracy in period to maintain the accuracy of those proceedings.

In 1790 there were over 200 crimes carrying the death penalty because the system was designed to protect the property of the rich and powerful. The concept of gaol is actually a Victorian invention – before then only the aristocracy (the Tower) or debtors were sent to prison.

There were reforms to the judicial system in the 1820’s when the number of crimes punishable by death was reduced. In addition in 1827 the threshold of the 40-shilling theft rule requiring a mandatory death sentence was raised to 100 shillings. By setting David’s trial in 1823 it would predate these reforms and he would indeed have been on trial for his life.

It is interesting looking at Peter Shalley's case that he was charged with steeling half a sheep that was valued at exactly 40s so making it a felony (not a misdemeanour) punishable by death. 40-shilling (or £2) converts now to £194 (using RPI) or a massive £2370 (using average earnings index) so from our modern perspective there seems to be a contrivance by the court and the prosecution to manufacture a death penalty – surely a half a sheep’s carcass could not have been worth such an amount. The jury in Peter Shalley’s case did not bring in a lesser verdict, but a guilty verdict with a recommendation for the kings mercy.

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