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Old Bailey puts criminal past on web

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    Old Bailey puts criminal past on web

    Will Pavia | April 29, 2008

    THOUSANDS of Britons, Americans and a fair few Australians have began searching an online archive for news of the nefarious dealings of their distant ancestors in Victorian London.
    Records of trials at London's Old Bailey throughout the 1800s and early 1900s have been placed online, from infamous murders to bungled bicycle frauds, all catalogued into a searchble archive.

    The site has been creaking under the strain as people logged on, punched in their family name and waited for news of how and when it had been blackened by an unscrupulous ancestor.

    Accounts of The Proceedings of the Old Bailey were originally collated and circulated from 1674 in what became a popular London publication.

    By the early 20th century the readership had declined and the authorities were no longer willing to bear the expense. The last edition rolled off the presses in April 1913; thereafter the complete record was contained in a handful of rare leather-bound collections.

    Efforts to make this rich seam of London's social history available to even the most casual family researchers were co-ordinated by historians from the universities of Sheffield and Hertfordshire and the Open University.

    Workers in India digitised the words, a team of developers catalogued the data and yesterday a final chunk of court history was placed online.

    The new records include the indictment for “acts of gross indecency” of Oscar Wilde and Alfred Taylor in May 1895. There is the case of Dr Hawley Crippen, who murdered his wife, a Camden music-hall singer, and was arrested while fleeing to America with his mistress.

    Fifteen years before he became Prime Minister, William Gladstone pops into the record, accusing one William Wilson of blackmail. Wilson was sentenced to a year in jail for threatening to publish material accusing Gladstone of “immoral behaviour” with a prostitute.

    But for all the affairs of the great and good, the real value of the record for social historians lies in the countless details of London life and proof of emerging and declining social trends.

    The first mention of a bicycle is in a fraud case that also involved a horse, some hay, a sewing machine, a pony that had been advertised in The Times, some “fancy fouls”, a few pounds of mutton and a quantity of turkeys.

    James Wilcocks, of Bristol, the owner of the bicycle, had advertised his bone cruncher in the Exchange and Mart and sent it to a mysterious Mr J. Baxter, of Chelsea Market. He never received payment, and when Detective Inspector James Pay visited Mr Baxter's supposed place of business, he found a girl in her late teens by the name of Florence North minding the premises.

    “There were three trusses of hay, a few packs of egg-producing powder,” he said, “some packets of Yeatman's yeast powder ... and ... not the slightest sign of any business being carried on - I told North the place seemed fitted up with dummies and was a regular swindle.”

    After testimony from various other disappointed sellers - “I never had any money, or seen my hay again” said a corn merchant from Derby - Ms North was found guilty along with her accomplices and was jailed for 18 months.

    If you find out something interesting about your ancestors at www.oldbaileyonline.org and wish to tell us, email [email protected]

    _ The Times, London

    "There's one way to find out if a man is honest-ask him. If he says 'yes,' you know he is a crook." Groucho Marx