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This exciting collection is now complete
At the heart of any system of law and justice is the trial, the moment in a case when the evidence is heard and a verdict reached. One of the most distinctive features of trial by jury is its reliance on the verbal presentation of evidence in open court.The formal written records of these verbal proceedings have often been laconic in the extreme.
For both criminal and civil proceedings, the official manuscript records of cases preserved in the Public Record Office or County Record Offices frequently provide no more than the barest outline of the dispute at issue, the identity of the litigants and the final outcome of the case. The well-known series of printed law reports were usually compiled by lawyers only to inform their fellow professionals on detailed points of legal interpretation.
Any sense of what actually went on in court, often indeed any sense of the evidence that was presented, is missing. It is for this reason that the detailed non-official accounts of what was said in court are so immensely valuable. Without them researchers lack a whole body of contemporary evidence and a truly complete picture of the age cannot be attempted.
Fortunately, these non-official accounts survive in their thousands. But they are dispersed among many libraries and have not been easy to locate.
British Trials 1660-1900 republishes, in an organized and thoroughly indexed collection, those accounts which were originally published as separate pamphlets or books for sale to the public at large. The majority are verbatim transcripts of what was said in court, and from 1750 these were compiled by the foremost shorthand experts of the day. In the seventeenth century the reports tended to be brief summaries of trial proceedings, but even these usually provide more information than other sources.
In the main, they were published as commercial undertakings by printers and booksellers, who clearly found there to be a ready market for accounts of a vast range of trials.
The most common type of published trials are those concerned with serious criminal offences. Murder trials involving the wealthy and the famous - aristocrats, gentry, prominent local worthies - were especially popular. Cases involving cruelty, ingratitude, or duelling were also in high demand.
By comparison, the trials of highwaymen, forgers and burglars may appear mundane, but they, also, apparently enjoyed a regular market. Sometimes details of the life of a famous criminal would be included to add even more human interest to the account of his trial.
From 1790 to 1850, when the government was engaged in suppressing the activities of political radicals, Chartists and trades unions, many trials for treason, sedition and riot arising out of such activities were printed. Here is a record of face-to-face political confrontation under cross-examination, offering fresh insights into the radical thought and methods of repression of the time.
Not all criminal cases fall into these broad categories. All sorts of offences were of sufficient local interest or notoriety to prompt publication. For example, the attempt by Jonathan Martin to burn down York Minster in 1829 was so extraordinary that the transcript of his subsequent trial at York assizes was a bestseller.
There was also a market for printed accounts of many other sorts of litigation. sometimes the attraction of such accounts was public scandal, but often economic or political concerns were the source of public interest.
Among the most titillating of the non-criminal trials were those involving sexual scandal, particularly the famous adultery trials on charges of "criminal conversation" which were usually the prelude to divorce proceedings. Normally these involved the rich and sometimes the famous. They excited all the prurient fascination associated with their modern tabloid equivalents.
Commercial disputes were common and included disputes over the powers of official bodies such as corporations, port commissioners, and turnpike trusts. Libel cases frequently occur and there are also trials involving contested wills and contested elections.
The value of the collection for teaching and research in social, economic and legal history is immense.
Most directly, it offers historians of law and crime the opportunity to consider the mechanics of the law; in particular, to investigate how decisions were made in the courtroom by judges, juries and lawyers, and to explore the ways in which evidence was constructed and evaluated. Where most studies of this kind have so far concentrated on the criminal courts, and particularly those in London, British Trials 1660-1900 enables historians to expand their enquiries to other parts of Britain, including Scotland and Ireland, and to other types of court.
The collection is, equally importantly, a unique source of primary contemporary evidence for the study of the social and economic circumstances of the period. The accounts of what was said in court are frequently so rich that it is possible to glean from them detailed information on the structure and operation of British society at all levels - during nearly two hundred and fifty years.
It is the very stuff of history. The records of criminal trials tell us as much about the people and the property on whom criminal offenders preyed as about the offenders themselves. Similarly the non-criminal cases are a mine of information about many aspects of the social and economic history of the period. "Criminal conversation" cases illustrate the seamier side of upper-class marriage, the manners and morals of the day, the role, responsibilities and attitudes of servants; commercial litigation demonstrates contemporary business practice and the perils of all kinds of business enterprise.
British Trials 1660-1900 offers the most detailed accounts of what was said in court, the most extensive geographic coverage, and the widest possible range of different types of case, criminal, courts martial, civil and ecclesiastical. It provides the historian with an unrivalled opportunity to study almost every aspect of social and economic life between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.
The commercially published accounts of trials which make up this collection are also a largely untapped source for historians of publishing. They are a quite distinct literary genre, of importance both for the market which they commanded in their own day and for the place they occupy in the evolution of popular reading.
Until the last years of the nineteenth century, this type of sub-literary publication was a staple ingredient of publisher' lists, both in London and in the provinces. Regular and reliable sales could confidently be expected from them. The true-life, human-interest dramas which they so graphically portrayed were then, and have remained, irresistible to a wide reading public.
At the same time, the characters, events and disputes which they described were a rich source of raw material for novelists of the period. A hundred years and more later these accounts provide valuable research material for the literary historian which cannot be found elsewhere.
A major enhancement of the collection is the indexing which accompanies the full bibliographical listing. There are nine indexes:
Women Defendants, Plaintiffs and Victims
Locations of Trials
Subjects of Trials
Judges, Magistrates, etc.
Places of Publication
Each title has its own unique reference number. By using indexes in combination, researchers can quickly find just those trials relevant to their study, eg. all murder trials in Scotland in the eighteenth century or all English provincial trials with female plaintiffs.
Silver halide positive-reading microfiche at nominal reduction of 24x in envelopes. They are archivally permanent and meet AIIM and BSI standards.