1.9m legal and criminal documents have been collated from the records of institutions such as the Old Bailey and Newgate Prison held by the National Archives.
They have now been digitised to be available on the Internet. The records detail criminality over 157 years until 1936, as well as chronicling the lives of some of the justice system’s more notorious enforcers, including the man reputed to be Britain’s longest-serving hangman. Until 1898 when reforms were introduced, there were more than 200 offences which carried the death penalty.
The documents date back to 1779 and include records from criminal lunatic asylums as well as Newgate, where dozens of prisoners were executed prior to its closure in 1902. They include new evidence which led to the execution of the high-profile Victorian killers Maria and Frank Manning whose public execution was witnessed by Charles Dickens.
Old Bailey Central Criminal Court in London. Photo: © Wikepedia/Tbmurray.
William Calcraft sold pies outside Newgate Prison until a chance encounter with a passing hangman began his journey to becoming official Executioner to the City of London, and later across England. Although plying his trade for 45 years he was not widely respected for his technique. The documents detail how he practiced the ‘short drop’, the condemned being effectively strangled by the noose, often with Calcraft clinging to their feet to speed their death.
Note: The Old Bailey in London public galleries are open for public viewing when trials are in session. Opening times for the public galleries are: Monday to Friday 9.55am to 12.40pm and 1.55pm to 3.40pm (last admission). Access is free and based on a first come first served basis. For more information, visit website for Central Criminal Court.