HIST 3130 Chapter Notes - Chapter 4: New Journalism, Franco-Prussian War, Socalled

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9 Aug 2016
Week 4
The City and the Sessions Paper: “Public Justice” in London, 1770-1800
Simon Devereaux, 1996:
The City and the Sessions Paper:
Nightingale’s analysis of the causes for the increased length of the Sessions Paper shows an
admirable grasp of both the changes in the character of society and in the means of ordering
it to which historians address themselves
But a simpler factor in this change that seems to have eluded his notice was that, beginning
in 1778, and especially after 1782, the length of individual trial accounts given in the Sessions
Paper increased significantly
More trials were reported in greater detail than had ever before been the case this proved
to be a boon for historians, for whom the Sessions Paper has served as a recourse both for
social conditions in 18th-century London and, more recently, for changes in criminal trial
The basic explanation for this change in the character of the Sessions Paper is to be found in
the regulatory activity of the government of the City of London, within whose jurisdiction lay
the Old Bailey where, 8 times yearly, the trials were held for the most serious offences
committed, not only in the City, but also in the adjacent county of Middlesex
Until 1775, the publisher of the Sessions Paper paid the lord mayor of London a fee for the
privilege of publishing a nominally “official” account of trial at the Old Bailey from 1778
however, the City insisted that the Sessions Paper should provide a “true, fair and perfect
narrative” of all the trials at the Old Bailey; it was after this year that the length of most trial
accounts began to increase substantially
This change in the character of trial reporting in the Sessions Paper had profound
consequences for its publisher, for it was exactly this same time that other publications were
beginning to make serious inroads on the profitability of the Sessions Paper as a popular
account of trial in London
In particular, the number of newspapers was growing during this period especially dailies,
which provided accounts of the most sensational trials more quickly than the Sessions Paper
The publisher’s difficulties were further compounded by his obligation to provide the City with
320 free copies of each issue far more than were being sold to the public as a result,
scarcely a year went by in which the publisher did not petition the City for financial relief and
in which the City did not grant it, first by forgiving him a portion of his licensing fee, then by
actually subsidizing the publication
In 1778 the publisher was still expected to pay the City 100 pounds for the license to publish
the Sessions Paper; less than 2 decades later, the City was paying him more than that in
order to ensure that the Sessions Paper provided the “true, fair and perfect” account of trials
that the City required of it
The explanation for this concern among City authorities is to be found in an examination of
the concept of “publish justice” this phrase, commonly used among officials, concerned the
means by which justice is represented and seen to be done that is to say, the crucial
question of how the power of authorities to punish is reinforced and legitimized
“Public justice” has been manifested (and contested) in various forms over time, including
public execution, criminal trial procedure, and courtroom architecture
in late 18th-century London, one of the most obvious and increasingly important modes for the
expression of “public justice” was the popular press what follows is an in-depth analysis of
one particular text that acquired an essential role during a period when unprecedented
pressures can to bear on established authorities in general and particularly on the traditional
modes of punishment by which their authority was upheld in the last resort
The Old Bailey Sessions Paper became firmly embedded, not only within the administrative
pressures of a severe penal code sustained through discretionary application, but also in the
ideological concerns that underpinned that system
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Week 4
In order to understand the City’s urgent administrative requirement for an accurate account of
trial at the Old Bailey, we must place the Sessions Paper in the context of crime, trial, and
punishment in late 18th-century London
To contemporary observers, one of the most obvious indications of this was the increased
number of defendants at the Old Bailey rising levels of prosecuted crime placed two
particular strains on the machinery of criminal justice in the metropolis:
1. It both generated and enhanced the widespread conviction that prevailing penal
measures were ineffective in reducing the levels of crime being committed
2. In placed tremendous pressure on the physical infrastructure of judicial administration
most strikingly, on the prisons in which convicted offenders were held until their
sentences could be carried into effect
The main point to be noted is that the public punishment of individual offenders were seen as
the principal means of attempting to reduce crime in England the state’s reliance on capital
punishment, intended to deter by means of severe public examples, is well known; but in fact,
hanging was not the sole penal measure available
The Transportation Act of 1718 addressed the concerns of many observers who believed that
the savagery of a purely capital code served primarily to dissuade prosecutors from
prosecuting and juries from convicting by providing a punishment of middling severity, the
Transportation Act rapidly became indispensable to 18th-century penal practice
However, by 1170, the perceived rise in crime in and about London led many commentators
to believe that the effectiveness of transportation was at an end but it was not until the
Revolutionary War decisively ended the practice that policy makers actively pursued new
modes of secondary punishment
The first of these the hulks, instituted in 1776 was soon deemed a scandalous failure,
serving primarily to harden offenders before releasing them on the public
The Penitentiary Act of 1779 signaled an intended policy of reformative institutions for lesser
offenders, but such institutions were not to emerge as a significant factor in penal practice
at least in the metropolis until after the crisis of the 1780s was past
One reason for the relative neglect of reformatory prisons in London was the anxiety of
metropolitan authorities over the even greater numbers of offenders being committed for trial
after the war ended in 1781 officials in London and Middlesex pressed hard for a renewed
emphasis on deterrence as the guiding principle of punishment
In November 1783, they abolished the traditional procession of the condemned to Tyburn in
favour of a more formalized and it was hoped impressive mode of execution held
immediately outside Newgate
And for the even more numerous offenders for whom execution was deemed too severe a
punishment, transportation had to be reinstated indeed, all attempts to resume this practice
including a number of desperate ventures to Africa and North America between 1780 and
1785, and ultimately the opening of Botany Bay in 1787 were largely driven by the pressure
of London’s rapidly expanding convict population
With a large number of capital convicts being sentenced in every session, as well as an
increasing number of untrasported convicts languishing in London’s jails, City authorities
particularly the recorder, the chief sentencing officer at the Old Bailey were compelled to
develop procedures by which the pressures on those jails could be relieved
Such procedures depended on the existence of a source of reliable information about the
convicts the Sessions Paper became crucial to the recorder’s work, especially to decisions
about whether or not to grant pardons to convicted felons; the convict population could be
reduced only by the removal of condemned convicts, either for execution of sentence,
whether it be death, transportation, or perhaps by a free pardon or remission of sentence
Before this could happen, the recorded had first to present the cases of convicted capital
felons to the kind and his Privy Council for consideration this procedure allied in all cases of
capital convicts at the Old Bailey, whether or not anyone had petitioned on their behalf
Unique to the metropolis, it had been initiated during the reign of William and Mary, when the
extended absences of the king during the wars on the continent prompted the development of
a system by which one of the monarch’s more taxing and distasteful duties might be spared
his chronically ill coregnant
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Week 4
This procedure outlived the circumstances of its origin by more than a century: partly
because the central government had an obvious interest in paying particularly close attention
to the fine-tuning of deterrent justice in the city which was its home; partly because the
necessary authorities, in terms of both officials and documentation, were almost immediately
ready to hand in a way that was not the case with the assize circuits; but also, one suspects,
because the City of London was unwilling to see and end to any proceeding that affirmed the
Corporation’s distinctive place in the governance of England
As the number of capital felons increased dramatically in the 1780s, the amount of work that
this imposed on the recorder increased accordingly in addition to this and the other duties
of his office, James Adair, the recorder from 1779 to 1789, also maintained an active legal
practice; the all to frequent result was a delay in the Report
This was surely bad enough for the capital convicts anxiously awaiting news of their final
sentence but it must also have been a source of serious concern for authorities, who would
have preferred that the final sentence be known as soon as possible so that both the convict
and the public’s anticipation of his or her punishment should have the full effect intended
Moreover, there is evidence from the 1780s that some Reports were delayed until after the
following session, which must have thrown all such calculations of the effect of punishment
into jeopardy
The Sessions Paper seems to have been used to facilitate decision making in council
The Sessions Paper may have been of particular use to the lord chancellor, who among the
council members who heard the Report appears to have had the primary responsibility for
acquainting himself with the facts of the case and the decisive influence on the king’s
Certainly, the “Lord Chancellor and Judges” were among those who were designated
recipients of the free copies that the publisher was expected to provide to the City
The systematic use of the Sessions Paper by council members is more explicitly apparent
beginning in November 1821, by which time an even larger number of capital cases were
being considered after each session than during the 1780s
At this time, the recorder began to include the relevant page references alongside each
convict’s name in the list that was submitted to the home secretary before the council met
over the course of the following decade, it is clear that the Sessions Paper was being read
with a view, first, to anticipating the length of time that a Report might require and, second
and soon after, as a means of selecting only the most serious cases for full consideration
Such practices were almost certainly the consequence, not only of the large numbers of
cases to be got through after each session, but also of increasing structural pressures on the
practice of the Report
There were also concerns about the variety and number of tasks that were required of the
lord chancellor, leading to a major investigation in Parliament in 1826 and proposals to
devolve some of his duties on other officials
A related issue, and probably the most important one, was simply the growing complexity of
rules of evidence and procedural components of trial during these decades, which must
gradually have placed full and accurate considerations of individual cases beyond the
capacities of both the king and his ministers in terms of both time and expertise
It is not clear that the Sessions Paper was being as regularly and systematically deployed
indeed, apparently relied on, in expediting 1820s; nor is it clear that any members of the
council other than the lord chancellor regularly received it before that latter period, although
there are indications that the Home Office had at least intermittent access to copies during
the 1780s
As early at 1782, the recorder received from the shorthand writer manuscript copies of all
trials resulting in capital convictions at which the recorded had not presided or for which his
notes may have been inadequate for the purposes of the Report
By November 1785, this practice had become sufficiently important that the publisher,
Edmund Hodgson, felt obliged to defend himself against an insinuation in the press by one of
the sheriffs that a recent delay in a Report had been the result of delay on his part: “no delay
has originated with me, as the Recorder has always had the goodness to send to me for any
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