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The Criminal Justice System and Reform

How did the Criminal Justice System work across 19th century Britain? In this seminar we will discuss the process by which suspected criminals were identified, detained, charged, and prosecuted. We will also think about criticisms and proposed reforms to this system throughout the century.

Seminar prep questions:

  • What were the significant changes in prosecution and court practices? Did this change extend to cultural attitudes about prisoners and victims?
  • Did sentencing practices differ according to a defendant's class, status, gender, race etc?
  • What were the deterrents to prosecuting crimes?
  • When and why did Britain adopt an adversarial court system?

Primary reading:

Essential reading:

  • Short articles on Crime, Justice, and Punishment from the Old Bailey Online.
  • Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in England chapter 8, 'Prosecutors and the courts'
  • Michael A. Rustigan, 'A Reinterpretation of criminal law reform in nineteenth century England', Journal of Criminal Justice (1980), pp. 2015-219.

Further reading:


  • Old Bailey Online
  • Elizabeth Sliverthorne (ed.), Deposition Book of Richard Wyatt JP, 1767-76 (Surrey Records Society)
  • Elizabeth Crittal (ed.), Justicing Notebook of William Hunt 1744-9 (WIltshire Records Society)
  • Alan Cirket (ed.), Samuel Whitbread's Notebooks, 1810-11, 1813-4 (Bedfordshire Historical Records Society)
  • William Le Hardy, Calendar to the Sessions books 1799-1833 and Calendar to the Sessions Books 1833-1844 (Hertfordshire County Records)
  • Greg T. Smith (ed.), Summary justice in the city : a selection of cases heard at the Guildhall Justice Room, 1752-1781


  • J. S. Cockburn (ed.), Crime in England 1500-1800
  • J. M. Beattie, Crime and the Courts in England 1660-1800
  • J. M. Beattie, 'Scales of Justice: Defence Counsel and the English Criminal Trial in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries', Law and History Review (1991) pp. 221-267.
  • David Bentley, English Criminal Justice in the Nineteenth Century (Hambledon Press, 1998).
  • David J. A. Cairns, Advocacy and the making of the adversarial criminal trial, 1800-1865
  • John Carson, '"Every expression is watched": Mind, medical expertise, and display in the nineteenth-century English courtroom', Social Studies of Science (2018), pp. 891-918.
  • Libby Connors, 'Sentencing on a colonial frontier: Judge Therry's decisions at Moreton Bay', Legal History, 2008
  • J Davis, 'A poor man's system of justice: the London police courts', Historical Journal, 1984
  • D. Hay, Peter Linebaugh, John G Rule, E. P. Thompson and Cal Winslow (eds), Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England
  • D. Hay, 'Controlling the English Prosecutor', Osgoode Hall Law Journal, 1983
  • D. Hay and F. Snyder (eds), Policing and Prosecution in England
  • Peter King, Crime, Justice and Discretion in England, 1740-1820
  • Peter King, Crime and Law in England
  • Peter King and John Carter Wood, 'Black people and the criminal justice system: principles and practice in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century London', Historical Research (2015), pp. 100-124.
  • S. Landsman, ‘The Rise of the Contentious Spirit: Adversary Procedure in Eighteenth-Century England’, Cornell Law Review, 75 (1990), pp. 498–609.
  • J. H. Langbein, ‘The Criminal Trial before the Lawyers’, The University of Chicago Law Review, 45 (1978), pp. 263–316.
  • J. H. Langbein, The Origins of Adversary Criminal Trial
  • David Lemmings, 'Introduction: Criminal Courts, Lawyers, and the Public Sphere', Crime, Courtrooms, and the Public Sphere, 1700-1850 (London: Routledge, 2016 2nd ed.)
  • A. H. Manchester, A Modern Legal History of England and Wales, 1750-1950
  • Simon Devereaux and Paul Griffiths (eds), Penal Practice and Culture, 1500-1900: Punishing the English
  • Roland Quinault, 'The Warwickshire County Magistracy and Public Order', in John Stevenson and Roland Quinault, Popular Protest and Public Order
  • L. Radzinowicz, History of English Criminal Law and its Administration from 1750
  • G. Rude, Criminal and Victim: Crime and Society in Nineteenth Century England
  • Robert Stevens, Lawyers and the Courts: A Sociological Study of the English Legal System 1750-1965
  • Martin J. Wiener, Reconstructing the criminal : culture, law and policy in England, 1830-1914
  • ----- ‘Judges v. jurors : courtroom tensions in murder trials and the law of criminal responsibility in nineteenth-century England’, Law and History Review, 17 (1999), pp. 467-506.
  • ----- 'Homicide and "Englishness": Criminal Justice and National Identity in Victorian England', National Identities (2004) pp. 203-213.
  • Symposium, ‘The Origins of the Adversary Criminal Trial’, Journal of Legal History, 28:1 (2005), pp. 63–89