Old Bailey records now online

by Paul Jay, CBCNews.ca

The transcripts from the gross indecency trial of Oscar Wilde and the murder trial of notorious wife-killer Hawley Harvey Crippin were among those from London's Old Bailey court that were published online for the first time on Tuesday.

Up to 110,00 pages of transcripts from trials held at the court from 1674 to 1913 were added to Old Bailey Proceedings Online, a free website that now offers access to records from more than 210,000 trials.

The project director, Professor Robert Shoemaker, head of the history department at the University of Sheffield, told the Associated Press it is "the largest body of published material about the lives of ordinary people ever."

But as with other recent archival releases - such as Charles Darwin's papers - the announcement of the new material crashed the system last night and has slowed the website to a crawl.

The website now carries the advisory: "Due to high demand, the site is currently running slowly and some services may be temporarily unavailable. Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience caused."

For history buffs, the Old Bailey archives are a fascinating window into the justice system of the day, ghastly one moment and ridiculous the next. For example, there is the case in which 13-year-old John Alberson was sentenced to death in 1835 for stealing some clothes and a notebook, while Arthur O'Connor, the 18-year old who drew a pistol on Queen Victoria "with the intent to alarm her", was sentenced to one year in prison and "twenty strokes with a birch rod."

When people talk about the role of the internet in bringing information to the public, efforts like the Google book-scanning project are often cited as the ultimate goal. But the real value of the internet may be in efforts like this: bringing information that has never seen the light of day outside of some dusty courthouse library.

It's also likely to be seen as a treasure trove for genealogists looking online for juicy bits on the criminal pasts of their families, and like the New York Times online archive, is actually providing real background for amateur historians seeking to put human faces on London of the 18th and 19th century.