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Digging the Old Bailey archive

The Old Bailey Online is a record of 197,745 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court between 1674 and 1913. I spent many hours looking for cases of Africans accused of crimes, as well as victims of crimes. I want to understand what kind of lives they led. My search included keywords such as ‘negro’, ‘slave’, and ‘African’.  

In Staying Power: A Black History of Britain, Peter Fry traced the Black presence as far back as the Roman invasions, when many of the soldiers came from parts of Africa. By 1674, Britain had been involved in the Transatlantic slave trade for nearly 100 years. In total, 11,500 slave-seeking voyages to Africa were made by British merchants in the 245-year period.

So it made sense there would be a considerable number of black people in London from that period on – a fact that one Joseph Guy used in his defence on being tried for highway robbery:

‘There are a thousand black men in London besides me: last Monday se’nnight I went to see a serjeant’s sister that lives at the Three Conies in Rumford road; when I had rode over the stones, and cantered about half a mile, I found my horse would not perform his journey; I turned back again, and got to a house in King-street, Westminster; I got there about ten minutes after five, and gave my horse a feed of corn, and in about half an hour or three quarters after, I went for Chelsea; I have been in England six years. Guilty. Death.’ Joseph Guy was convicted of highway robbery on 18 February 1767.

Esther Allingham was a sex worker who refused to work for nothing and was then accused of theft. Surprisingly, this black woman, a sex worker, was acquitted in 1782. She told this to the court:

‘This money they swear to, is my own, I have saved up at a shilling a time. When I met this gentleman first, he was with a black woman with a white gown and white coat on. What he had, was entirely unbuttoned. I was at a distance, against the rails. I went down towards Pall-Mall; I stood upon the stone of a door in Gloucester-court. He asked if there was any house he could go into; I said there was a house there. I knocked at No. 3, and went in. He said, My dear, I have no money; I have been with a black woman; my money is all gone. He pulled out his pocket, and said, I have got a snuff box, and a watch, and a pin valued at so much, and a pocket-book at so much, which he could not part with. I said, if he had no money, I would not go with him. I said, As you have no money, I do not chuse to give my carcase up to you for nothing; and I hope you will give me liberty to get some water, for I am dry. He said yes; but he would keep my cloak till I came back. What he offered to me, was what is not fit: he is a man neither fit for God nor the devil; he is neither fit for a black woman, nor a white woman. What he expressed to me, put a shock upon my spirits, and frightened me.’ Esther Allingham – not guilty, 15 May 1782.

Another interesting case was that of one John Guy. When he refused to have sex with two women, they robbed him. It was 1786 and Guy was a sailor, so he possibly was a ‘freeman’ from one of the Caribbean islands. Here’s his testimony:

‘I was just paid off from the Ship Newcastle, and walking along Rosemary Lane , between 4 or 5 o’Clock I met 2 Women; I asked them for a Lodging, they bid me come with them: I went with them to Whitcher’s House, and we had some Salmon and Punch and a quartern of Brandy? Then I went to bed, and one of the Women came to bed to me, tho’ I would not let her: The oldest of the Prisoners pull’d up her Coats, and bid me look at – and told me it was as black as my Face, &c. &c. – I would not do it, but went to sleep, and when I waked I found all my Money gone. One of the Girls own’d before Justice Farmer, that 8 Guineas and 4 s. of my Money was divided among them.’

Like Esther Allingham, John Guy was acquitted – is it possible that black people in those days received better justice than they do today? Certainly if this had taken place in the US, Guy would have been lynched.

These are only a handful of the many cases at the Old Bailey that involved black people. For me, it was surprising that – at least from the available court records – the trials seemed to be fair and honest.

Perhaps that’s because there were relatively few black people in Britain in those days. Or maybe because the construction of race and racism had not really taken hold in society yet..?