Socialist Worker

Voices from the Old Bailey - a history of courtroom drama

by Keith Flett
Issue No. 2263

You don’t often hear the phrase “collective bargaining by riot” quoted approvingly on Radio 4—or someone asking whether “modern direct action is a reclaiming of a venerable tradition”.

However, the new series of Voices from the Old Bailey did just that. It kicked off on the subject of riots in the 18th century, covering London’s “Wilkes and Liberty” and the Gordon riots.

John Wilkes was a radical figure in 1760s London who challenged authority but went on to become mayor.

The Gordon riots were a reactionary expression of anti-Catholicism in the 1780s, but, as the programme made clear, moved on to express anger against all symbols of authority in the capital.

The programme relies on a project called Old Bailey Online.

This has put on the web records of cases heard at the Central Criminal Court in London between 1674 and 1913. During this period there were 197,745 criminal trials there.

The court provided a public record of cases for the press. These capture something of the words of ordinary people.

It is remarkable that presenter Amanda Vickery has brought histories of ordinary people to the normally conservative Radio 4.

The first programme found historians agreeing that 18th century riots expressed the “collective voice of the people”.

It also quoted approvingly the idea of Marxist historian EP Thompson that the crowd had a moral economy with which it sought to temper the operation of the market by rioting.

There are four programmes in the series. The second looks at sexual subcultures in 18th century London and what gay men and transgender people said when they found themselves on trial at the Old Bailey.

Again, it is not normally a subject that Radio 4 covers in a positive way, so Vickery and Old Bailey Online deserve our thanks.

Voices from the Old Bailey, BBC Radio 4, 9am Wednesdays and on BBC iPlayer


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Tue 2 Aug 2011, 17:38 BST
Issue No. 2263
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