Black People in 18th Century Old Bailey Court Records (pt1)

Old Bailey
Old Bailey

Part of the Myth that black people have only been living in Britain since the 1950’s has been due to the general inaccessible nature of public records to the masses. In today’s modern world, more and more records are becoming available to people online. The Old Bailey Online site is one such resource that helps to reveal a wealth of history to us detailing the roles of black people in Eighteenth Century life. Africans and their descendants are both the victims, witnesses and perpetrators of crime.

Black People at the Old Bailey

For example, the story of John Guy, A black sailor who claimed he was robbed by two unscrupulous women,

Sarah Jones, Mary Smith, Violent Theft > robbery, 8th September 1736.

46. 47. Sarah Jones and Mary Smith , were indicted for assaulting (with Margaret Brown , Mary Maldock and Sarah Cox , not yet taken) John Guy , in the Dwelling House of Edward Whitcher , and taking from him, one silk Handkerchief, value 3 s. and 17 Guineas, the Goods and Money of the said Guy , August the 4th .

John Guy . (A Negro) 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.

Prisoner Smith. Did not you swear your Money on another Woman?Guy. Why Mary you know, you took my Breeches from under my Head.

George Fulham . These 2 Creatures own’d before the Justice, that they had divided 8 Guineas and 4s. and that Whitcher had the best part of it. Jones said in New Prison, if we would let her out, she would tell who had most of the Black’s Money.

Nathaniel Harris and Jeremiah Lester , deposed to the same Effect.

The Prisoners in their Defence, said the Black gave them the Money. Acquitted .

Reference Number: t17360908-39
Offence: Violent Theft >
Not Guilty

Quite why the defendants were acquitted, we cannot know for sure. The evidence suggests that the accused admitted their crime in front of the local magistrate, but then reneged on their crime. Prison workers testified that that the accused had admitted their crime in order to get free and in return would expose the real criminal; the owner of the Boarding house Edward Whitcher. It would seem that either the jury had no sense of sympathy for the plaintiff or perhaps the judge advised them that the black sailor encouraged the women and was not telling the whole truth about the evenings encounter.

A Black thief, Thomas Robinson did not fare much better at the hands of the court.

Thomas Robinson, Theft > burglary, 17th January 1724.

Thomas Robinson , of the Parish of St. Margaret, Westminster , was indicted for burglariously breaking the House of Mary Gunnis in the Night-time, and stealing divers Goods , on the 18th of December last. The Prisoner was a Negro Black Boy , and us’d to come for two or three Times to the Prosecutor’s House, to buy Liquors, and the House being broken, and the Things stolen, she suspected the Prisoner, and upon Search made after him, 3 Rings and 32 s. in Money, were found upon him, and one Ring where he had bid it in the Ground, on Tower-Hill. The Boy had confessed the Fact before the Justice, which Confession was read in Court. The Fact being plainly prov’d, the Jury found him guilty of the Indictment. Death .

Reference Number: t17240117-6
Offence: Theft > burglary
Verdict: Guilty
Punishment: Death

A young servant boy , John Coffee gave evidence in the trial of Highway Man, John Everett

John Everett, Violent Theft > highway robbery, 16th January 1730.

William Coffee , (a Negro Boy being set up to give Evidence, the Prisoner asked, if he was Christened, and was told he was) depos’d, That the Prisoner at the Bar came up to the Coachman near Battle-Bridge, and bid him stop, and bid this Deponent look another way, or he would shoot him; but he would look at him, and was sure the Prisoner was the Man.

Young Coffee had been brave enough to look at the face of the Robber even after being warned against doing so on pain of death.? His evidence helped convict Everett.

Reference Number: t17300116-35
Offence: Violent Theft > highway robbery
Verdict: Guilty
Punishment: Death
Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, 29 July 2010), April 1754, trial ofJohn Everett, Pancrass ( t17300116-35).

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