The Old Bailey

The Old Bailey has been the central criminal court of England for hundreds of years. You can imagine how many thousands of criminal cases they've heard.

The records of the Old Bailey, from 1674 up to 1913, are now online, at I've already wasted hours reading them, and I bet you will too. The web site is beautiful, has an outstanding search system, and the most fascinating records. It's just wow.

The first thing I did, of course, was go name surfing. In only a few minutes I found this record. Let me introduce you to my ancestor, in the criminal trial of...

WILLIAM CORBY, Theft > pocketpicking, 6th July 1835

WILLIAM CORBY was indicted for stealing, on the 3rd of July, 1 handkerchief, value 2s. 6d. the goods of Charles Frederick Edgar, from his person.

CHARLES FREDRICK EDGAR . On the 3rd of July I was in Clerkenwell—I had this handkerchief in my pocket, and lost it—I do not know who took it.

THOMAS HEADWORTH . I live in St. John-street. About three o'clock, I saw the prosecutor walking in that street, and the prisoner was close behind him, touching his pocket—I went to the door, and saw his hand in the pocket—he drew the handkerchief out, and passed it form his right hand to his left—I immediately ran and laid hold of him—he threw it down—I told the gentleman, who took it up.

Prisoner. Q. Did you not say a man in a velvet coat threw the handkerchief down, and it went on my breast.

A. I did not.

GUILTY . Aged 20.— Transported for Seven Years.

Or at least, my relatives who've researched the family history tell me this is the fellow from whom we're descended.

It's a good thing my ancestor took to a life of crime. Based on his defense, he would never have made it as a lawyer.

Why didn't Corby argue that he was walking behind Edgar, saw the handkerchief fall, and picked it up to return it? He still needs to impugn Headworth as a witness, but he can argue the angle of sight, and Headworth's natural suspicion, led him to misinterpret an innocent event. The agreed fact that Edgar felt nothing helps the claim of an accidental fall.

Yes, yes, I illustrious forefather is obviously a petty thief, but seriously, almost any defense is better than asking the prosecution's only witness to change his mind with a leading question.

The earliest record of a criminal Corby is another William Corby in 1770 for highway robbery, violent theft, receiving, and grand larceny. Needless to say he dangled for that lot.

I also discovered that there was a police officer called George Corby, variously described as a beadle, a constable, and a street-keeper who, if the number of times he appears is any indicator, touched an amazing number of collars. GC (same initials!) appears to have been more Lestrade than Holmes, but nevertheless the temptation to write some short stories is almost overwhelming.


Amalia Dillin said...

I gotta ask-- why would you steal someone's handkerchief at all?! I mean, if you were going to lift something it seems like there are a lot of better options than a handkerchief that is no doubt used and dirty.

This is hilarious and awesome, Gary!

Loretta Ross said...

Wow! Transported for seven years for stealing a handkerchief! Just . . . wow! So is this how you wound up writing Greek history in Australia?

Stephanie Thornton said...

Whoa! Crazy how one little act of theft can tweak a family's history. I'm with Amalia- if I'm getting transported for seven years I'm certainly going to steal something better than an old handkerchief. Maybe the handkerchief had something in it- diamonds or ancient Roman coins...

Gary Corby said...

Amalia and Stephanie, if you stole something of real value, they didn't transport you -- they hung you. Try this one, from 1674...

"Roger Elvin , Indicted for Burghlary having on the 13th of July broken Feloniously into the House of Elizabeth Oldridge in Coleman Street London, and took from thence nine Pewter Dishes, a Pewter Cullendar, and other things, which he Exposing to Sale, was thereby discovered, and for the same now Condemned to die."

Gary Corby said...

I should add the list of punishments in the advanced search system has a charm all its own. It includes these delightful options:

Death > burning
Death > death and dissection
Death > drawn and quartered
Death > executed
Death > hanging in chains
Death > respited
Death > respited for pregnancy

I looked up some of the cases. To avoid being drawn and quartered or burned to death, I suggest you not forge coins, commit treason, or be a Roman Catholic priest. If by some chance you're caught out on one of the above, your best chance of survival is to get pregnant, real quick.

Gary Corby said...

Loretta, yep! Of course, convicts were only transported to Australia because the previous dumping ground had inconveniently fought a war of independence. If William had committed his crime 60 years earlier then I would be an American.

Loretta Ross said...

England was transporting petty criminals to America in the early 1800s?!? So that explains where all our politicians came from!

It's pretty cool that you have an unusual name and can find stuff like this from so long ago. I tried tracing my dad's family and only got as far as my great-grandfather on the Ross line. His name was John Ross and he lived in New Jersey. There were dozens of John Rosses in NJ in the early 1800s.

Lexi said...

Ah, Clerkenwell; I used to have a workshop there. I'm down the road in Hoxton now. Clearly, my ancestors all behaved themselves.

The market for second-hand handkerchiefs has dwindled and gone since Dickens' day; they may be one of the few things left you can't interest a modern thief in.

Tana said...

Sadly William would never know how innocent his offense would look to the world one day! How cool you know this about your ancestry! I'l check out the site. And why were all their punishments SO barbaric? I'd like to think in that respect we've evolved.

Unknown said...

Cases solved by a Lestrade rather than Holmes could actually be quite interesting. Pretty cool site. Thank you for informing us of its existence.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

You find the most interesting things, Gary! Although I doubt there were many priests who escaped the drawing and quartering by pregnancy. LOL!

Such a gold mine of inspiration...

Loretta Ross said...

Oh, Susan! Now I have this image of John Cleese dressed as a Roman Catholic priest, stuffing pillows under his robe and trying to convince the executioner he's pregnant. Kind of like a variant on The Dead Parrot Sketch.

JC: It's a baby!
Executioner: It is not. It's just a pillow you've stuffed under your robe!
JC: NO! It's a baby!
Ex: Why's it fluff up when I punch it then?
JC: It's growing! It's a baby!
Ex: It's shedding feathers all over the place!
JC: No, no! Those are angel feathers! It's a miracle! It's a baby!


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@Loretta Of course we would have the immaculate conception there! Right after the immaculate sex change. (Ah. I'm going straight to hell for that one)

LOL :)

Meghan said...

I don't think my family would be in there. They were so wild they got kicked out of the Highlands of Scotland...only to get kicked out of Ireland. Crazy Celts!

L. T. Host said...

Fascinating! I'm guessing your ancestor didn't return to England after his seven years of travel, then?

How neat to be able to see that exact moment in your family's history. Cause and effect, all neatly laid out.

I wish it was that simple for mine, haha.

Loretta Ross said...

immaculate sex change

Snerk! We're bad!

(and ain't it fun!?)

Gary Corby said...

Just think Lexi, if William hadn't been caught I might still be in England, and picking your pocket.

Gary Corby said...

Hi L.T. William stayed in Australia, married, had 6 or 7 children, wore out the first wife, married again, and had 6 or 7 more children. He finished as a property owner.

The English did a lot of those transported convicts a huge favour. They had far better opportunities elsewhere.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Meghan, the Scots do have a fine history of being troublemakers! Are you keeping up the family tradition?

Gary Corby said...

Susan & Loretta, I feel a comedy play coming on here...

Gary Corby said...

Hi Taryn!

If you like the idea of mysteries featuring Lestrade, then you'll be delighted to hear about an entire series of the further adventures of Inspector Sholto Lestrade.

They're written by M.J. Trow, and I highly recommend them. They're hilarious.

The Lestrade mysteries include one of my favourite short pieces of dialogue ever. I'm paraphrasing from memory, but it went something like this. Lestrade is interviewing a witness. The witness says:

"My uncle jumped from the Eiffel Tower to prove his theory of flight."

"Which was?"


Jude said...

THAT'S THE COOLEST FAMILY HISTORY EVER. Whoa, transported for 7 years just for stealing/borrowing a handkerchief?! Poor ancestor. I bet after though, many years later, he was able to look back on that and laugh.

Also, re: Could Lolita be published today? I think yes. Especially if Humbert's charming, witty voice comes through in the query. I bet tons of agents would request it and ask for a 2-week exclusive in a heartbeat. I don't think the subject matter would get in the way of agents wanting to represent it, since the voice is just so irresistible. What do you think, ya?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Judith!

Hope you enjoying the new job and reading all those queries.

William emphatically did better in his new country than he could possibly have done if he'd stayed at home.

On's such an interesting question, I think you've inspired a new blog post.