| November 27, 2023

Comparing the Bills of Mortality and Old Bailey Proceedings

By Savannah Scott in analysis tagged scott, database, data, old bailey

The Bills of Mortality were weekly reports that recorded the number of deaths in London, beginning in 1603 and continuing consistently until 1819. These bills reported the number of burials and plague deaths in each London and surrounding parish. They also reported the different causes of death, male/female christenings, and male/female burials for the entire city. The causes of death included illnesses and ailments, as well as accidents and killings. Two causes of death—execution and murder—have the possibility of being cross-referenced with other early modern documents, particularly court records.

The Proceedings of Old Bailey is a website that allows users to search the records of London’s central criminal court between 1674 to 1913. The accounts of the trials at Old Bailey were published in the Proceedings after the conclusion of each court session. The Proceedings were brief summaries of the trials, including the defendant’s name, the date of the trial, the crime, the verdict, and the sentence. Another key collection to this archive is the Ordinary’s Accounts, which contain the biographies of prisoners executed at Tyburn from 1676-1772. They were recorded and published by the Ordinary of Newgate and include short summaries of the names and crimes of those sentenced to death, some biographical details, the Ordinary’s sermons, and the final confessions before their executions. Both the Proceedings and the Ordinary’s accounts provide the opportunity to link the executions and murders noted in the Bills of Mortality to specific events.

The goal of this investigation was to find evidence of corresponding data between the Old Bailey Proceedings and the Bills of Mortality. For this, I used the 2022-11-02-Laxton-weeklybills-causes dataset. This dataset contained the weekly causes of death from 1701-1705, and I primarily looked for instances of execution or murder. Execution and murder are two causes of death that would be relevant to the Old Bailey Proceedings due to their relationship with criminality, and therefore a possible trial record. I started with the Bills of Mortality and then searched the Old Bailey Proceedings for a matching record.

Before delving into the process of looking for corresponding events, it is important to recognize the limitations in the Proceedings of Old Bailey. The Proceedings and Ordinary’s Accounts were first produced for a popular audience and were sold for profit. Sensationalist language and judgments were common in early publications. While they relied on authenticity to sell the publications, “the Proceedings are far from comprehensive transcripts of what was said in court.”1 Not every trial was published in the Proceedings, and the level of detail varies due to editorial decisions. Most importantly for us, “information about pardons, delayed sentences, and executions. . . was not consistently provided.”2 Many convicts were sentenced to death (often for petty crime), but less than a fifth were actually executed.3 Because of this, I relied more on the Ordinary’s accounts for investigating executions, since their publication centered around detailing executions.

At first, there seemed to be a lack of correspondence between the number of executions listed in the Bills of Mortality and the reported executed convicts in the Ordinary’s Accounts. One example is the Ordinary Account for the execution that occurred on January 28, 1702, where it was reported that five convicts were executed.4 The corresponding Bill of Mortality for that week, 1702 week 7 (January 26-February 2) only reports one execution.5 Another instance of the difference in reported executions occurred on May 10, 1704, with the Ordinary’s Account publishing four executions, but the Bill of Mortality (Week 22 for 1704) only recorded three.6 There were also times when either the Bills of Mortality or the Ordinary’s Accounts would publish an execution, but the other would not. For example, the 1703 week 7 (January 25-February 1) bill records one execution, but there is no Ordinary account for 1703 until March 10th.7 Similarly, there is an Ordinary Account for February 7, 1705, but no corresponding entry in the bill for that week.8 Multiple reasons could explain the discrepancies in the records of executions. The execution site (Tyburn, where the modern Marble Arch stands) was barely inside the range of parishes covered by the Bills of Mortality. The victims of execution may have had to be buried outside of London, resulting in them not being recorded. The Bills of Mortality would also have omitted any non-Anglican burials. There were also other execution sites beyond the Ordinary Accounts’ scope. Because of this, a direct line should not be drawn between executions in the Bills of Mortality and those published in the Ordinary Accounts.

However, the discrepancy was not always an issue. The Bills of Mortality reported that there were two executions in week 28 (June 20-June 27) of 1704.9 Old Bailey’s Proceedings has an Ordinary Account from June 21, 1704, with exactly two executed convicts. These convicts were Thomas Hunter and Sebastian Reis, both of whom pleaded guilty to breaking and entering and robbery.10 Paul Lorrain, the Ordinary of Newgate, gives each of them thorough biographies, detailing not only their legal offenses, but also details about their lives (usually to explain their deviant behavior). This entry proves that there can be consistency between the Bills of Mortality and the Old Bailey’s Proceedings records of execution.

Old Bailey’s Proceedings can humanize the statistics recorded in the Bills of Mortality by illuminating some stories behind the recorded deaths. One example occurs with the 1703 week 12 (February 29-March 7) bill, which mentioned someone being “murdered (an infant) at St Michael Bassishaw.”11 While this sentence provides more information than a number, it still leaves many questions about the incident. A trial from Old Bailey’s Proceedings helps answer some of them. A trial from March 8, 1704, identifies Jane Lyne “of the Parish of St. Michael Basishaw” as being indicted for “the Murther of her Male Infant Bastard, by throwing it into a House of Office, whereby it was strangled, on the 20th of February last.”12 While the dates do not match up exactly, this could be because Jane took efforts to hide the infant or a delay between the death and the burial. However, the verdict and sentencing of this trial is unknown due to missing pages.

There were other instances of Old Bailey providing personal details for occurrences in the bills, such as Thomas Cook. Cook (or the “Butcher of Gloucester”), of the St. Martins in the Fields parish, murdered a constable on May 12, 1702.13 His trial transcript is detailed, including multiple witnesses and recounts of how he fled to Ireland. In the Bills of Mortality, two bills could have recorded this event. The 1702 week 21 (May 5-May 12) bill records someone “kill’d…one at St Martin in the Fields”14 and the 1702 week 23 (May 19-May 26) bill states someone was “Murthered at St James Westminster.”15 The trial transcript states the incident occurred in Mayfair, which is formally in St Martin in the Fields Parish, but is also close enough that the edges of this neighborhood could be considered part of St James Westminster parish. The difference in language, “killed” versus “murdered,” also makes it difficult to determine which record refers to the Cook case. There is less confusion surrounding the continuity between Cook’s execution records. Cook was sentenced to death, and his execution took place on August 11th, 1703, about a month after his trial.16 The Ordinary’s Account for this day solely records him, and his life and final words are published in detail. There is also a clear corresponding record in the 1703 week 35 (August 10-August 17) bill, with only one execution listed.17 Cook’s case shows how the Old Bailey Proceedings can provide vital background to unspecified events in the Bills of Mortality.

Throughout this sample, there was no consistent correspondence between the Bills of Mortality and the Old Bailey Proceedings. Issues such as recording when a person died versus when they were buried, Anglican versus other burials, and timing affect what gets published in the Bills of Mortality. In addition, the early Old Bailey Proceedings were sensationalized for profit, affecting which trials or cases were published. The Old Bailey online archive clearly acknowledges the issues with their early modern records, especially concerning executions, and suggests cross-referencing with newspapers or police records in the British Library. Despite some inconsistencies, the Old Bailey Proceedings provides an accessible way to dive deeper into the cases recorded in the Bills of Mortality. The Old Bailey Proceedings help personify the statistics from the bills, reminding us that each number was a person with a life.

  1. Clive Emsley, Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, “The Proceedings - The Value Of the Proceedings as a Historical Source,” Old Bailey Proceedings Online, accessed November 21, 2023, www.oldbaileyonline.org↩︎

  2. Ibid. ↩︎

  3. Clive Emsley, Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, “Crime and Justice - Punishment Sentences at the Old Bailey”, Old Bailey Proceedings Online, accessed November 21, 2023, www.oldbaileyonline.org↩︎

  4. “Ordinary’s Account, 28th January 1702 (OA17020128),” Old Bailey Proceedings Online, accessed November 20, 2023, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?name=OA17020128↩︎

  5. Laxton-1702-07-verso. ↩︎

  6. “Ordinary’s Account, 10th May 1704 (OA17040510),” Old Bailey Proceedings Online, accessed November 20, 2023, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?name=OA17040510; Laxton-1704-22-verso. ↩︎

  7. Laxton-1703-07-verso; “Ordinary’s Accounts by Date,” Old Bailey Proceedings Online, accessed November 20, 2023, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?dir=ordinarysAccounts&decade=170↩︎

  8. “Ordinary’s Accounts by Date,” Old Bailey Proceedings Online, accessed November 20, 2023, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?dir=ordinarysAccounts&decade=170↩︎

  9. Laxton-1704-28-verso. ↩︎

  10. “Ordinary’s Account, 21st June 1704 (OA17040621),” Old Bailey Proceedings Online, accessed November 20, 2023, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?name=OA17040621↩︎

  11. Laxton-1703-12-verso. ↩︎

  12. “Jane Lyne, 8th March 1704 (t17040308-35),” Old Bailey Proceedings Online, accessed November 20, 2023, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t17040308-35-defend106&div=t17040308-35#highlight↩︎

  13. “Thomas Cook, 7th July 1703 (t17030707-2),” Old Bailey Proceedings Online, accessed November 21, 2023, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t17030707-2-off11&div=t17030707-2#highlight↩︎

  14. Laxton-1702-21-verso. ↩︎

  15. Laxton-1702-23-verso. ↩︎

  16. “Ordinary’s Account, 11th August 1703 (OA17030811),” Old Bailey Proceedings, accessed November 21, 2023, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=OA17030811↩︎

  17. Laxton-1703-35-verso. ↩︎