“1832 — August 3, William Jobling, for the murder of Nicholas Fairless. The body was gibbeted on Jarrow Slake on August 6, and at night on the 31st it was stolen and secretly disposed of by some persons unknown.”
The Durham miner’s death, recorded in The Times, is thought to be the last public gibbeting in England — a notable account in the history of crime and punishment over 200 years.
Today that history, along with the unique archive of The Times Law Reports over more than 200 years, is open to the public as part of the complete contents of the newspaper from 1785 to 1985. Readers can access the Law Reports of the past two centuries through Times Online, in the format in which they appeared in the newspaper, as well as accounts of the most famous cases of the day — Oscar Wilde, Derek Bentley and the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial.
Rose Wild, editor of the Times Archive, said: “As well as the law reports, the history of crime and punishment is played out in letters to the editor, in leading articles and comment pages, court reports and trial transcripts.
Charles Dickens wrote to The Times about the “wickedness and levity” of the crowd at a public hanging in 1849, not “with any intention of discussing the abstract question of capital punishment” but in support of the Government’s proposal to make it “a private solemnity with the prison walls”.
Groundbreaking debates range from the decision to deport convicts to Botany Bay to the death penalty, obscenity laws and the principle of war crimes trials. There are also grim accounts of executions, including the hangings of the Fenian rebels (or Manchester Martyrs) in 1867.
Ms Wild said: “The launch of the archive is a fantastic opportunity to access 200 years of legal history wherever you are, on your own laptop. You can search for specific cases and follow the course of the crime, trial, verdict and sentence, or look up general subjects, the death sentence, for example, and follow how legislation and attitudes have changed.”
A selection of the 100 most colourful and influential cases covered in our Law Reports will be run in a five-part series collated by Professor Gary Slapper, director of law at the Open University, starting today in Law Online. Alex Spence, editor of Law Online, said: “This is an obvious treasure trove for readers and researchers of all kinds but there’s also plenty here to excite lawyers.”
Among the 200 years of Times Law Reports are famous cases such as Donoghue v Stevenson, reported in 1932, the case of the snail discovered in a bottle of ginger beer, which is seminal to the law of negligence, and the 1884 report of R v Dudley and Stephens, about two shipwrecked sailors convicted of murder after killing the cabin boy and eating his flesh.
One of the earliest cases was that of Ormond v Payne, in 1789, which involved a butcher and prince’s coachman. The claimant, George Ormond, was a butcher living at Turnham Green, West London. The defendant, Don Payne, looked after the affairs of the Prince of Wales at Carlton House.
The butcher sued Payne after the prince’s coachman drove into the butcher’s cart, breaking his leg. According to Osmond, the coachman was in a terrible hurry and “in liquor”. The moment the horses were harnessed and he had mounted the box, he “called for a glass of gin, drank it, threw the glass violently upon the pavement, flogged his horses” and sped away. The jury found that Payne was liable for the coachman’s actions and awarded damages of £100.
Times Law Reports: from bottled snails to cannibalism
The Times Law Reports treat with equal respect the famous — such as Sir Roger Casement, Tony Greig and Michael Douglas — and those remembered only for the judgment of the court after a dispute, accident or act of wickedness led to their conduct being analysed in civil or criminal proceedings.
Law reports have not always been held in the high esteem with which they are regarded now. Isaac Espinasse was a law reporter working at the end of the 18th century. In a 1953 case in the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Denning commented on the inadequacy of his work, noting: “It is said that he only heard half of what went on and reported the other half.”
No such complaint could be made about those who have written and edited The Times Law Reports over the centuries. Readers can now see the skill with which the classic cases of the common law were reported; and all lawyers will have their favourites.
You can read the 1884 report of R v Dudley and Stephens, about the two shipwrecked sailors convicted of murder after killing the cabin boy and eating his flesh. Or Donoghue v Stevenson, reported in 1932, where the House of Lords established that the defendant manufacturer of ginger beer owed a duty of care to the consumer who complained that the bottle contained the remains of a snail. Or Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd v Wednesbury Corporation, reported in 1947: the foundation of the public law duty to exercise discretionary powers in a reasonable manner.
In her excellent biography of John Mortimer, QC, Valerie Grove refers to the Times report in 1922 of a divorce case in which John’s father, Clifford, was counsel. Mr Justice Hill commented that he was “not sufficiently up in modern slang” to know whether the husband’s comment to the wife, “stop your grizzling”, was “an affectionate term or not”. The report continues: “Mr Mortimer: ‘I can assure your Lordship it is not a term of endearment.’ (Laughter).” In 1957, the law report noted that Mr Justice Stable, having listened to the submissions of counsel, asked: “Is one to abandon every vestige of common sense in approaching this matter?” Counsel replied: “Yes, my Lord.”
Social change is faithfully recorded. In 1994, under the headline “Sex change for ‘Lord’ Justice”, the law report informed readers that although “formally” still to be known as “Lord Justice”, as required by the Supreme Court Act 1981, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss would henceforth be referred to in court as “My Lady, Lady Justice Butler-Sloss”. And the law reports provide their invaluable service, however distasteful the subject matter. Last year, a judgment of the High Court was reported under the less than enticing headline, “Belch raises special reasons issue”.
The reports have a judicial seal of approval. In 1889 Lord Esher, Master of the Rolls, announced: “We have said that we will accept The Times Law Reports, because they are reports by barristers who put their names to their reports.” Lawyers and judges trust The Times Law Reports and admire the skill of the reporters who identify, in limited space, the pith of what the judiciary, sometimes unclearly and always at much greater length, has struggled to express. There is no question of judges echoing Chief Justice Holt’s complaint in 1704 about the inadequacies of another set of reports, that “they will make us appear to posterity for a parcel of blockheads”. On the contrary, The Times Law Reports, by the lucidity of their expression, are often more persuasive than the original judgments. I can think of only one occasion when the contents were unintelligible to most readers: in 1998, a Practice Direction was published in Welsh (as well as in English).
Until the 1960s, the newspaper reports covered all judgments of importance, and many that were not, and often included generous chunks of the legal argument. The enormous increase in the number of judges and volume of cases they decide, as well as the regrettably reduced space reserved for the law reports, means that the service is no longer as comprehensive.
Still, on station platforms up and down the country every morning, as lawyers wait for their trains into their offices and chambers, they open their copy of The Times, turn first to the law reports, and learn about the latest judicial pronouncements. In an ever changing world, it is comforting to know that, as Lord Justice Sedley observed in March last year, the Court of Appeal “spent two days hearing argument on the meaning of ‘is’ and ‘where’,” and that the result was published in The Times Law Reports.
The author is a practising barrister at Blackstone Chambers the The Temple and a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford