One unusual aspect of the English law in the 19th century was that crimes committed on the high seas were not tried before the normal jury courts but were dealt with elsewhere. Piracy, mutiny and murder onboard merchant vessels were heard by the Admiralty Sessions (which sat as an when necessary, rather than having a set timetable as other courts did). After 1834 these took place at the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey ), but in a separate sessions. Which means that the records of these trials are not with all the other Old Bailey Proceedings (held by the London Metropolitan Archives – and online) but instead are at the National Archives at Kew.
However, the London Police courts still had a role to play in the pre-trial examination of those accused of Admiralty offences. Bow Street was the senior Police Court for the capital and its magistrate (in 1816 Sir Nathanial Conant) was the de facto chief justice of the peace in London.
In 1816 two sailors and a soldier were brought before Conant at Bow Street on two separate charges of murder. The sailors (unnamed in the newspaper report) were charged with murdering the captain of a schooner which had been sailing from Smyrna (modern day Izmir on the Aegean) to England. The sailors had taken control of the boat and its small crew, cutting the captain’s throat and heaving his body overboard.
They then locked (or indeed ‘nailed’) the first mate in his cabin and threatened him. They demanded to know where the ‘wealth was in vessel’, until he promised to share the booty (described as a quantity of ‘doubloons’) with them.
He then proceeded to get them drunk so that he could overpower them and sail the schooner into Gibraltar where he handed them over to the British authorities. The pair were described as being ‘very penitent’ but also regretted not taking care of the mate properly! Conant committed them for trial.
His next prisoner was a soldier in the 18th Irish Regiment who had been brought from Woolwich. This man was also charged with murder, this time it was the killing of an unmanned crew member on a ship sailing from St Helena. He too threw his victim over the side and was also charged with piracy. The paper reported that ‘a great deal of proof against this man arises from his own voluntary confession’. He too was sent for his trial.
St Helena, of course, was to become a prison for the defeated French emperor, Napoleon, who died on the isolated island in 1821, with some scholars suggesting that he too was murdered – on the orders of the British government.
These reports in the Morning Post remind us that there were various layers to the justice system in the 1800s, with military courts and admiralty sessions which operated slightly differently to the jury courts of assize and quarter sessions. While we have have considerable work on the jury courts we still lack the same attention for the military and naval ones and a close study of the Admiralty records might shed some interesting light on way in which certain cries were punished in the nineteenth (and eighteenth) centuries.
[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, November 12, 1816]