e2bn E2BN
Victorian Crime and Punishment
HomePrisoner case studiesPrisoners19th Century JusticeTeachers Area

19th Century Justice homepage

The Defendant

The Defendant


In the early part of the 19th century, it was presumed that, if defendants were innocent, they should be able to prove it.

defendants were expected to disprove the evidence presented against them and establish their innocence. They could call their own witnesses but were given no help in preparing a case. As most were remanded in prison, organising such a defence was very difficult.

At Court

Once an indictment against prisoners had been approved by a grand jury, they were brought into the court and formally charged at the Quarter Sessions or Assizes. The charge was read to each prisoner who was then asked to plead guilty or not guilty.

If a defendant confessed to a crime, there was no flexibility in the punishment they could receive, so pleas of 'not guilty' were encouraged. Refusing to plead was deemed the same as pleading guilty.

After the prosecution had made their case, the defendant, who was not put on oath, was then asked to state his or her case. This was often given little weight by the court.

The defendant could cross-examine prosecution witnesses and call any defence witnesses they had managed to arrange, but often there were not any.

However, the court would come down on the side of the defendant, unless a very strong case was put forward.

defendants who were convicted of capital crimes were allowed to address the Court, before they were sentenced.

Previous Convictions

At the Quarter Sessions and Assizes, evidence of previous convictions was given before sentence was passed. If a person had been convicted before, they would get a harsher sentence. Because of this, many prisoners who had been found guilty in other areas, gave false names to the magistrates when they were arrested.

It was partly to catch such people that Robert Evan Roberts, the Bedford gaol-keeper, began, in 1859, to photograph the prisoners and keep notes about their appearance.