Sunday, 2 December 2012

Behind the Sun: Rachel Winter & the Old Bailey

What I'm Reading: The Help by Kathryn Stockett (excellent book!); The Descendents by Kaui Hart Hemmings; and Starman: David Bowie; the definitive biography by Paul Trynka.

The fourth main character in my new book Behind the Sun is Rachel Winter. At 15, Rachel is the youngest of the girls. She's tiny, not even five feet tall, and very pretty with white-blonde hair and cornflower-blue eyes. As the only girl in a family of older brothers, she's also spoilt, headstrong, somewhat childish and full of grandiose dreams.

Having run off from her parents' small farm at Guildford with a soldier, she finds herself abandoned in London and on the wrong side of a dishonest landlady who shops her to the law. In Newgate gaol Harrie takes pity on her, though she drives Friday and Sarah mental with her endless crying and whinging, but eventually they accept her, especially after they discover how sharp she is with a pack of cards.

The first part of Behind the Sun is set in London's Newgate gaol, in late 1828 and 1829. The girls are all tried at the Old Bailey, London's famous central criminal court. A brilliant resource for researching the history and proceedings of the court is a website called The Proceedings of the Old Bailey at , which is just bursting with fascinating information covering the period 1674 to 1913.

Rudolph Ackermann The Old Bailey (1800)
Among other things, the site gives you quite a detailed insight into life in and around London from the late 17th to the early 20th centuries, including population, social structure, occupations, culture, politics and the built environment (you know - buildings, streets, etc). As well, there are histories of London's various ethnic communities, an architectural history of the Old Bailey court house itself, a handy glossary of judicial and historical terms, and reading lists if you want to know more.

There are also sections on policing in London; trial procedures; judges and juries; and trial verdicts. As well as the felonies you'd expect to see in the comprehensive explanation of crimes tried at the Old Bailey, also included are 'barratry', which is the offence of stirring up quarrels by spreading false rumours and prosecuting malicious lawsuits - who knew? - and coining, pickpocketing and piracy. Also, the descriptions of the various punishments handed down by judges over the years are suitably gruesome.

Most death sentences weren't actually carried out, but when they were, they could be spectacular. Watching the hangings at Tyburn, and after 1783 when the gallows were moved to Newgate, was considered an entertaining family day out and attracted huge crowds. In 1752 an act was passed decreeing that the bodies of people hung for really heinous crimes could be 'dissected and anatomised' by surgeons. The worst punishment, however, was reserved for those guilty of treason, who would be hung, cut down while still alive, disembowelled, castrated, beheaded and quartered (as enacted by Mel Gibson in 'Braveheart').

William Hogarth, The Reward of Cruelty
(Heath ed. 1822)
I don't know. I would have thought being burned alive at the stake would be worse. This is what women convicted of treason endured until 1790, when the sentence was replaced by drawing and hanging (though it's rumoured humane executioners strangled victims to death first).

The best bit, I think, of The Proceedings of the Old Bailey are the actual word-for-word accounts of 197,745 criminal trials. You can access them by looking up specific names in the search facility (yes - read the actual trial transcripts of your ancestors! Sadly, none of my felonious forbears were tried at the Old Bailey), or, to just have a general look, click on Proceedings By Date. There are also very useful research and study guides to help you out. What a fantastic resource.


  1. That site looks so cool! Thanks - I needed another procrastination tool :)

  2. Thanks, Kez. Yes, unfortunately you can spend DAYS looking at it!

  3. I defintely intend to check this site out, who knows how many ancesters I'll come across? Your post is absolutely fascinating and chock full of interesting info. I love it.

  4. I have just finished reading Behind the Sun and am dying to know when the second book, "Girl of Shadows" will be released please? I enjoy a great story, am a sucker for a good cry, and also am intrigued with the history masterfully woven through this tale. Keep up the great work Deborah!

    1. Thank you for your nice comments, Anonymous. 'Girl of Shadows' will be out later this year. I'm just tweaking it now, then while it's being edited and printed, etc, I'll be working on Book 3 in the series.

  5. Hello,
    When is the 4th book of your 'behind the sun' series going to be available? I'm really looking forward to it.

    Kind Regards,

  6. Hi Anonymous, thanks for your comment. The fourth book in the series, A Tattooed Heart, will be out in Australia and New Zealand this October/November. Thanks for asking.


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