The Rehabilitation of William Garrow

It is interesting to consider how William Garrow has returned to prominence – much of this to do with the success of the prime-time BBC 1 series of 2010 (and now Series Two). The mystery about why he was airbrushed from the general accounts of the development of English law is something of a whodunnit in itself. Maybe Garrow’s face didn’t fit, he was from the wrong side of the tracks socially speaking, or was it his later defection to the Establishment and relative failure as a politician compared to his early success as a radical lawyer? Maybe there is a lesson or moral here – stick to what you are good at.

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William Garrow in the British Museum

(c) British Museum

Artists of political satire in the early 1800s had fun on occasions with William Garrow, along with many others in the public eye. The British Museum is preserving over 10,000 of these satirical prints from this period…including a few with Garrow in the focus of the satire. In addition, Dorothy George, in her ‘Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the British Museum’,( IX, 1949) has given the political context to some of these prints. Drawing from these collections, and with some added words of my own, here are some of the satirical prints I find most interesting….ones that illustrate Garrow stories that I enjoy telling.

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Garrow’s Law Wins Prestigious RTS Award

Garrow’s Law has been rewarded for so successfully bringing the previously unknown tale of William Garrow to a wide audience. In judging the prize for best history programme the Royal Television Society reported:

“The jury were very impressed by the accessible telling of such a good ‘unknown’ dramatic story based on strong historical research.” (full awards listing).

A second series now seems inevitable, and perhaps Twenty Twenty Television will investigate Garrow’s later achievements and intrigues?

The Arts and Humanities Council has also rightly claimed this as a success after funding the Old Bailey Proceedings Online – which was one of the key research sources for the series: full story.

Happy 250th Birthday William Garrow

As William Garrow was born on 13 April, 1760 we can now mark the 250th anniversary of his birth.

It is incredible to think that he had been almost completely lost from popular history until very recently, and one of our chief aims is that he will still be remembered and studied at his 300th birthday and far beyond. With such an incredible life, combined with the new public awareness I think it is likely that Garrow and – more importantly – his contribution to the development of the English legal system will now be essential teaching for law, history and politics students for many years to come.

Trial of John Merryman and William Pickering for Theft by Housebreaking

This trial is briefly mentioned in the book, Sir William Garrow: His Life, Times and Fight for Justice, but merits fuller treatment since it brings together in one case the issues of corroboration of accomplice evidence, pious perjury by juries and an example of a jury changing a verdict which had already been handed down.

The 1740s saw an effort made to exclude the evidence of an accomplice of the accused who was endeavouring to save his own life by testifying against his partner in crime. In the first five months of that decade there were four well-reported cases in which uncorroborated accomplice testimony appears to have been sufficient to convict. Then, in December 1744 there were three acquittals in which the only ground mentioned for the verdicts was lack of corroboration.

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Charles Dickens and Garrow

Was Garrow the model for the defence counsel, Mr Stryver, in Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities? The question comes to mind because of a number of similarities between Garrow and Stryver as portrayed by the great novelist. In the first place the trial in which Mr Stryver is engaged takes place in the Old Bailey in 1780 close to the period of Garrow’s renown there in changing the face of criminal justice. It was the trial of Charles Darnay for treason for which the penalty if found guilty (as was generally expected) was to be hanged, beheaded and quartered.

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Trial of Sarah Slade and Mary Wood for Theft

This is a case where two women were charged with theft but had no counsel to cross-examine the prosecution witnesses.  Garrow volunteered to do so without fee even though on the face of it the case against the prisoners seemed clear cut.  He is seen vigorously questioning another thief-taker.  The case also reveals Garrow challenging hearsay evidence.  At the time hearsay evidence was often allowed by the judges and it was the insistence by Garrow and other barristers that it be excluded that led to the introduction of the rule of evidence that forbade it. Continue reading “Trial of Sarah Slade and Mary Wood for Theft”