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.
Garrow’s London was a vast cosmopolitan city with a small central area that was alive with criminal activity. Despite the wealth concentrated in the West End of London the artisans and the poor of the city generally lived in insalubrious and crime-ridden areas so graphically described later by Dickens. Most of them were law-abiding but there were criminal districts where schools of particular crimes were concentrated including shoplifting, coining and horse stealing. At the time many goods which are mass produced and cheap today were made by hand and were expensive to buy. These included handkerchiefs, clothing, pots and pans, goods made of wood or cast iron, rope and spoons and forks all of which were frequently stolen and easily sold.
A Battle of Forensic Giants
William Garrow and Thomas Erskine were good friends. They were also two of the greatest barristers this country has ever seen. Garrow as champion of the poor and disadvantaged in the Old Bailey and Erskine as a freedom fighter in the shockingly biased State Trials that stained English criminal law at the end of the eighteenth century. But the two of them overlapped.
Sometimes they appeared on opposite sides in a trial and sometimes they worked together. One of the trials where they were opponents was that known as “Mrs Day’s Baby”. It is reported in the book “Sir William Garrow: His Life Times, and Fight for Justice” on pages 66 and 67. However, there is an aspect of it not mentioned in the book. The case was heard at the Huntingdon Assizes before Mr Justice Heath in 1797. It caused an enormous amount of gossip and large crowds attended the hearing. The issue before the court was whether the defendant, who was heir to a large estate, had in reality been a child purchased from a poor woman in a workhouse.