The historic cases included in Court Number One – the Old Bailey Trials that Defined Modern Britain range in time from the Camden Town Murder trial of 1907, soon after the court was opened, to the Soham murders trial of 2003-4. Most of the intervening cases are also murders, as perhaps you’d expect, but there are also cases of criminal libel, espionage and treason. In each case, Thomas Grant digs up the background story and presents the social and political context in which the trials took place, so as to enable the reader not only to make sense of the course that the trial took, but also to understand the public reaction to it at the time. As the title suggests, these trials helped to define modern Britain.

Selection of cases

The cases have been selected by reference to their significance, but also to the fact that they took place, not just at the Old Bailey, but in Court No 1. Some rather famous trials took place in other courts in the building, but they are not included. (Another book, perhaps?) Some cases might have been included but for the fact that they have already been explored in Grant’s previous book, about the life and trials of Jeremy Hutchinson QC (which we reviewed here). An obvious example of a case that helped (perhaps more than any other) to define “modern” Britain was the trial of Penguin Books for obscenity over its publication of a cheap paperback edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by DH Lawrence. Hutchinson was junior counsel in that case, and later played a leading role in some of the other notorious trials at the Old Bailey.

But questions of acceptable taste and morality were just as notoriously challenged in a case involving an earlier work of literature, Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, with its lush intimations of necrophilia and blasphemy. A review of the performance by an actress of Salome’s famous dance gave rise to a claim of criminal libel which, not unlike Wilde’s own doomed libel action two decades years earlier, proved ultimately disastrous. The trial of R v Billing took place in 1918 in an atmosphere of wartime paranoia about fifth columnists and the sapping of moral virtue and military manliness, fuelled by anti-Semitism and homophobia; but the hearing itself, presided over by the vain and ineffectual Mr Justice Darling, descended into music hall burlesque, or what one newspaper described as a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. As in the Chatterley trial, four decades later, there was a clash between enlightened liberalism and the more repressive mindset that led, for example, to counsel having to explain to the jury what part of the female anatomy was referred to in the title of the allegedly defamatory review, “The Cult of the Clitoris”.

Press reporting

Newspapers did not report that particular detail. But they did report an awful lot, with many trials being written up in transcript-like detail in the following day’s print editions. (Imagine that today, when you’re lucky to get a headline that doesn’t mangle the facts and an article that doesn’t simply cherry-pick the most salacious details and leave the rest obscured.) Another thing that might surprise readers is the extent to which newspapers would often fund the defence in newsworthy criminal cases, enabling the retention of a famous leading silk like Sir Edward Marshall Hall KC. Though it died out eventually, that practice appears to have continued even after the introduction of statutory legal aid in 1949. Thus the Sunday Mirror paid for a solicitor for Ruth Ellis in her trial for murder in 1955. But then, notes Grant, “The fatal shooting by a peroxide blonde of a racing driver wearing his old school tie on a London street was about as good as it could get for Fleet Street.”

What was on trial (and discussed in the press) in many of these cases was not just the alleged crimes of the defendants but their or their victims’ way of life. While Ruth Ellis represented a certain kind of fast-living nightclub amorality that belongs firmly in the mid-1950s, the brittle glamour of the Bright Young People of the inter-war years came under scrutiny in the case of R v Elvira Barney (1932) and the hypocrisy of Edwardian attitudes to prostitution in R v Wood (the Camden Town Murder trial of 1907). In the 1923 trial of R v Marguerite Fahmy, the lifestyle under scrutiny was that of the defendant’s international playboy husband (an Egyptian prince) with suggestions of “oriental” sexual practices and homoeroticism. In the notorious murders by John “Reggie” Christie during the grimy world of late 1940s post-war austerity, covered here by reference to the associated case of R v Timothy Evans (1950), it was the shadowy world of backstreet abortions.

Political anxieties come to the fore in the cases dealing with spying, like R v Giuseppe Martelli (1963) and R v Randle and Pottle (1991), and treason, like that of R v William Joyce, known as Lord Haw-Haw, in 1945. Moreover, in what was described as the “Trial of the Century”, both political anxiety and sexual morality become entwined in a potentially fatal but ultimately farcical plot to silence the homosexual former lover of the leader of the Liberal party, in R v Jeremy Thorpe and others (1979). The case has been widely written about elsewhere, and was the subject of a recent TV miniseries, but Grant pulls all the strands together in a masterly summary.

Historical location

The Old Bailey court building, which is the setting for these historic trials, itself occupies a location of psychogeographical significance. Newgate was not only the location of a previous criminal court, designated the Central Criminal Court in 1834, and therefore the location of many earlier historic trials (including, for example, of Oscar Wilde), but also a notorious prison outside which, until 1868, public hangings took place.

The new building opened in February 1907 was intended as a “palace of modern justice, a public statement of belief in the values of fairness and open justice”. The early part of the 20th century marked a period of transition in the criminal justice system. Grant tracks the decline of the histrionic Victorian advocacy of Marshall Hall and his ilk, who appealed to the jury’s hearts (and their sense of mercy), and the transition to the more calm and rational approach of practitioners such as Norman Birkett and Patrick Hastings, who aimed at convincing (or sowing seeds of doubt in) the jury’s minds. At the same time as the new Central Criminal Court was opening, the Court of Criminal Appeal also opened its doors, a mile down the road. This was a new development, representing a reluctant admission that the criminal trial was a fallible human process, that mistakes could be made, that juries could be misinformed or misdirected, and that the magic black box of the jury room was not the ultimate arbiter of innocence or guilt. 

For readers who might not be familiar with the details of criminal procedure, there is a useful appendix by Judge Edward Bindloss which explains the entire process from arrest, through all the stages of the trial, to sentencing and appeal.

This book comes highly recommended, and with the earnest hope that it may be only the first of a series of equally fascinating anthologies.


Court Number One – The Old Bailey Trials that Defined Modern Britain, by Thomas Grant (John Murray, £24.

Featured image:Old Bailey building by Anibal Trejo, via Shutterstock.