Black people and the criminal justice system: prejudice and practice in later eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century London


  • This article comes out of an E.S.R.C.-funded project on ‘Ethnicity, crime and justice in England 1700–1825’ (number RES-000-22-2696) in which Peter King was P.I. and John Carter Wood was research fellow.


This article explores how attitudes to black people were translated into practice by examining how the latter fared as victims, witnesses and especially as the accused when they came to the Old Bailey in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It concludes that there was no significant discrimination against black people as prosecutors and witnesses. Moreover, between 1791 and 1805, when a source containing systematic evidence on the ethnicity of the accused is briefly available, black people probably formed a smaller proportion of the accused than they did of the London population as a whole; and those who were prosecuted were less likely than average to be convicted and more likely to have their charges reduced. Although punishment patterns for black convicts included rather greater emphasis on transportation, an investigation of criminal justice practice in London reveals little or no systematic prejudice towards black people, thus indicating important contrasts with the experience of black people in colonial contexts and with the ways in which other ethnic groups such as the Irish were dealt with at the Old Bailey.