Historians struggle to decipher letters and diaries - but what about those who left no record? The poor, those who couldn't write? There is one fantastic source, and it is now online: the Old Bailey Archives.
Through court cases, we can hear the voices of the 18th century. Thanks to the speedy court shorthand writers, everyone's speech is recorded, from the posh to the poor. It's the nearest thing we have to a tape recording of the past.
In this new series Professor Amanda Vickery presents dramatised extracts from gripping court cases and discusses with fellow historians what they reveal about 18th century society and culture. Amanda Vickery was the presenter of the highly successful "A History of Private Life" on BBC Radio 4 last year.
The series begins with the voices of highwaymen in court.
Highwaymen were celebrities, with hordes of adoring women, their executions a great public show. Some of them are revealed as charismatic, while some can hardly stutter out a sentence.
Amanda listens to what they have to say as they face the gallows, with fellow historians Bob Shoemaker, Helen Berry and John Mullan
Throughout the series there are popular ballads - about crime, or written by criminals - recorded for the first time, on location in one of Dick Turpin's hide-outs.
Producer: Elizabeth Burke
A Loftus production for BBC Radio 4.