The Old Bailey was the most important court of the English speaking world. It was a great theatre of humanity - with victims, witnesses and the accused. Many of them were illiterate, but thanks to the court shorthand writers, scribbling down all the evidence, we have records of their voices - the closest thing we have to a tape-recording of the past.

In this series, Professor Amanda Vickery uses dramatic court cases to explore 18th century social history, hearing the voices of ordinary people who have otherwise left no trace.

This first programme is recorded on location in Rye, Sussex, and we hear the voices of smugglers - and the gallant customs officers who fought them in bloody battles.

Smuggling was a trade in the 18th century - sprawling from the brutal criminal underworld, to shops, to chic drawing rooms - brandy, tobacco, pepper, lace, French silks. But one commodity above all was worth killing for and facing the noose - tea.

In fact two thirds of the tea which was drunk in Britain was smuggled in along the Southern coastline of Britain. Every single inhabitant of coastal ports like Rye would have known what was going on, probably most were drawn into it - and many ended up in the Old Bailey in London.

Listening to the voices from the Old Bailey are historians Professor Peter King from Leicester University, a leading historian of crime; cultural historian Professor Judith Hawley from Royal Holloway, University of London; and Richard Platt who has written many books on smuggling and spent a lifetime collecting smuggling stories.

Produced by Elizabeth Burke
A Loftus production for BBC Radio 4.

Release date:

Available now

43 minutes

Last on

Thu 14 Aug 2014 21:30

Related topics

Getting started on the Old Bailey Site

You can find details of all these cases on the website Old Bailey Online. The site includes a video tutorial with search tips and further advice to help you navigate this rich source of archive.


Getting started - video tutorial

Case 1: The Trial of a smuggler known as 'Poison'

Peter Tickner, and James Hodges, commonly called and known by the name of Poison, were indicted for unlawfully and feloniously assembling themselves together on the 22d of Dec


Case 1: The Trial of a smuggler known as 'Poison'


Extract from the Ordinary's Account for smuggler Samuel Hill, who was involved in Case 1



Case 2: Revealing how the smugglers distribute tea across London, using an organised system involving grocers

George Watson otherwise Yorkshire George , was indicted for assaulting Samuel Alexander.


Case 2: Revealing how the smugglers distribute tea across London, using an organised system involving grocers

Case 3: The smugglers seize back their goods from the Customs House at Poole

Thomas Kingsmill, alias Staymaker, William Fairall, alias Shepherd and Richard Perin, alias Pain, alias Carpenter were indicted for being concerned, with others, to the number of 30 persons, in breaking the King's Custom-house , at Poole , and stealing out thence thirty hundred weight of tea


Case 3: The smugglers seize back their goods from the Customs House at Poole

Amanda Vickery

Amanda Vickery

Professor Amanda Vickery is the prize-winning author of The Gentleman's Daughter (Yale University Press, 1998) and Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (Yale University Press, 2009). She is Professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London. She lectures on British social, political and cultural history. 

Amanda reviews for The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, and BBC Radio 4's Saturday Review, Front Row and Woman’s Hour. Her TV series At Home with the Georgians aired on BBC2 in December 2010. She was a judge of the 2011 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize.


Amanda Vickery


London Lives

London Lives is the sister site to Old Bailey Online. It makes available, in a fully digitised and searchable form, a wide range of primary sources about eighteenth-century London, many of which concern the same individuals who appeared at the Old Bailey. 

The site includes over 240,000 manuscript and printed pages and over 3.35 million names.


London Lives


Professor Peter King - Leicester University

Professor Judith Hawley - Royal Holloway, University of London

Richard Platt - author