My PhD research focuses on the prosecution of fraud at the Old Bailey from 1760 to 1820. Having previously worked for a number of prosecuting agencies, including the Serious Fraud Office, I became well-acquainted with the great number of difficulties that prosecuting fraud poses in the 21st century. My interest in 18th and 19th century fraud is therefore derived from a concern with whether such difficulties have always been associated with tackling fraudulent behaviour, as well as a wider interest in 19th century criminal trial procedure.
In order to explore the offences of fraud and how these offences were addressed and disposed of within the criminal justice system during the 18th and 19th centuries, I have identified three specific research questions: (i) what was ‘fraud’ in the 18th century and how were these laws treated by the criminal justice system?; (ii) who prosecuted fraud and why?; and (iii) how did the treatment of fraud in the summary courts impact upon fraud at the assize level?
How these questions will be answered
These questions will be answered through consideration of a number of historical sources and archives. The first research question will be answered partly through methodologies arising from legal history. The laws have been traced through looking at a series of legal treatises and texts in order to comprehensively lay out the substantive laws relating to fraud. Having located this substantive law, I then address how this law translated into practice.
The main source material of my research in any question of law in practice will be the Old Bailey Proceedings. This is not solely because these records have been digitised, but because they are the most detailed record of criminal trials available from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Having conducted extensive research of legal sources it is apparent that there existed a raft of laws under which to prosecute for financial and deceptive misbehaviour. However, the Old Bailey records have suggested that the majority of cases which could have fallen under these laws were in fact prosecuted under larceny or forgery. This is, in itself, a research finding of significance and goes a long way to illustrating why fraud causes so many problems for both the modern practitioner and the historical researcher.
My second research question relates to the prosecutors of these offences and will answer wider questions surrounding the end users of the criminal justice system. What can be concluded about the types of people prosecuting for fraud offences at the Old Bailey? Does this cohort of prosecutors tell us how the upper levels of the criminal justice system were used and by whom?
My final question is related to the administration and prosecution of fraud offences at the lowest level, and the most common point of entry into the criminal justice system, the magistrates’ court. By comparing how magistrates in the City of London disposed of fraud cases with how Middlesex and Westminster magistrates handled fraud cases, a lot can be revealed about perceptions of fraud as well as about the wider workings of the summary courts.
There has been very little research dedicated to the historical treatment and prosecution of fraud. What work has been done has focused upon offenders and has resulted in studies of middle-class criminality. This ‘offender-focused’ approach is certainly an important line of research as there is limited work on the crimes of the middle-classes. In contrast, however, my research is ostensibly ‘offence-focused’, thereby seeking to question who was committing different types of fraud, rather than questioning the crimes of the middle-classes per se.
Another strand of research that has emerged in the last 15 years has been a renewed interest in the history of the company, particular in the work of Freeman, Pearson and Taylor under their ESRC funded project, ‘Shareholder Democracies’. Such work has naturally included research into company-related fraud and provided new data regarding the development of companies, which will be of wider significance outside of the study of economic history. However, company fraud is only one form of fraud and by focusing upon this specific misbehaviour, we again see a skewed view of fraud, one in which only the middle and upper classes are perpetrators.
The study of fraud, whilst raising its own ontological and practical difficulties, may shed some much needed light on the process of prosecutions in the 18th and 19th centuries. In a system so reliant on the discretion of particular actors such as the prosecutor, the magistrates clerk, and the magistrate themselves, fraud is the perfect subject matter through which to assess how these actors influenced the day-to-day operations of the criminal justice system. It is hoped that some significant conclusions will be drawn regarding the structural changes to the criminal justice system, and wider life, in the Metropolis during the Industrial Revolution.
 In particular, Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, Fitzjames Stephen’s General View of the Criminal Law of England, Chitty’s A Practical Treatise of the English Law and a number of Justice of the Peace records from the 18th and 19th centuries.
 See in particular R. Sindall ‘Middle Class Crime in Nineteenth-Century England.’ Criminal Justice History (1983) pp23-40 and G. Robb White-Collar Crime in Modern England. Financial Fraud and Business Morality, 1845-1929 (Cambridge University Press, 1992)
 See for example James Taylor, Creating Capitalism: Joint-stock enterprise in British politics and culture, 1800-1870. (The Royal Historical Society, 2006), Freeman, Pearson and Taylor ‘“A Doe in the City”: Women shareholders in eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain’. Accounting, Business and Financial History, 16:2, pp.265-291.