Happy New Year or, perhaps, happy Twelfth Night. It is the eve of Epiphany and also the return of our academic term. We mark time in various ways – by the year, by our age and, sometimes, by memorable events or milestones. I noticed this the other week when I was exploring my favourite historical database, Old Bailey Online and ran a search for “Christmas”. It returned 4417 hits, most of which were in reference to a particular Christmas Day as in the testimony given against Mark Fenton for housebreaking in February 1695: “he Prisoner came to see the House (it being to Lett) a little before Christmas last”.1
Other Christian holidays also figure in the trial reports and Ordinary’s Accounts that make up the database records, but much less often: Easter less than a thousand, Michaelmas over five hundred times, Midsummer half that and Whitsun half that again. Epiphany occurs five times, three of the accounts referring to one Epiphany Parker (tried in 1776 and 1777 for crimes, but only found guilty in the second instance, for which she then appears in the punishment summary to work five years on the river.2 The other two mentions of the holiday focus on readings, albeit in very different circumstances (one, the Ordinary’s description of his readings for the third Sunday of Epiphany and the other, a man suffering mental illness, who assaulted his daughter after reading the gospel for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany.
Another interesting temporal term, “birthday” comes up over 250 times beginning in the 1740s, with frequent links to the monarch’s birthday which would have been a noteworthy moment of public celebration (as well as, possibly, an opportunity for street crime or public conflict).
I began to explore other temporal phrases, such as “Tuesday last” which turns up 241 instances. These types of phrases are more elastic – suggesting trials that closely followed offenses, allowing individuals such as Sarah Loyzada to locate her experience precisely as in her account from the December 1732 trial of Ebenezer Dun:
“I live in Castle-Yard in Houndsditch . On Tuesday last was a Fortnight, I made my House fast, and went to Bed. The Watch call’d me up about 1 in the Morning, I found my Kitchen Casement taken off, and miss’d 4 Pewter Dishes, a Stew-pan, a Sauce-pan, and a Coffee-pot.”3
If I can take the time to read through another couple of hundred trials, I may come up with another group of test phrases and terms to see how the past is measured in these accounts: what are the habits of mind and turns of phrase that leap to the tongue when explaining when something happened in eighteenth or nineteenth century London courts? How did individuals and the broader society parse time outside the formal strictures of the calendar? How did people remember and recall, then, and what does it tell us about English life?
1. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 06 January 2014), February 1695, trial of Mark Fenton, alias Felton (t16950220-27).
2. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 06 January 2014), February 1777 (s17770219-1).
3. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 06 January 2014), December 1732, trial of Ebenezer Dun (t17321206-23).