Sex, the law and the press in Georgian London

The Prince Regent dancing with another man's wife at his debauched birthday party
The Prince Regent dancing with another man’s wife at his debauched birthday party

A taste for salacious gossip, particularly that of a sexual nature, is nothing new. It’s a stereotype, but probably a true one, that Georgian London was a bawdy place and had no shortage of scandal to go round. The spreading of scandalous stories was helped by the 18th century explosion in the newspaper trade, particularly in London. In 1770, London had 5 daily papers; by the 1780s it had 9 dailies, 8 tri-weeklies and 9 weeklies. Aside from political and financial news, a large part of what was driving that growth was the reportage of scandal, whether sexual or otherwise. Given all this, it’s not surprising that legal cases concerning rape, sodomy, bestiality and adultery were eagerly followed and commented upon in the papers. Entrepreneurial businessmen would print cheap mass-produced pamphlets with an account of everything which had happened in a trial, although their reliability is doubtful; sometimes the note-taker in court would get bored or confused and left out bits and misreported others.

One of the more curious Old Bailey cases depicted in Garrow’s Law is that of the prostitute Susannah Hill, who was prosecuted in 1791 by William Garrow on the charge of hanging a man named Frantisek Kotzwara. On 2nd February of 1791, Kotzwara, a Czech musician and small-time composer, visited Hill in her lodgings in Vine Street (an alley in Westminster, now more famous for its place on the London Monopoly board). After dinner, he gave her two shillings and asked her to castrate him. Hill refused, but not wanting to lose Kotzwara’s custom, she agreed to his next odd proposition. He tied a noose around his neck which was attached to the doorknob, and they had sex. After the deed was done, Kotzwara was found dead.

It’s one of the first recorded cases of erotic asphyxiation. (Interestingly, Victorian men who also got aroused by the sensation of being partially hanged could visit ‘Hanged Mens’ Clubs’, in which death by asphyxiation was more of an unfortunate side effect than a planned event). In the subsequent murder trial at the Old Bailey, the jury acquitted Hill because it seemed to have been an accident, at least on her part. Someone – probably the judge – requested that the court records of the trial be destroyed in order to avoid scandal and a slew of copycat cases. It’s very likely that a copy got out anyway, since a pamphlet published in 1797, Modern Propensities; or, An Essay on the Art of Strangling, featured a detailed summary of the trial along with Hill’s memoirs. The front cover illustration of Hill and Kotzwara looking rather jolly, shown below along with the title page, is so prominent that it’s obvious that this pseudo-scientific pamphlet relied very heavily on the scandalous in order to sell.

Modern Propensities

Modern Propensities Title Page











One perennially bestselling source of sexual scandal is of course adultery. It’s a theme which runs throughout Garrow’s Law and indeed throughout the Georgian press. Then as now, the general public would shake their heads in outrage at the news of some extramarital affair and were only too quick to swallow whatever the media told them. In many cases no doubt the Georgian readers did hold genuine moral beliefs against adultery. Yet these stories wouldn’t have sold as half as well as they did if there wasn’t a keen interest in sexual scandal, hiding behind all the public prurience.

From a modern perspective we might assume that when a husband initiated adultery proceedings, it would be against his wife. That wasn’t the case in Georgian England, where the injured husband would bring an action against his wife’s supposed lover. The lover hadn’t committed a criminal offence as such, but if found guilty of adultery (‘criminal conversation’ as it was euphemistically known) he would have to pay the husband compensation, the idea being that he’d damaged the other man’s property (his wife). Because of this, adultery trials took place in the civil courts, particularly in the Court of the King’s Bench.

Westminster Hall, where the Court of the King's Bench oversaw criminal conversation suits
Westminster Hall, where the Court of the King’s Bench oversaw criminal conversation suits

The criminal conversation trial between William Garrow and Sir Arthur Hill shown in Garrow’s Law never actually occurred in real life, but the show’s writers based it on an actual trial which is interesting for its rather extraordinary outcome. Sir Richard Worsley (1751-1805) was a politician and antiquarian who married 17-year-old Seymour Dorothy Fleming in 1775. Although she brought the considerable sum of £70,000 into the marriage, they were badly suited and the marriage soon fell apart. Lady Worsley was rumoured to have had 27 lovers. She had a child by Maurice George Bisset, an officer of the Hampshire militia and a friend of Sir Richard’s, with whom she then ran off in November 1781. Although Sir Richard had previously acknowledged the child as his own in order to avoid scandal, after their elopement he was out for revenge, and in 1782 he brought a criminal conversation case against Bisset for £20,000. At first the case looked like a strong one. Lady Worsley’s past history of adultery would tell against her, and there was fairly sound evidence to show that she had lain with Bisset. But as the trial unfolded, shocking revelations brought the prosecution into doubt.

Various witnesses described how Sir Richard didn’t seem to care about Lady Worsleys’ adultery and even encouraged it. The counsel for the prosecution revealed that when various ladies from their neighborhood had warned Sir Richard that he ought to keep his wife in check, he replied that ‘Lady Worsley liked it, and he chose to…oblige her’. Following this, Lord Deerhurst gave evidence that Sir Richard had told him ‘that many young Men had tried her…and that I had his permission to try my chance with her’.The case was ultimately undone by the revelation that Sir Richard had actually displayed his wife naked to Bisset at the bath-house at Maidstone, shouting ‘Seymour! Seymour! Bisset is looking at you’. Being convinced of the adultery, the jury found for Sir Richard, but obviously they weren’t very impressed with him since they only awarded him 1 shilling in damages. The sensational trial found its way into the press, and you could buy a printed transcription for (ironically) one shilling. Sir Richard Worsley was ever after laughed at as a cuckold.
Sir Richard Worsley
Sir Richard Worsley
Lady Worsley
Lady Worsley

Further Reading

Criminal (in)justice in 18th-century England

A trial at the Old Bailey, c.1808
A trial at the Old Bailey, c.1808

This the first of three posts which will look at the history behind the TV series Garrow’s Law. Garrow’s Law is an immensely entertaining series based on the life of the barrister William Garrow (1760-1840). It has its historical inaccuracies – for one thing, quite a few of the cases attributed to Garrow were not his in real life. Nevertheless, it remains a fascinating portrait of the criminal justice system in the later 18th century, and Garrow is an interesting figure worth our attention. Particularly in his early years of criminal practice at the Old Bailey (the central criminal court in London), Garrow fought hard for justice for all, in a justice system plagued with corruption and inequality.

Criminal (in)justice in 18th century England
Because the popular representation of the 18th century is intimately bound up with the Enlightenment, many people today tend to think of it as a time when society was inexorably moving into the light of a golden rational future and climbing out of the dark, superstitious seventeenth century/medieval era/Dark Ages/whichever awful, patently irrational period you care to name. However, looking at the criminal justice system, many of the features which we take for granted were actually formalised under the philanthropic, reformingpioneering awful, stuffy, prudish Victorians. The Georgians were not particularly enlightened in their treatment of criminals; 18th century England was a terrible place in which to be accused of a crime. If you were accused of a felony (murder, rape, arson or theft) you were not allowed defense counsel in court until 1730 and were very unlikely to have it even after then, and if you were found guilty, your offence was likely to be severe whatever your crime.

This is because the 18th century witnessed the enormous expansion of the so-called ‘Bloody Code’. In 1688 there were 50 offences which carried the death penalty; by 1800 there were 200 offences punishable by hanging. Perhaps inevitably, the majority of these were what we would see as minor offences. People were hanged for offences ranging from perjury, to ‘impersonating another to receive a seaman’s wage’, to destroying silk on a loom, to the theft of sheep and cattle. That not all of those people convicted of capital offences were actually hanged does not change the fact that there was a widespread  culture of capital punishment. In London, the executions at Tyburn were public spectacles which could draw crowds of thousands.

A gallows ticket to see the execution of the infamous thieftaker and criminal gang leader, Jonathan Wild, in 1725
A gallows ticket to see the execution of the infamous thieftaker and criminal gang leader, Jonathan Wild, in 1725
A hanging at Tyburn, London
A hanging at Tyburn, London


If you were convicted of a felony in 1700, your trial might go something like this:

If you can afford it, you are allowed to ask for a lawyer’s advice on points of law relating to your case. However, you’re not allowed to have a lawyer to represent you in the courtroom, although the prosecutor is. You enter the courtroom in the knowledge that you are presumed guilty until proven otherwise, so the jury are already biased against you. Your trial is very brief; most trials are only 30 minutes long (that includes the jury’s deliberation). You are expected to make your own defense, the idea being that ‘it requires no manner of Skill to make a plain and honest Defence’; if you’re truly not guilty, your countenance will clearly radiate innocence.  But you might be too intimidated, too illiterate, or just too drunk to say anything, let alone formulate such a defense as will convince the jury to acquit. The courtroom is dominated by the judge, who interrogates your witnesses. The entire system is skewed towards the prosecution. If  the jury finds you guilty of a felony, you will very likely face hanging or transportation. Age, disability and gender are no barriers – children can be, and are, sentenced to death for stealing food. When the judge sentences you to hang, he says that you will ‘be taken from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead’, adding ‘the Lord have mercy on your soul’.

Aside from the lack of adequate representation, there were other major problems within the criminal justice system. Perjury was rife, not because people were inherently untruthful, but because the whole system was set up in a way which (unintentionally) encouraged it. The government offered rewards for successful criminal convictions. A certain profession of men called ‘thief-takers’, whose heyday was from the 1720s to the 1750s, took advantage of these. Private citizens would go to a thieftaker and ask them to apprehend a criminal, and the thieftaker would be paid with a share of the reward money. The problem was that often, in their desperation for money, they would apprehend just about anyone and thus profit from the conviction of innocent men and women.

All of these problems with the criminal justice system – the Bloody Code, the difficulty of defense representation, perjury, and dishonest thieftakers – are covered in Garrow’s Law. The next post will look at how William Garrow attempted to address these issues, often successfully.

William Garrow, a legal pioneer

In the 18th and 19th centuries, criminal barristers were viewed by many people with suspicion and even hostility. A cartoon from around 1800 portrays a barrister saving a clearly guilty thief whilst trampling on the figure of Justice. In a way, it’s not so different from the dislike which criminal barristers arouse in some people today. But William Garrow (1760-1840) was unusual. He was part of the first generation of ‘Old Bailey barristers’ and through his eloquence and devastating effectiveness, he gained a reputation as an excellent criminal defense barrister and was propelled into the public eye, helping to reform the criminal justice system as he went along.

William Garrow
William Garrow

William Garrow and his indecent behaviour
Garrow was called to the Bar in 1783 and spent the first decade of his career at the Old Bailey. His immense rhetorical talents gained him widespread personal fame; he was known for his impassioned speeches which could move juries to tears, and for his aggressive cross-examination of witnesses. An article from 1832 recounts how ‘he seemed every now and then to destroy, almost to annihilate, an adverse witness’. Even when it might have been more useful to take a milder approach, Garrow ‘could not resist the temptation of making a great impression on the jury and bystanders’. Garrow’s aggressive courtroom style could, however, get him into trouble with the judge, as this rather humorous altercation between him and Mr Justice Heath demonstrates:

Heath    You must not interrupt your objection is premature.
Garrow  My Lord I was not objecting I was going on with my Examination & your Lordship did me the honour to Interrupt me.
Heath    You will examine your Witness with some degree of decency your Conduct & behaviour are very improper what you do here is by permission of the Court in a Criminal Case.
Garrow  My Lord I Object to the Witness being examined & I take the liberty to state my objection to the Court.
Heath    You must examine your witness
Garrow  I have a right to my Objection.
Heath    If you do not examine your witness you shall sit down
Garrow  My Lord I shall not sit down.
Heath    Then I shall Commit you
Garrow  So your Lordship may
Heath    Then I certainly will commit you
Garrow  There is a point of Law to be argued
Heath    There is no point of Law and if there was you are to be assigned to the Court but you are to behave with Decency
Garrow  So I do my Lord I have not been used to be interrupted I am here to argue points of Law for the prisoner.
Heath    You have no right till you are Assigned
Garrow  If you tell me so my Lord I sit down
Heath    I tell you so.
Garrow  I sit down.

‘The honourable business of thief-taking’
Garrow had a particular hatred for thieftakers (men who would arrest supposed criminals in order to get a share of the government reward for successful conviction), believing them to be dishonest rascals. Consequently, whenever he was defending and they appeared as witnesses for the prosecution, he would show no mercy in his cross-examinations. In one such case, Garrow was defending two men against the accusation of breaking and entering. The thieftaker involved in the case, Joseph Levy, untruthfully said that one of the men had confessed his guilt on their way to the magistrate’s office. This is part of Garrow’s cross examination of Levy, in which Levy gave as good as he got:

Q [Garrow] Now, Master Levy, otherwise Joe the Barber [his underworld name], how long have you been in this honourable business of thief-taking?
A [Levy] I cannot rightly tell you.
Q Now guess a little, ever since you was convicted and pardoned, ha! Speak man, how long have you been a thief-taker?
Longer than you have been a Counsellor.
. . . . .
Q How many trials did you appear upon last Sessions?
Never a one, only one
What, there was no blood money last Sessions?
If there were no thieves, how would you get a brief?

This dialogue is reproduced almost in its entirety in 0:00 – 1:00 in this video (from ‘Garrow’s Law’, Season 1, Episode 1)

Jonathan Wild, notorious thief-taker and criminal gang leader.
Jonathan Wild, notorious thief-taker and criminal gang leader.

‘He that speaketh lies, shall perish’
As I mentioned in my last post, perjury was widespread in Georgian England, due in large part to the government rewards on offer for successful criminal convictions. In the following case, the prosecutor, Mr Grove, had accused Mr Wingrove (Garrow’s client) of highway robbery. Grove maintained that the defendant had robbed the two men who eventually apprehended him. In fact, they were just smugglers going about their  business, and hadn’t made any charge about being robbed when they were in front of the examining justice the morning afterwards. This exchange shows Garrow’s stubborn determination to force answers from reluctant witnesses, along with his capacity for sarcasm and repartee:

Q [Garrow] Who are these two men, let us hear a little about them?
A [Grove] They are not here…
What business are they, are they not a sort of moon light men [smugglers]?
It was not moon-light
Are they not a couple of smugglers?
They may as far as I know.
So they told you they had been robbed?
A Yes.
Did they give any charge against Mr Wingrove?
A I do not know what you mean by charges
Q I believe you are pretty well used to charges; did these two smugglers of yours give any charge against this prisoner?
A They are no smugglers of mine.
Q They are friends of yours?
A They are no friends of mine.
They, these two fellows, did they make any charge against Mr Wingrove for robbing them?
Yes, they did make a charge
Do not shuffle, Mr Grove
I do not know what you say.
I will make you know directly; upon your oath, did not these two men attend the next day at Mr Taylor’s [justice of the peace] house and say that Wingrove was not one of the men who robbed them?

In the end, Garrow got Grove to admit that they had made no such charge. There was a strong suspicion among the jury that Grove had prosecuted only in order to get a reward, so they acquitted Wingrove.

Smuggling was a flourishing trade in 18th century England
Smuggling was a flourishing trade in Georgian England

Garrow’s legacy
William Garrow might not have been the saint he is portrayed as in Garrow’s Law, but he was an immensely talented advocate who did significant work towards reforming the criminal justice system. Through pushing the boundaries of what he was allowed to do in court, he played an important role in the rise of advocacy from the 1780s onwards, which allowed both parties to have a voice in court. He also formulated today’s view that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. This is why William Garrow should be remembered by anyone who values the British justice system for the right to representation and the presumption of innocence.