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.

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