Gaol Fever

Once again I am indebted to my Canadian friend John Wright for reminding me of some jewels from the history of our criminal courts.   These were gathered together by Lord Justice McKinnon in his book “On Circuit 1924-1937 ” (Cambridge University Press 1940).

In the summer months at the Old Bailey, the judge, as he enters the Court, is presented with a posy of flowers.  And on his desk, and on the floor of the bench, “sweet herbs” are strewn.  Originally, of course, these were precautions against infection of gaol fever from the adjoining Newgate. The “sweet herbs” are now [1940] the dried pot-pourri that you see in a bowl in a lady’s drawing-room.


Chief Justice Lees was “nearly cut off when attending the Old Bailey Sessions in May 1750.  The gaol fever then raged in Newgate . . . and . . . it was communicated, by the prisoners brought into court for trial, to the judges, the jurymen, and the witnesses.  He escaped, though exposed to the contagion; but Mr. Justice Abney, and many others perished.

He made a sharp remonstrance to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen . . . and preventatives were introduced which are still kept up at the Old Bailey — such as fumigating the court several times a day by means of a hot iron plunged into a bucket of vinegar and sweet smelling herbs. (Campbell, Lives of the Chief Justices (1874) Vol. III, p. 75.)


At the Lent Assizes 1730, in Taunton, some prisoners, brought from Ivelchester Gaol, infected the Court; and Lord Chief Baron Pengelley, Sir James Sheppard, Serjeant, John Pigot, esq., Sheriff, and some hundreds besides, died of the distemper.” (John Howard: State of the Prisons (1780) p.12).


At what came to be called ‘the Black Assize’ at Oxford in 1577 “all who were present died within forty hours; the lord chief Baron, the sheriff, and about three hundred more.” (Baker’s Chronicle, quoted by Howard, ibid.) “


I remember the flowers (no longer dried pot–pourri)  that were on the judge’s bench when I first served as a judge marshal at Assizes in the early 1960s.  However, this tradition, like so many others, was swept away when the Crown Courts were nationalised in 1971 and the bureaucrats had to account to the dead hand of an unknowing Treasury for every penny piece they spent.


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