Megan Ainsworth, Department of English and Cultural History, Liverpool John Moores University
On a recent field trip to one of Liverpool’s most prominent buildings, St. George’s Hall, our ‘Prison Voices’ module was taken beyond the university. The building, regarded as a monument to the city, opened in 1854 and was to serve a multitude of purposes for the people of Liverpool, being both a concert hall and courtroom. The building is renowned for its judicial history. Initially, the Assizes (the nineteenth-century equivalent of the contemporary Crown Court) were conducted at Lancaster which grew to be of great inconvenience and expenditure. Due to the lack of accommodation for holding criminal trials in Liverpool, the Assizes were established in the city in the late 1850s. The old courtroom has an exceedingly formal layout, not to mention intimidating atmosphere, since many proceedings held at the court dealt with the most serious offences.
In relation to our research, regarding the Liverpool assizes, our focus in the lecture and seminar centred on nineteenth-century cases of street robbery which were tried there. We analyzed the meanings within these cases, in particular, how the familial background of the accused, their reputation, and the location of their offences may have impacted on their legal treatment. We also considered the criminalisation of men in nineteenth-century courtrooms.
Figure 1: The judge’s chair in the courtroom at St George’s Hall
In one of the cases we looked at entitled, ‘Caught at Last’ (Liverpool Mercury, 28 October, 1853) we considered the representation of the robber, James Corrigan. Corrigan, ‘a young man whose misdeeds have rendered him a well-known character to the police’ was charged with robbing an Australian emigrant who was admonished in court for showing off ‘his 180 sovereigns, stowed in a belt which he wore around his waist’ (Ibid.). Corrigan was reprimanded for his previous convictions, drunkenness, violence and for being a regular at the notorious pub, The Blind Beggar, while the victim, John Jones, was castigated for his bawdy display of money. We examined other cases drawn from the 1850s and 60s and one of the key themes was the fact that the majority of victims and offenders were male. That the offenders were brought before the Assize court, and therefore their crimes were regarded as most serious or threatening, reinforces Clive Emsley’s argument that men, and particularly young men, were increasingly criminalized through the nineteenth century (Emsley, 2005).
Figure 2: View from the dock: The steps leading from the dock to the holding cells where James Corrigan once stood
Liverpool Mercury, 28th October, 1853
C. Emsley, Hard Men: The English and Violence since 1750 (London, Hambledon Press, 2005)