Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Great Legal History Bake Off: a survey of Old Bailey pies

The Great Legal History Bake Off: a survey of Old Bailey pies

It is a question which has, no doubt, been on everyone’s mind this week, as the Great British Bake Off ‘did’ pies: what sort of pies featured in the legal cases of the past? Obviously, that’s one to put through the Old Bailey database  ( ) …

There are many pie references. Pie shops, often eel pie shops, are mentioned with some frequency in descriptions of crimes, and in 80 cases, a pie, with its filling, forms part of the narrative.

So here is the pie chart:

Type of pie Frequency References
Pork 17 t18200112-3, t18400203-682, t18490409-852, t18520405-405, t18570615-676, t18600507-445, t18620922-996 t18630608-856t18650111-157, t18690503-492, t18751122-39, t18820109-225, t18860308-338, t18880227-379, t18910309-275, t19030720-626, t19051113-19
Mince 9 t17410116-40, OA17500516, t17530221-47, t17540424-60,

t18070114-5, t18380226-699, t18510407-841, t18540227-416, t18920307-320

Apple 7 t17190903-11, t17550515-22, t17691206-43, t17730217-29,

t18241202-93, t18381231-465, t18490917-1807

Pigeon 6 t17200427-27, t17320705-17, t17480706-45, t17610625-19



Eel 4 t18190526-103, t18520202-226, t18570406-547, t19101115-78
Giblet 4 t17320114-12, t17581206-24, t17661217-56


Mutton 4 t17190903-11


t18211205-99, t18280529-39

Fruit 3 t18360919-2123, t18510818-1734, t18850727-731
Meat 3 t18490917-1830, t18600402-330, t18660226-282
Currant 2 t18110918-51, t18380820-2009
Veal 2 t18130407-153, t18680706-590
Lamb 2 t17480526-11


Rhubarb 2 t18680608-567 t18740112-139
Rabbit 2 t18450303-784 t18891216-113
Damson 2 t17860111-2


Cherry 2 OA17420113


Beef steak pie 1 t18150405-18
Gooseberry 1 t18300916-305
Steak and giblet 1 t18350921-1984
Kidney 1 t18520202-226
Greengage 1 t18571123-43
Meat and potato 1 t18790805-737
‘fowls’ 1 t17380222-28
Duck 1 t17580222-22
‘Cooper and pork pie’ 1 t18661119-38


It is clear, then, that pork pies are the type most frequently encountered in these crime narratives.  Comiserations to nineteenth century pigs.

But what role did the pies play in the episodes described? Often, they were just mentioned as part of the circumstances, or description of a scene. On occasion, however, they took a more central part.

The most pie-centric case is probably an embezzlement case of the 1880s, in which the whole thing turned on whether or not a pork pie had been ordered (t18820109-225).

In several coinage offence cases, the item bought with a false coin was a pie: often a cheaper variety of pie, suggesting some degree of desperation on the part of the attempted purchaser: (mince pie – t18380226-699; pork pie  t18490409-852 ; penny mince pie – t18510407-841; eel pie, kidney pie t18520202-226 ; eel pie, t18570406-547 ; penny meat pie t18600402-330; Pork pie,t18650111-157; Twopenny meat pie, t18660226-282; Veal pie t18680706-590; Fruit pie t18850727-731; Pork pie, t18910309-275; Penny mince pie, t18920307-320; penny eel pie – t19101115-78).

A pie was also one of the things stolen by burglars in a number of cases (e.g. t18130407-153). Some of these were pies of considerably greater value than in the coining cases (e.g. pork pie, value 2s, 1820 t18200112-3; gooseberry pie price 2s 6d –  t18300916-305). Sometimes the pie itself was not the thing stolen – the spoon used to eat it being rather more valuable (t18360919-2123).

A pie might be evidence of an offence – so when a considerable quantity of eels (70 lbs) were stolen from a boat in 1815, they were found in a ‘very large’ pie (t18190526-103) in the prisoner’s house (along with a slimy sack and eel skins and guts). Similar pie-related attempts at disposal of stolen animals can be seen in cases involving sheep, pigs and ducks (t17480526-11, t17580222-22, t18220417-149; t18280529-39; t18520405-405).

No poisoned pies feature in the records: the closest to this is the beef steak pie in a non-fatal poisoning case of 1815 (t18150405-18). In this case, however, it is the dumplings which are suspected of having been laced with arsenic by a disgruntled employee. The presence of a mouldy pie is part of the case for child neglect in an 1865 case (t18651023-946), while the regular provision of ‘pie with potatoes and meat in it’ is taken as evidence against mistreatment in a workhouse (t18790805-737). The health-giving properties of pies are suggested by the mention of sending mutton and apple ‘pyes’  to somebody who was unwell (t17190903-11) and sending a fruit pie to a hospital patient (t18510818-1734). The most grisly pie-related tale is the infanticide case in which the dead baby’s body was found in a pie dish (t18610408-344) – though this sounds like concealment rather than attempted cannibalism.

Pies, then, clearly have an important place in legal and social history. The world of those caught up in Old Bailey trials of the 19th and early 20th centuries was a world stuffed full (as a pie) of pies, pie-shops and pie-men. So legal history and pastry have more in common than pie powder (and the fact that there is a major living legal historian with the surname Baker …)

GS 18/9/2015


The Lord and the Law Part IV: Capital punishment in the Lord Peter Wimsey novels of Dorothy L Sayers

The date of writing and setting of the Wimsey novels means that the killers unmasked by the aristocratic sleuth are liable to execution by hanging. It is not something from which Sayers shrinks, nor something which Wimsey can ignore.

There are anti-hanging voices in the novels. The ‘fast’ and drug-addled Dian de Momerie in MMA expresses negative sentiments about the death penalty, for example, telling Wimsey ‘I went to a murder trial once. There was a horrible old man, the Judge – I forget his name. He was like a wicked old scarlet parrot, and he [gave the death sentence] as though he liked it (MMA loc 3291). In GN, Miss Barton, a rather ridiculous figure, is also opposed to capital punishment. She bases this on a sympathetic view of murderers: ‘Our attitude to this whole thing seems to me completely savage and brutal. I have met so many murderers when visiting prisons, and most of them are very harmless, stupid people, poor creatures, when they aren’t definitely pathological.’ (GN, 36). This view is put down by our heroine, Harriet Vane, who comments that Miss Barton ‘might feel differently about it …if [she had] happened to meet the victims. They are often still stupider and more harmless than the murderers. But they don’t make a public appearance. Even the jury needn’t see the body unless they like. But I saw the body in that Wilvercombe case – I found it, and it was beastleir than anything you can imagine.’ … ‘And … you don’t see the murderers actively engaged in murdering. You see them when they’re caught and caged and looking pathetic. But the Wilvercombe man was a cunning, avaricious brute, and quite ready to go on and do it again, if he hadn’t been stopped’ (ibid.)

A more unusual view is expressed in Gaudy Night by Miss Edwards. While she feels that hanging is ‘wasteful and unkind’, she does not think murderers deserve to be ‘comfortably fed and housed while decent people go short’, and concludes that, as a matter of economics, ‘they should be used for laboratory experiments’. Lord Peter is not keen. (GN, 408).

Wimsey has at some point seen an execution, the implication being that he felt it his duty, if he was involving himself in the investigation of murder, and the conviction of murderers, to take some responsibility for the consequences of so doing: ‘I got permission to see a hanging once… I thought I’d better know … but it hasn’t cured me of meddling.’ (BH, 430). Clearly he has thought about it deeply, and put himself in the position of the condemned prisoner: ‘They give them something to make them sleep … It’s a merciful death compared to most natural ones … It’s only the waiting and knowing beforehand… And the ugliness. … Old Johnson was right, the procession to Tyburn was kinder … “The hangman with his gardener’s gloves comes through the padded door” (BH 430-31). It is made clear that he does feel his responsibility: he suffers from ‘nervous depression’ after an execution, when he has been involved in the case. (TD, loc. 309, and particularly in the last chapters of BH). Wimsey finds it particularly difficult to contemplate hanging a woman, despite an intellectual conviction that there should be equality here:‘Peter was conscious of a curious reluctance. Theoretically, he was quite a ready to hang a woman as a man, but the memory of Miss Twitterton, frenziedly clingng to Harriet, was disturbing to him.(BH, 163).

The overall view of the capital punishment question from the leading characters is positive in intellectual terms, but it is clear that the whole business is emotionally troubling. His views on and involvement in capital punishment provide some of the more thoughtful and thought-provoking moments in the Wimsey books, and give some interesting insights into contemporary non-abolitionist attitudes.

GS 18/9/2015


WB                  Whose Body? (1923) set 1922?[1]

CW                  Clouds of Witness (1926)

UD                  Unnatural Death (1927)

LPVB              Lord Peter Views the Body (short stories) (1928)

UBC                The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)

SP                    Strong Poison (1930)

FRH                Five Red Herrings (1931)

HHC               Have His Carcase (1932)

HH                  Hangman’s Holiday (short stories) (1933)

MMA              Murder Must Advertise  (1933)

TNT                 The Nine Tailors (1934)

GN                  Gaudy Night (1935)

BH                  Busman’s Honeymoon (1937)

SF                    Striding Folly (short stories, published 1972)


TD                   Thrones, Dominations (by Jill Paton Walsh, based on a sketch by Dorothy L Sayers, 1998)