Court Number One by Thomas Grant – Review
By Sandra Callard
Thomas Grant’s book about famous trials at the Old Bailey is a revelation. A superlative book about the trials that defined Modern Britain, it is written with a clear and insightful prose that any uninitiated legal mind can understand. It reveals how late nineteenth and early twentieth century attitudes to race, women and sex are startlingly bizarre and unacceptable to the twenty-first century eye, but the cases depicted are nevertheless compulsive reading.
Grant covers eleven famous cases, including the trials of Jeremy Thorpe, Timothy Evans and John Christie, Ruth Ellis and William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw). Each trial documented was held in Court One at the Old Bailey in London, the most prestigious and famous courtroom in the world, and each one is written in tight, intricate and impeccably descriptive language. Grant mainly concentrates on the flamboyance and grandiloquence of the defence barristers, who almost flouted the law themselves to win a case, but who nevertheless achieved public approval and celebrity when they won a case against the odds.
The Old Bailey’s Court One is painstakingly described in all its surprisingly small grandeur, and is designed in such a manner that the voices of the judge, counsel and witnesses can be clearly heard. There is a printed plan of Court One which distinctly shows the intimacy of the famous chamber, whilst in no way diminishing its stature.
Some of the cases are heartbreaking, as in the case of Timothy Evans, who was wrongly hanged for a murder which, along with many other murders, had been committed by serial killer John Christie at the infamous house at 11 Rillington Place, London.
Others are entertaining to say the least. The bizarre case that resulted from a showing of disgraced Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, which was evocatively and very explicitly danced by Maud Allan, is a case in point. Purist and self-styled saviour of chastity, MP Noel Pemberton Billings, publicly cast disgusting aspersions on Maud and was sued for criminal and obscene libel by herself and her promoter J. T. Grein. The six days that followed had London in uproar. Sexual words were used that nobody had heard before. In the absence of modern electronic entertainment, this was the best entertainment going.
This is a fascinating book, beautifully written and carefully explained, which follows the culture of society through time over the last hundred and fifty years, and sketches out the outstanding merits and mistakes the law has made over the years, and also the ongoing measures which are taken by constitution and law to correct past errors.
This is not a book to read cover to cover, although the fascination was so great that it was difficult to put it down. But the telling of each individual case is complete in itself and can be read as single stories, which can pass a pleasant, informative and captivating evening. If ever you think the law is a dry and crusty subject, think again. This book makes it both admirable and flawed, humane and quirky, and it is England’s pride that it is still the best there is in a daunting and unjust world.
‘Court Number One: The Old Bailey Trials That Defined Modern Britain’ by Thomas Grant is published by John Murray, hardback £25