Very Serious Pecuniary Loss and Inconvenience: A Jury’s Plea

By Cassie Watson; posted 22 September 2019.

The trial of the notorious Rugeley Poisoner, William Palmer, opened at London’s Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, on Wednesday 14 May 1856. When it concluded two weeks later the formidable prosecution team had got its man: Palmer was convicted by a “most respectable jury” and sentenced to death. He was hanged at Stafford on 14 June, entering criminal history as, in the words of Charles Dickens, “the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey dock.”[1] Among the voluminous case papers now extant in The National Archives is a three-page document submitted to the Treasury by three of the jurors, seeking compensation for the “very serious pecuniary loss and inconvenience, not to say injury to health,” that had arisen from their long confinement.[2] This sheds light on a crucial feature of the criminal justice system that is all too often overlooked by historians keen to study criminals and their crimes. What about the jurors?

Jurors room at Central Criminal Court
The jurors’ retiring room at the Central Criminal Court

The classic accounts of the criminal trial jury do not extend to the nineteenth century,[3] while more recent studies have focused on Ireland or twentieth-century England.[4] Historians are certainly aware of the nineteenth-century debates about the role and social status of the trial jury,[5] but we know little about jurors themselves or about the long campaign to secure payment for their service. As David Bentley has noted, calls for payments to those who served on petty juries began as early as 1821, and parliamentarians tried numerous times to secure legislation that would ensure that jurors could be compensated for their time — but without success until 1949 when the Juries Act finally introduced payment for jury service.[6] At a time when most criminal trials, even those for murder, were not particularly long the financial loss caused to the ratepayers who populated jury lists was probably bearable, if distinctly inconvenient; but in a long trial where the jury was sequestered overnight, jurors’ businesses might suffer. This is precisely what happened during the Palmer trial.

The jury
Verbatim Report of the Trial of William Palmer (London: J. Allen, 1856), n. p.

Already the source of sustained public interest, the case against Palmer was extremely complex: he was alleged to have used strychnine to poison his friend and gambling companion John Parsons Cook for financial gain, and the prosecution had to build a careful case against him.[7] The intricate nature of the charge was probably apparent midway through the first day: the Attorney General’s opening address lasted four hours and at its conclusion the jury retired for a short time (“for refreshment”), before the first witness was called.[8] When the Court rose for the day, the jurymen were taken to the London Coffee House, where they remained overnight in the safekeeping of sheriffs’ officers. By Day 3 one of the three presiding judges, Lord Campbell, had suggested that “some facility of breathing fresh air should be afforded to the jury,” as it might otherwise be “impossible to endure the fatigue of so arduous a trial.”[9] The Sheriffs agreed, and the next morning the jurors were allowed to walk in the gardens of the Middle Temple for some time, accompanied by the officer “who had them in charge.”[10] The pattern of an eight-hour trial day (10am to 6pm), followed by sequestration at the London Coffee House and a morning walk the following day (and, probably, an excursion to Epping Forest on the two Sundays),[11] was presumably repeated until the trial ended on 27 May. The jurors, by then quite exhausted, reached their unanimous verdict in 1 hour 17 minutes and Palmer’s fate was sealed.

Jurors sleeping apart at the London Coffee House
The jurors sleeping apart at the London Coffee House

Their service did not go unrecognised. Following Palmer’s removal from the dock, Lord Campbell offered the jurors warm thanks for the task they had performed, admitting that this had come at the cost of “much serious inconvenience.” His final words to them planted the seeds of the subsequent petition to the Treasury: “I only hope, and I doubt not, that you will be rewarded for your patient attention and for the sacrifices which you have made by the approbation of your own consciences and the approving voice of your country.”[12]

jury tableOn 4 July 1856 three of the jurymen submitted a memorial asking the Treasury to award financial compensation for loss of time, since they had been absent from their businesses for so long as a result of “this memorable trial”.[13] It was suggested that the other nine jurors might be expecting that compensation would be forthcoming unsolicited, or that they were “so situated as not to need or desire compensation for the loss of their time.”[14] But these three had suffered real financial harm so, recognising that juries were not allowed expenses but that the Treasury could pay witness and other incidental expenses for Crown prosecutions, urged that their claim should be seen as akin to that of trial witnesses (who had long been paid expenses).[15] They were apologetic, but determined:

The Lord Chief Justice Campbell at the close of the Trial expressed his regret that he had no power to award compensation for the services of the Jury and had your Memorialists been only engaged a few days or even a week, the approval of their consciences and that of the country in performing such a service would have sufficed and under such circumstances they would have felt unwilling to make this appeal to your Lordships but from the length of time occupied in this memorable Trial, the serious and awful responsibility imposed by its peculiar character and the absolute necessity of putting aside all personal or business considerations for such an unusual length of time will it is opined by your Memorialists be some apology for thus intruding upon your Lordships’ attention…[16]

But their plea fell upon deaf ears. On 8 November 1856 the Solicitor General (Sir Richard Bethell) and Attorney General (Sir Alexander Cockburn) gave their decision:

We are clearly of opinion that the [application] cannot be entertained. Whether juries in Criminal Cases should be compensated for loss of time may be [more?] for [consideration] for the Legislature; but so long as the Law does not provide for the [payment] of Juries government can have no authority to select at its discretion [particular] cases as proper for the remuneration of the Jury. It is obvious that such a practice would be objectionable in principle & liable to the grossest abuse; but it is sufficient to say that the [Commissioners] of the Treasury have no authority to make any such [payment].[17]

And there the matter rested, with this relatively mild yet financially painful refusal.

According to The Guardian, jurors are still paid very little: in 2016 they could expect to receive a sum of £32.47 if they served four hours or under, for ten days or fewer, rising to £64.95 for more than four hours a day and further increasing the longer a case lasted.[18] As in the Victorian era, jury service remains a civic duty for which those called cannot expect to receive adequate compensation for loss of time.


All images are taken from Illustrated and Unabridged Edition of The Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer, for Poisoning John Parsons Cook, at Rugeley (London: Ward & Lock, 1856), at

Featured image: The trial of William Palmer, at the Central Criminal Court. The jury is facing the viewer.


[1] Charles Dickens, “The Demeanour of Murderers,” Household Words 13 (1856), p. 505 .

[2] The National Archives (hereafter TNA), TS 25/927, Regina v William Palmer, Application from certain of the jury on the trial of the above for remuneration for their services, 8 Nov 1856.

[3] Thomas Andrew Green, Verdict According to Conscience: Perspectives on the English Criminal Trial Jury 1200–1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985); J. S. Cockburn and Thomas A. Green (eds), Twelve Good Men and True: The Criminal Trial Jury in England, 1200-1800 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988); J. M. Beattie, Policing and Punishment in London, 1660–1750: Urban Crime and the Limits of Terror (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 264-277.

[4] R. Blake Brown, “‛A Delusion, a Mockery, and a Snare’: Array Challenges and Jury Selection in England and Ireland, 1800–1850,” Canadian Journal of History 39 (2004): 1-26; Níamh Howlin, “Controlling Jury Composition in Nineteenth-Century Ireland,” The Journal of Legal History 30 (2009): 227-261; Anne Logan, “‘Building a New and Better Order’? Women and Jury Service in England and Wales, c.1920–70,” Women’s History Review 22 (2013): 701-716; Kevin Crosby, “Restricting the Juror Franchise in 1920s England and Wales,” Law and History Review 37 (2019): 163-207.

[5] A. H. Manchester, Modern Legal History (London: Butterworths, 1980), pp. 95-99.

[6] David Bentley, English Criminal Justice in the Nineteenth Century (London: The Hambledon Press, 1998), p. 94; Juries Act 1949 (12, 13 & 14 Geo VI c. 27).

[7] For a summary of the case against Palmer, who was a surgeon who had given up practice in favour of the turf (he kept racehorses and gambled, unsuccessfully), see George H. Knott, “William Palmer, 1856”, in Famous Trials I, ed. Harry Hodge (London: Penguin Books, 1941), pp. 139-156.

[8] Illustrated and Unabridged Edition of The Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer, for Poisoning John Parsons Cook, at Rugeley (London: Ward & Lock, 1856), p. 23.

[9] Ibid., p. 52.

[10] Ibid., p. 53.

[11] Ibid., p. 65: on Day 4 Lord Campbell suggested that if the jurors were allowed out on Sunday they should not visit a public place, noting that in a similar circumstance a jury had been taken to Epping Forest.

[12] Ibid., p. 184.

[13] TNA TS 25/927 p. 2.

[14] Ibid., p. 1.

[15] On the eighteenth-century origins of expenses payments to prosecutors and witnesses, see J. M. Beattie, Crime and the Courts in England 1660–1800 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), pp. 42-48.

[16] TNA TS 25/927, pp. 2-3.

[17] Ibid., pp. 3 and 3v.

[18] The Guardian, 20 Aug 2016.

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