The History of the Common Law: What Can We Learn from the Ryder Sources?
Articles,  Blog

The History of the Common Law: What Can We Learn from the Ryder Sources?

I’m Professor Thomas Gallanis, and this is the first in a series of new videos called “Iowa Thinking.” The aim of the video series is to share with a wider audience the scholarly and professional activities of the faculty here at the University of Iowa Law School. My aim in this video is to discuss one of
my scholarly projects. The project is in legal history, and is being done for publication by the Selden Society in England. The Selden Society is a learned society dedicated to the study of English legal history and the publication in book form of original source material that sheds light on the history of English law and legal institutions. The book that I am preparing is a scholarly
edition of the notes of Sir Dudley Ryder, who served as Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench from 1754 to 1756. As Chief Justice, Ryder presided at more than 280 trials both civil and criminal. He took detailed notes partly so that he could summarize the evidence to the jurors before they began their deliberations, and partly in the event of post-trial review of the decision. For example, if the losing party made a motion for a new trial, in which case, Ryder’s recollection of what happened at trial would be crucial. Many judges in this era took notes during the trial because there were no official trial reports: no courtroom stenographer. What makes Ryder’s notes so important is that Ryder knew shorthand. His notes contain a wealth of detail that no other set of eighteenth century judges’ notes has been able to match. This is why his notes are such a valuable
source for legal historical scholarship. Until the second half of the twentieth century, Ryder’s notes were not accessible. No one had deciphered his shorthand. Ryder used a personal shorthand: not a standard one. Essentially, it was a secret code unknown and unreadable outside the Ryder family. The person who deciphered Ryder’s shorthand was named Kenneth Perrin. Perrin was a graduate of Oxford University who worked during World War II as a code breaker at Bletchley Park. Perrin was part of the team that deciphered signals from the German Engima machines. After the war, Perrin stayed in government
service, and worked for much of the rest of his life at GCHQ, the English equivalent of our National Security Agency. Perrin had a strong interest in English history particularly Parliamentary history. He was enlisted by Ryder’s descendants, the Earls of Harrowby, to decipher Ryder’s shorthand. By August 1975, Perrin finished the transcription of Ryder’s trial notes, and it’s because of his work at cracking the code of Ryder’s shorthand that we are able to use Ryder’s notes and diaries from his years as a judge as historical sources. Let me illustrate some of the ways in which
these Ryder’s sources shed important light on the history of English law and legal institutions in the middle of the eighteenth century. I’ll give three examples. First, the Ryder notes provide a rare window into what was arguably the centerpiece of English civil litigation: namely the trial. Sir William Blackstone described the trial as “the glory of the English law.” But in Ryder’s day, there was no regular reporting of civil trials, so the Ryder notes give us access to the trial. They reveal that civil trials in the middle of the eighteenth century were very different from the trials we know today. For example, in Ryder’s era, there was a much looser approach to the admissibility of testimony. We do not see lawyers in the eighteenth century objecting when witnesses made statements that were clearly hearsay. Nor do we see any inquiry made about whether a witness would be qualified to give evidence of opinion; what we would today call expert evidence. Testimony, whether hearsay or opinion, or whatever, was much more readily admissible in Ryder’s day then in later eras. Lawyers were active in various aspects of litigation, but not in raising objections in an effort to block testimony from the ears of the jury. Second, the Ryder notes shed light not only on the civil trial but the criminal trial, as well. For the last thirty years or so, the history of the criminal trial has been written primarily from the Sessions Papers of the Old Bailey in London. But the Sessions Papers were pamphlets prepared for, and sold to, a readership of the lay public. They record aspects of the trial that would be of interest to the public, not necessarily what was of interest to lawyers or to legal historians. To take one example, scholars have tried valiantly to mine the Sessions Papers for data on the question, “To what extent were criminal defendants represented by counsel?” But the presence, or absence, of a lawyer was not terribly interesting to the readership at the time, and the Sessions Papers are often silent. The Ryder notes are more revealing. They provide a useful corrective to the Sessions Papers. The Ryder notes also shed light to the Sessions Papers. The Ryder notes also shed light on whether we’re using the right interpretive rules to read the Sessions Papers. For example, one might think that if the Sessions Papers refer to cross-examination, then there must have been a lawyer conducting it. But this would be a mistake. Ryder himself used the word, “cross-examination,” even when it’s clear no lawyer was present. For example, when the defendant was questioning a prosecution witness. So by comparing the Ryder notes of criminal trials to the Sessions Papers, we can understand the Sessions Papers better, and use them more carefully in reconstructing the history of the criminal trial. My third example, and the last one I’ll give, about how the Ryder sources shed light on English law and legal institutions in the middle of the eighteenth century, comes from the diaries that Ryder kept in addition to his trial notes, and these diaries have also been decoded by Kenneth Perrin. The diaries give us an invaluable window into the work of being a judge. and indeed, being the Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench charged with the management of the court and the head of the judiciary. In reading Ryder’s diaries, we learn about the responsibilities of the Chief Justice… both practical and ceremonial…both large and small. From handling the financial business of the court to organizing dinners with the other judges. Everything was new to Ryder, and he wrote it down in his diaries. So we see him not only doing his job at trial, but also teaching himself how to do his job. The diaries are detailed and candid, and they give us a remarkable glimpse into an eighteenth century judge’s work and life. In this brief video, I’ve aimed to give an overview of the Ryder sources and explain how they shed valuable light on English law and legal institutions in the middle of the eighteenth century. My hope is that the published Selden Society volume, which will appear in 2015, will be of interest, not only to legal historians, but to many other kind of historians, too, with many different questions for research. Indeed, there’s much in the Ryder’s sources that should be of interest to social, political, and economic historians, and many other historians, too. And I hope that they find the project as valuable as will the students and historians of the English common law.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *