Violent highway robberies and stealing sheep in the darkness of the night were apparently once rife in Harrow and Stanmore. ALISON LOUISE KENNY delves into new online transcripts of Old Bailey court hearings to investigate the borough's shady criminal past.

IMAGINE a time when professional highwaymen and animal rustlers were on the loose in Harrow - and were whipped, deported or even executed when caught and convicted.

Fascinating details of court proceedings dating as far back as 1674, ranging from trivial misdemeanours to terrifying murders, have been made available on the internet by a team of academics.

The Old Bailey, also known as Justice Hall, the Sessions House, and the Central Criminal Court, was named after the street in which it was located, just off Newgate Street and next to the notorious Newgate Prison, in the western part of the City of London.

Over the centuries the building has been periodically remodelled and rebuilt in ways that both reflected and influenced the changing ways trials were carried out and reported.

The medieval courthouse was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. In 1673 the Old Bailey was rebuilt as a three-storey Italianate brick building.

As a largely rural area west of London, cases involving people from Harrow featured often at the Old Bailey. London's most important criminal court was the scene of many a case of animal theft, with sheep, hens and horses being the usual loot of 'country-fellow'.

Stealing animals to sell at market was a commonplace crime of the poor, but it carried a high penalty - as Henry Abby found out. On December 10, 1690, he was found guilty of stealing geese, a ewe and a lamb and was sentenced to corporal punishment by public whipping.

John Edwards was also found guilty of animal theft in February 1727, but since his goods amounted to less than a shilling, he served the lesser punishment of transportation to America for seven years, the destination for convicts before Australia was discovered.

Being situated on the route in and out of London, Harrow was also the opportune spot for highway robbery with highwaymen, or 'footpads', often stopping carriages on their journeys.

In one case, on January 16, 1684, John Belshar and Roger Massey were tried for violent theft and highway robbery.

Court accounts reveal the criminals "bruised their victim's head very much and bound him and used him in a very barbarous manner and it being dark made their escapes".

After stealing 17 shillings, they fled the scene, but were tracked on foot for five miles in the snow by several citizens and a dog and were eventually found in a haystack with their loot.

The pair were found guilty of their crimes and were sentenced to death.

James Shaw suffered the same fate after a bungled robbery in which he broke the arm of the resident before making off with a substantial amount of silverware. He was caught and found to have previous convictions and so was sentenced for execution.

A Stanmore man was convicted of murder after apparently killing his wife in cold blood. On July 10, 1745, John Rigleton turned himself in to local constabulary after killing his wife, Margaret, with the somewhat nonsensical defence: "I asked her for halfpeny for a halfpeny [sic] and she would not give it to me so I was in the dark or else we used to have light: I did it innocently."

He was sentenced to death. His wife was found to have died from wounds to the neck and stomach.

In 1719, Mary Tame, of Harrow, was tried for the murder of her sister, Elizabeth Tame, who drowned in the family's pond. However, the records show Mary was acquitted on the basis that the "prisoner was an idiot".

Similarly, an anonymous prisoner was tried for "burning her master's barns'' as he would not lend her money to attend a wedding. She too was acquitted as she had "a defect in her understanding evidence in her present stupid carriage at the Bar".

All of these discoveries come as a result of a project website Old Bailey Online, for which a team has digitalised and published all the Old Bailey court proceedings on record between 1674 and 1913.

The project, which took eight years to complete and cost almost £1million, was led by the University of Sheffield.

Professor Robert Shoemaker explained: "Academic historians have known for a long time that these printed trial accounts provided fascinating information about daily life in London, but this information was difficult to access, as it was only available in two microfilm collections containing dozens of reels.

"And finding relevant information on a particular theme or place, for example Harrow, was like finding a needle in a haystack. It just made perfect sense to harness the powers of digitisation and keyword searching to this body of some 120million words."

This huge-scale project has provided social anthropologists and historians with many lessons about the history of London.

Mr Shoemaker added: "We learned about general patterns of behaviour, for example the significant decline of violence in 18th and 19th Century London, and we discovered valuable incidental details about daily life in London, for example, how to order a drink in an alehouse, to buy a leek or where to sit at a play." * You can search and browse the court records at www.oldbaileyonline.org

Find out more about the capital in Museum of London's new book, London: the Illustrated History, published by Penguin today (Thursday).