Legal and Social Change since 1750

This information is for the 2017/18 session.


This course is available on the BA in Anthropology and Law and LLB in Laws. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.

Course content

This course examines developments in British legal history in the era from 1750 to 1914. Drawing on printed and electronic primary sources, as well as secondary literature, it will explore the changing nature of law in a number of areas. The course begins with an exploration of the nature of eighteenth century criminal justice, and how this was transformed in the nineteenth century. It will then examine the nature of the system of civil justice, and how this was reformed in the era before the Judicature Acts. In the second term, the course will explore topics relating to status, examining the attitude taken by the law to women, workers and slaves. A final set of topics will turn to explore the impact of law on economic change, looking at how the law facilitated the growth of a modern economy.

The course will be taught by a combination of lectures and seminars in the Michaelmas and Lent Terms. Seminars take the form of a short introductory presentation by one or more students followed by class discussion in which all are expected to participate.

Lecture and Seminar Topics

Michaelmas term: The first term is devoted to an examination of the criminal and civil justice systems in the eighteenthand nineteenth centuries. Topics covered in the first term include the prosecution of crime in the era of the ‘Bloody Code’, the nature of the criminal trial before and after the arrival of criminal barristers in the courtroom, the reform of criminal punishments and the rise of the prison and modern policing. In the second half of the term, the course looks at the system of the civil courts, the nature of civil litigation and the reform of the major courts. It looks at topics including the ‘old corrupt’ court of Chancery depicted in Dickens’s Bleak House and its reform into the modern Chancery Division.

Lent term: The second term is devoted to exploring the impact of law on society and the economy. Topics explored include the law relating to married women and the custody of children, the law of slavery, and the law relating to workers and trade unions. The economic topics addressed include the law relating to the environment, the transformation of tort and contract law, and the law relating to business organisation.


20 hours of lectures and 5 hours of classes in the MT. 20 hours of lectures and 5 hours of classes in the LT. 4 hours of lectures and 1 hour of classes in the ST.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 2 essays in the MT and LT.

Students who choose to be assessed by unseen examination must submit one essay each term. Those submitting a dissertation will produce outlines and drafts that will be used for formative coursework purposes.

Indicative reading

Reading will be suggested during the course.


Exam (100%, duration: 3 hours, reading time: 15 minutes) in the main exam period.

Students can choose to be assessed by 100% examination or 100% dissertation.

Key facts

Department: Law

Total students 2016/17: Unavailable

Average class size 2016/17: Unavailable

Capped 2016/17: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

PDAM skills

  • Communication
  • Specialist skills