Thursday, 30 January 2014

Case Dismissed: Three Weird Victorian Court Cases

Harriet and her Feathers

Harriet Sweetman was charged before Brighton Borough Bench, says the Cliftonville & Hove Mercury of Friday 15 August 1879, with stealing a quantity of feathers from a bed at the house of Lucy Austin at 46 Spring Gardens. With one feather being pretty much like another, the Bench considered it quite impossible that Lucy Austin could identify the feathers with those that covered her bed, so they discharged the prisoner.
Policemen in Trenchcoats, 1919, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Benefit of the Doubt

On 21 February 1879, according to the Cliftonville and Hove Mercury, a young man called James Herriot was made to account for himself. He'd been feeling tired and lay down to rest in a shed - but the shed happened to adjoin a fowl house on East Hill Farm in Portslade, which was the property of a Mr. Stanford.  James was discovered sleeping peacefully by the foreman, who was immediately suspicious of finding him so close to the cocks and hens.

"He was suspected of "fowl" play," claimed the reporter. (Most Victorian reporters seemed to enjoy being sarcastic at the unfortunate prisoner's expense.)

James was induced to change his sleeping arrangement at the shed for the less comfortable one at the Police Court. James claimed he was just tired and wanted to rest his bones, and so, this time, the magistrate gave him the benefit of the doubt and the case was dismissed.

A Zealot Gets his Comeuppance

The Cliftonville & Hove Mercury of Friday 10 November 1880 reported the case of William Stark, aged 22, a sergeant of the 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards now stationed at the Tower of London. He was charged with being a deserter.

"The prisoner was wearing the uniform of the regiment," said P.C. Wingate. The policeman had met the sergeant on the Saturday morning of the 27 October in Goldstone Villas. Having learned that William's leave of absence had expired, P.C. Wingate asked him for his pass. The prisoner readily produced it and told Wingate he was going back to London by the next train.

But the pass had been issued on 23 December for Chelsea and extended only till midnight. P.C. Wingate, eager for some action, took William into custody and brought him to the station where he charged him with being a deserter and locked him up till Monday.

The Court found that William was not a deserter, and could not be charged as such, because he hadn't been absent from his regiment for more than five days. P.C. Wingate had no choice but to climb down from his high moral stance.  "I beg pardon, Sir, I did not know that," he said. "I brought him to the station and he was detained."  The latter statement was clearly an attempt to pass the blame on to his superiors.

The Magistrate concurred. "No doubt the constable thought he was right but the prisoner didn't have to be locked up."  The Chairman agreed that William's case was nothing more than absence without leave and that there was nothing else to be done.


Cameron, Janet, Brighton & Hove Murders & Misdemeanours, Amberley Publishing, 2008 (with permission.)

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