Tales From Epsom Magistrates' Court

Victorian Court Room Scene
Victorian Court Room Scene
Image source: http://www.mylearning.org

Proceedings at the Magistrates' Court in the 19th and early 20th centuries were somewhat different in detail from what we expect today, but similar in nature - theft, assault, criminal damage, drunkenness, petty fraud. Additionally, of course, there were large numbers of cases arising from race days, especially pickpocketing, crooked gambling games and bookies running off with the stake money ('welshing'); there were also instances of people snatching another person's winning ticket and collecting the money.

In an 1893 case a welsher lamented the deterioration in Derby Day. 'Ah! The Derby ain't wot it used to be,' he said, 'there ain't no chance of earning an honest penny. Folks are a dashed sight too particular. Wot do people want to come to the Derby for if they don't expect to lose their money!'

Pickpockets by Frank Moss from Wikimedia Commons

A large amount of the petty crime was caused by poverty and alcohol, often both. Poaching, theft, fights, family assaults and child neglect dominate the reports. Potatoes, root vegetables, greens, chickens and rabbits were favoured booty, but ferns, wood, fruit, nuts, bunches of violets (from cemetery graves) and fruit bushes were also taken. You could get hauled up before the beaks for not supporting close relatives who were in the Workhouse and leaving your job without serving out the contracted notice period. Bastardy orders were common. Traders were prosecuted for selling watered milk and underweight loaves and using faulty weights on their scales and it seemed more frowned upon to ill-treat a horse or pony than your wife. Playing cards on the public footpath was a no-no and using a vehicle at night without an adequate light was an offence (a Chinese lantern containing a candle was not adequate and having a cycle lamp without a wick was no excuse either). One defendant claimed that the moon gave off better light than the lamps currently available. Letting off fireworks in public was also not allowed.

The young poacher by William Hemsley 1874
The young poacher by William Hemsley 1874.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Speeding (the term being relative in the olden days) was judged on a stretch of road which had been measured beforehand, tended by a policeman with a watch. More than one defendant questioned the accuracy of a watch, measurement or both. But it was not just hazardous motoring that got you in trouble. It was fairly usual to be drunk in charge of and/or speeding in a horse and cart and in 1893 music teacher Ebenezer Brown, who was described as behaving in a very eccentric manner in the dock, appeared for furiously riding a bicycle (known as 'scorching') at Sutton to the common danger of the public. He was alleged to have been pedalling at 12 mph and knocked down a pedestrian. On being fined he said he would need to sell his piano to pay.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Gipsies were disliked and each time a defendant was a gipsy the fact was mentioned. If a person looked 'low' or feeble-minded, the newspapers said so. To be fair though, they did mention if someone looked well-dressed.

The upper classes were also prosecuted if they transgressed - the celebrated soldier Sir (later Viscount) Garnet Wolseley was accused of not having dog licences for two of his hounds and the sometime Chairman of the Epsom Magistrates, Mr A H Tritton, was hauled up for speeding more than once (not in his own court). On one occasion he said rather grumpily that if there was a speed limit on a particular road then the authorities should erect a sign to say so.

Gipsies on Epsom downs
Gipsies on Epsom downs.
Image source: Bourne Hall Museum

Lunatics wandering at large were usually sent to the workhouse, but mistakes could be made. In 1883 a constable found a man asleep at the roadside and woke him up. The man, who was drunk, then went after him and hit him in the eye. The constable charged the man with being an escaped lunatic from Banstead Asylum. It transpired that the defendant was actually a member of the Asylum staff.

You might think that Epsom was a lawless place, especially in the Victorian era, but a large proportion of the offences actually took place in adjacent districts. On the other hand, it is reasonable to assume that other magistrates' courts got plenty of Epsom offenders. What follows is a collection of snippets, some of them amusing, to illustrate the kind of thing that the magistrates had to deal with week in and week out.

Indoor football (1884)

A man was fined for ill-treating his three year old daughter. After he had caught her sitting on the baby and hitting it in the face with a piece of coal he rolled her around on the floor with his foot.

Move over, darling (1886)

Mr Mann was accused of threatening to murder his wife and child. His defence was that it was just a routine family quarrel, provoked by a dispute as to which side of the bed the parties should sleep on.

The woman who wanted to hang (1887)

Housewife Mrs Ellen Oxford heard children's screams and ran out of her cottage to investigate. Middle-aged Hannah Jordan was in the road beating two young children (not hers) with fists and flint stones. Mrs Oxford intervened and was hit herself. Jordan explained that she had wanted to kill herself, but could not, so thought that if she murdered a child the authorities would do the job for her. The children were not seriously injured.

Jake the Peg (1887)

Maximilian Brown, aged about 16, was given 21 days' hard labour for stealing three socks from a shop. Whether or not he had an extra leg is not recorded.

Hard-boiled (1887)

It is hardly believable that this matter ended up in court. The offender, although found guilty, had been locked up for several days awaiting the hearing and so was discharged by the magistrates without further punishment. The crime? He took one egg, part of a pupil's lunch, from the dinner cupboard of the Girls' National School and ate it, or they thought he did. He was found eating something and there was egg shell nearby.

In an 1890 case a man was fined 2s.6d (12.5p) for the much more serious crime of stealing TWO eggs, fresh from the hens. If the fine went unpaid he would serve seven days in prison.

Egg Shell
Image source: www.freeimages.co.uk

More polite than a Member of Parliament (1887)

A couple were summoned for using insulting and abusive language. Defence counsel contended that the words used had merely been 'contemptible coward'. The Chairman of the Magistrates said that, if this was abusive language within the meaning of the statute, every Member of Parliament would have been locked up long ago, since they were in the habit of using much stronger expressions.

Toccata and fugue? (1888)

Carlos Fortolano was accused of assaulting a man at Cheam. The case was dismissed, the magistrates thinking that Senor Fortolano might have thought his organ was about to be damaged. It is assumed (the newspaper does not say) that the accused was a musician.

Break a leg (1890)

Edmund Farebrother, a man with a wooden leg, was charged with being drunk. It was stated that he was usually in the workhouse but occasionally got out for a day, when he would go to Sutton, get drunk and break his wooden leg. He then had to be returned to the workhouse in a cab. The magistrates sent him back to the workhouse - not in a cab.

A 'No Stars' hotel (1890)

Thomas Robinson had gone to Epsom Union Workhouse for a night's 'lodgings' and was dissatisfied with his room, which he described as a cold cell, 4 feet by 9 feet, containing only a stool and hammock: he had been locked up in this accommodation for 30 hours. He said that he would rather sleep under a hedge and in his view prison cells were superior: he therefore ripped up two shirts and a rug so that he could be arrested (it seems to have been quite common for workhouse inmates to destroy clothes in order to be moved to prison).

Silence for the Sally Ann (1891)

Salvation Army singers Joan Patterson and James Llewellyn were simply too good. Their performance in the Carshalton Road, Sutton was so splendid that a large crowd gathered and obstructed the footway. The vocalists were fined.

The thief who wasn't tall enough (1895)

Serial thief William Williams, aged 11, was charged with stealing a purse containing one powder puff. 'One what?' exclaimed the Chairman of the Magistrates. Young Williams had been hanging round the weighing room at the racecourse, looking for something to steal. He had managed to get his hand into a lady's pocket but she detected it and boxed his ears. He then tried to take a gentleman's watch, but was not tall enough to extract it from the pocket, after which he stole the lady's purse containing only said powder puff. He was apprehended immediately. In court the boy could barely see over the dock.

'Two hundred lovely black eyes' (1899)

Thomas Willett of Sutton was accused of aggravated assault on his wife. During her evidence Mrs Willett said that he had given her about 200 black eyes. 'All at once?' asked the Chairman.

Marrow mail (1902)

John Longworthy and Frederick Brown were charged with being drunk and disorderly. The police officer said that Brown had put a lighted match in a letter box that was hanging on a gate. Brown claimed that Longworthy had put a vegetable marrow in the letter box and he lit the match to see if it was there.

Constable brought to his knees (1902)

A man charged with unlawful possession of 42 savoys claimed he had bought them from a stranger. A police constable was called to confirm they had been removed from the place where they grew, he having had the task of comparing the cuts on each savoy against the stalks left in the ground. They were all a perfect fit.

Savoy Cabbage
Savoy Cabbage Photo by Evelyn Gunn
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

When is a sweet pea not a flower? (1922)

The law showed its vindictiveness when bricklayer Harry Garrard stole some sweet peas from an allotment, exhibited them and won a prize. The case was originally dismissed because the magistrates decided that stealing a flower was not an offence at common law. The prosecutors then brought another summons charging him with stealing a vegetable - this was an offence. Amazingly the court decided that a sweet pea was indeed a vegetable (not one that you would expect to see on your dinner plate, I suspect) and Mr Garrard was convicted.

Repeat custom (1927)

A man who had been convicted of motoring offences on several occasions said to the magistrates, 'I hope you will deal lightly with me as I have been a good customer'.

The quality of truncheons (1929)

A police officer giving evidence said that his truncheon had broken after he hit someone on the head with it. His inspector, a man with no sense of humour, said the weapon had dry rot and that the officer could have obtained a new one. The Chairman of the Magistrates observed that the only chance of testing a truncheon appeared to be on other people.

The elegant burglar (1930)

Waiter Frank Eden was charged with breaking and entering the house of the Rev Canon Hunter at Ashtead. Miss Hunter found Eden, wearing a Homburg hat, hiding beneath her bed and summoned her father. The Canon asked the man what he was doing there, upon which the latter replied, 'Just having a look round. I am down and out'. The Canon said Eden was better dressed than he was.

Bad behaviour is not just for the working classes (1930)

This was a Derby Day altercation. Sir Basil Clarke, Major Victor Beaufort and Admiral Sir Henry Bruce were on the top deck of a bus, from which they were watching the race. Major Beaufort got up on the seats to see the number of the winning horse, the Admiral complained that he was obstructing the view and the Major fell. It was not established whether the Admiral had pushed him. Sir Basil then gave the Major a black eye. The case against Sir Basil was dismissed, which it probably would not have been had the assailant been someone less 'important'.

Interfering with a passenger (1933)

This is another example of inappropriate behaviour by the upper classes. Sir Leo Chiozza Money (yes, that was his name), a married economist, author and former MP, was accused of interfering with the comfort of a passenger and assault on a train between Dorking and Ewell.

Miss Ivy Ruxton, a shop girl, described as of frail physique and a timid and ingenuous disposition, was on the train minding her own business when Money invited her to come into his parlour and engaged her in unwanted conversation; he then took hold of her and kissed her face and neck (he had already manoeuvred himself close to her on the bus going to the station). Money was so intent on having the charges dismissed that he engaged Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett KC for the defence. Curtis-Bennett was the equivalent of legal royalty and his appearance must have caused quite a stir at a provincial magistrates' court. However, he was unsuccessful and Money was fined £2.50 plus costs. This was not the first time he had been in such trouble: in 1928 he had been in court, jointly accused of indecent behaviour, with radio valve tester Irene Savidge. Both were ultimately acquitted but not before Money had used his friends in high places to try to influence matters: his actions led to undignified treatment of Miss Savidge by the police and a public enquiry.

Sir Leo Chiozza Money
Sir Leo Chiozza Money
Image source: US Library of Congress

Linda Jackson
January 2013

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