London In The Dock
Alan Patrick Herbert should have more readers. He served in two world wars, survived Gallipoli, was a longstanding member of parliament and a social reformer who worked to end outdated divorce and obscenity laws, and was knighted by Churchill. He wrote the lyrics to popular songs and shows, and once highlighted the complexity of the British licensing laws by accusing the House of Commons of selling liquor without a licence. This interest in the absurdities of the legal system caused him to write the ‘Misleading Cases’, six wonderful volumes that operate on a wonderfully simple premise; a judge and a defendant square off against one another in a series of skirmishes designed to test the limits of the law.
Albert Haddock is a tireless everyman who would test the patience of a saint; he makes out a cheque on a cow and leads it to the office of the Collector of Taxes. ‘Was the cow crossed?’ No, your Worship, it was an open cow.’ The question is, did he break the law? So Haddock rows the wrong way up a flooded street, and is arrested. Haddock has his wineglass pinched by a waiter, and sues for damages. Haddock argues his way out of a charge of obstruction by referring to an obscure point in the Magna Carta. The cases were fictional, but were sometimes reported in the press as fact.
Along the way, big issues were aired and serious political points were scored. What is the meaning of education? What exactly are politicians? How much freedom do we really have? ‘Misleading Cases’ aired as a television series (now apparently lost) that ran for three seasons in the 1960s, with Roy Dotrice as Haddock and the wonderful Alistair Sim as the judge. Sim is exasperated but clearly an admirer of the defendant’s knowledge of his rights. ‘People must not do things for fun,’ Herbert warns. ‘There is no reference to fun in any act of parliament.’
But Herbert also tracked down extracts from the proceedings at the Sessions of the Peace for the City of London, 1732 and 1733. His ear for naturally funny or tragic dialogue encouraged him to pick out a number of the cases and put them in a book entitled ‘Mr Gay’s London’, making clear the reference to John Gay’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ with chapters named after Gay’s famous characters. (I found it in a junk shop for a quid)
The language of the witnesses and plaintiffs is extraordinarily evocative. Here’s Eleanor Bird in the dock, describing the punch-up she saw between Samuel Thomas of St Giles Without Cripplegate and his ‘fuddled’ (drunk) wife;
‘He brought her up Stairs, and lifting up the Latch he put her into my Room, and there he beat her and paid her with his Feet and Hands as he had done below; and then I heard something gush: I was afraid it was Blood, so I struck a Light, and she was all in a Goar, in the grievousest Manner that ever you saw any Creature. He struck her no more after the light came, but turned her Face up and stamp’d about and fell on his Knees and said, my dear Betty, I fear I have killed you, but if I have I will never leave you but will freely be hanged for you.’
The wife was proved to have been a perpetual drunk who kept company with other men and thieved for a living (she stole wet shirts and smocks from lines, then pawned them). Samuel was found guilty and hanged.
Assizes documents make great reading. The court rolls (literally rolls of parchment which are now fast rotting) are being transferred digitally by London’s archives and libraries. They prove that nothing in London truly changes when it involves human nature and poverty.