London In The Dock


London trials

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in two world wars, survived Gallipoli, was a longstanding member of parliament and a social reformer who worked to end outdated divorce and obscenity laws, and was knighted by Churchill.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.

5 comments on “London In The Dock”

  1. Reuben says:

    Pedants Corner: I’m sure back in the 1960s that TV series were called ‘series’ not ‘seasons’. I still refuse to refer to anything British as being a ‘season’ although I always do that for American TV. It seems to be one of those small things that have been forced upon us (or we’ve forced on our selves) that irritates me.

    erm…. well other than that a very interesting blog.

  2. snowy says:

    There lots of interesting old documents popping up on-line, one that has been around for a while but still might not be that well known is ‘The Proceedings of the Old Bailey’ covering the period from 1674-1913.

    [The link above goes to the transcript of the trial of those involved in ‘The Pimlico Mystery’. A body was examined and his stomach was found to contain fatal amounts of a chemical toxin, but the mouth and throat were undamaged leaving the question how it got there.]

    A P Herbert was an interesting chap, Woodhouse was something of a fan of his and some of his earlier books can be had as free e-books for those inclined.

    A short extract from one of the tales contained in ‘The Man About Town’ should give a flavour of his style:

    “Recently I took George Rowland to the Dome of Dance with a lady-friend of his. They are both West End dancing experts, and the admired of Nero’s and the Nouveau Riche. Now the Dome of Dance is almost wildly respectable. It is evacuated respectably at midnight, and provides no refreshment more sinister than a Sundae. But in George’s view anything west of Earl’s Court is practically in the East End; and he had pictured the Dome as a very low haunt indeed, peopled principally by Russians and other criminals, and surrounded by well-equipped opium dens, to which, after a few rather passionate dances, the fast young aristocrat is lured by a decoy-girl, and there drugged, robbed, and ultimately destroyed.

    When we entered the place he stood amazed. The dancing was in full swing, and a number of suburban ladies and gentlemen were revolving assiduously round a large block of ice. The ice stood in a sort of tray in the centre of the room and was decorated with coloured lights and ferns. The dancers wore an expression of pain, sorrow, or remorse—except a few who sidled furtively along the rails, and these merely looked desperately unhappy. The band was playing “Rubinstein’s Melody in F” as a one-step. They looked very happy indeed, and one of them sang through a megaphone, “Do’an’t tell me to go to Dix—ee.”

    George was fascinated by the ice. “What’s that in the middle?” he asked. “Ice,” I said. “Good Lord! What’s it for ?” “Cooling the passions,” I said. “You get a tough crowd here.” ” Ah!” said George, brightening up. Well, take the floor, you two,” I said, adding with a touch of bravado, “I may have a Sixpenny Dip”. “A what!” ” Sixpenny Dip—a dancing partner—one of the instructresses, you know.” George was shocked. ” Do you mean to say you can hire a partner here .” he said. “Yes. They sit in that pen. The men are in the other one—over there. But a man costs ninepence.”

    [The audio from 4 episodes of ‘Misleading Cases’ have been rediscovered, I dipped into one quickly and it still stands up quite well. Could even be ripe for a revival, if only I knew somebody, anybody that works in the creative industries, oh well *sigh* there goes another ‘get rich quick’ scheme.]

  3. admin says:

    I’m sure the BBC is working on monetising the find right now, Snowy.
    I love ‘Russians and other criminals’!

  4. Jon Masters says:

    Sorry, Reuben – don’t think that’s always true. For example, from 1963 to 1989 each set of Doctor Who stories was referred to as Season (x) – including in adverts televised by the BBC. It was only when it came back in 2005 that it changed to being Series (x).

  5. snowy says:

    In lieu of a long bit about the parallels between 1920s London, awash with Russian exiles fleeing the wrath of a despot and the world today. A link to: Misleading Cases S3E3 The Sitting Bird.

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