When I began my career at the Bar, I was instructed to prosecute a large number of cases of shoplifting for some of the large department stores in Oxford Street, London. The defendants were usually women and the items they stole ranged from expensive scarves to pairs of knickers. Often the women concerned were suffering from depression or had other problems and the thefts were largely a cry for help. They would appear at Marlborough Street Magistrates Court usually pleading guilty so that all I had to do was open the facts to the Magistrate. I would have about six or seven of these cases on each occasions and I always dreaded getting them mixed up and in outlining the facts would say the defendant had stolen six pairs of knickers and two bras instead of two pairs of knickers and six bras.
Later on I found myself representing a group of five young women for whom stealing from stores was a way of life. The five were sisters called Duff and, not surprisingly with that name, the family were Scottish by origin. They were travellers, moving from place to place following the horse fairs around the country. When I came to meet them they were living in the Buckinghamshire town of High Wycombe and had been there for several years after their father had an accident. He had tried to park the car and the caravan he was towing, by reversing into a lay by. As he did so the back of the caravan hit a concrete lamp standard. Mr Duff got out of the car to check the rear of his caravan at which point the lamp standard broke and part of it fell on to him. He did not survive.
I first became involved with the family when the partner of one of them was facing a charge of assault. The trial took place at Aylesbury Crown Court, a rather shabby building with inadequate facilities. At the end of one of lunchtime adjournments, I needed to visit the toilet before the afternoon session began. The only toilets female members of the Bar could sue were shared with members of the public. When I went into one of the cubicles I found a collection of clothing all with their price tags attached, clearly stolen from the local branch of Marks and Spencer. I spoke to the usher and she called a police officer who took one look at them, his eyes rolled upwards and he said. ‘Oh, the Duff sisters.’
Of course there was no evidence to link the clothes to any of the young women, only their reputation – they were banned from every Marks and Spencer’s store in the UK.
But that was just the beginning of my contact with these charming thieves.
More next week.
I sat very still, hardly daring to breathe, the pages of the brief unturned in my hands. Had both women been telling the truth? Weren’t they the victims of violence not the perpetrators? I didn’t know what to think.
Whilst I was turning these thoughts over, Sharon turned in her seat towards me. She appeared to be surprised I was still there but asked when they would be going into court. I said I didn’t know but the usher would call us when the court was ready. Sharon sighed and turned back to face her friends. The eldest of the three women reached over and patted Sharon’s hand. I had hardly noticed her before but now as she tried to comfort Sharon I saw that not only was she older then the others but she was dressed in more expensive clothes. Her white Mac was belted and she wore a blue silk scarf tightly knotted; both had seen better days. Her brown hair, which she wore in an untidy French pleat, was beginning to go grey and the lenses of her gold rimmed glasses were thick, emphasising her brown eyes.
It was completely dark outside; the only light in the room was from the street lamps and the lighting in the corridor. I went back to my papers. A telephone began to ring somewhere in the building and there was a squeal of brakes from outside. The familiar noises, breaking the silence, acted as a stimulus and conversation was resumed. They talked about the hostel and how difficult it was living with a number of other women and children. They spoke of who let their kids run riot, who didn’t do their share of cleaning the bathrooms and kitchen, who took other people’s food from the fridge and who always got their own choice of television programme. The eldest of the three women made very little contribution to the discussion until the talk turned to a child who played football in the garden, kicking the ball against the wall of the house for hours on end, then she said, ‘I like gardening. I miss having a garden at the hostel. It’s not the same when there are lots of other people walking all over it and picking the flowers. We had a nice garden at home. I spent a lot of time out there. It got me out of the way, being in the garden, particularly when Phil was in a bad mood. I like flowers – didn’t grow vegetables- perhaps a few tomatoes. Course, this time of year it’s a bit bare so I’d pot up some hyacinths for the house. I’d bought a bag of them in the market. Kept some of them back for planting outside. I had a nice blue bowl; the same colour as the flowers and when they began to grow, pale green shoots coming through, I put them in it and put them on the hall table. They did look lovely.’
She paused to light a cigarette from a green and white packet and I caught the faint scent of menthol. I wanted to ask them not to smoke any more but knew it was hopeless. They might stop for a few minutes but then they would light up again as the tension and boredom of waiting got to their nerves, so I said nothing. The older woman put the packet and a yellow cigarette lighter on the table, inhaled once and placed the cigarette on the ashtray. I watched as she continued to stare out into lamp lit street and saw her lower lip quiver. Was this woman about to admit to some similar incident? I sat very still, looking at but not reading the brief, and listened. The woman began slowly and without emotion.
‘He had such a temper and he came in that day in a right one. His tea wasn’t strong enough; I’d folded his newspaper the wrong way. It didn’t matter what I did, nothing was right.’ She raised her voice slightly as if she was reliving the event. ‘He was effing and blinding at me and I asked him to stop. He went from the lounge to the kitchen and back again, me following, trying to get him to stop swearing. We were pulling and pushing at each other. You know what it’s like?’
She turned to face the others and, even though I could not see their faces in the dim light, I saw them all nod. The woman moved her chair back so that she was facing the rest of the group. Her voice became stronger and she spoke more emphatically.
‘We were in the hall and he pulled away from me sweeping the flowers onto the floor. The pot broke, there was dirt all over the tiles and the stems of the plants were broken. I was really upset. I do like flowers. I’ll give you hyacinths I thought.’
She stopped and untied the scarf from around her neck, folded it neatly and pushed into her pocket, then pushed up the sleeves of her Mac, and continued. ‘So a couple of days later I asked him if he fancied a lamb stew. ‘Yes’ he said ‘That’ll be nice.’ I went to the butchers and bought a bit of neckend. I made a stew with carrots and peas but instead of onions I used the hyacinth bulbs. I peeled them, chopped them and fried them just as if they were the real thing. I put them with the meat and the other vegetables in a casserole, added some beer, to disguise the taste, and cooked it. When he came in from work I gave it to him. He asked me if I was having some. I told him I‘d had some earlier. He said he thought that it tasted a bit funny. ‘‘Mine didn’t’’ I told him. He went on and ate it all up. After about half an hour he started to sweat and said he was going to bed; he didn’t feel very well. He was in and out of bed all night going to the toilet and saying he felt sick. The next morning he looked awful; he was all grey and his eyes were dull. He told me to get the doctor. He told the doctor how bad he felt, going to the toilet all the time and feeling nauseous. The doctor said it was food poisoning and asked him what he’d eaten. He’d had a pie a lunchtime in the pub and the lamb stew. He said that the stew had tasted funny. I told the doctor mine hadn’t. ‘‘It must have been the pie.’’ the doctor said. Anyway, he got a week off work. Kept on about how I’d given him a dodgy stew. I never let on, even after we separated. I’ve never told anyone.’ She paused. ‘I do like a nice garden.’
The second confession
The youngest shifted uneasily in her seat; she was a thin pale woman in her twenties, her long face emphasised by her shoulder length, light brown hair. Her thin white blouse partly unbuttoned, revealing a gold necklace, was tucked into the waistband of a short denim skirt. She had taken off her leather bomber jacket and hung it over the back of her chair even though it was quite chilly.
The older woman returned to her seat, turning it so she could continue to look out of the window at the darkening skies. I pretended I was concentrating on my papers. Some sixth sense told me that I must remain sitting quietly if I wished to hear what this young woman was about to say.
The threat to make a complaint to the police by her friend’s husband must have struck a chord with the young woman because she began by saying, ‘Mine did go to the police but they didn’t believe him. They told him he must have fallen down drunk and that’s how he’d got the cut on his head. I did laugh about it later but …..’ Her voice trailed off, she looked down and took a deep breath before continuing ‘Well he’s a big lad; they just couldn’t believe I could hit him that hard.’ She turned to the older woman. ‘He is a big bloke isn’t he?’ she asked.
‘Yes. You only come up to his armpit. I’m not surprised the police didn’t believe him.’
‘Course he was drunk. He’d gone up town to watch Arsenal; been drinking all day leaving me with the kids. He’d promised to come home straight after the match so I could go to Bingo with my Mum. When he came in he was plastered; wanting his tea. I had a go at him and told him to make his own. He still had his silly supporter’s hat on, a bowler painted in red and white stripes. He was sat there yelling about his tea, telling me what he wouldn’t do to me if I didn’t get him some food.’
I looked at the group of woman round the table. None of them were interested in what I was doing and I was able to observe the women without distracting them. I thought how little surprise they had shown at the violence being described. Whilst these thoughts were revolving in my head she saw a small tousled head appear at the corner of the window into the corridor. At first she couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl.
The young woman continued ‘So I picked up the poker and hit him over the head with it from behind. Once I started I just kept hitting until his hat lifted up from his head, sort of popped up, and the blood poured down his face in little streams. He looked at me, his eyes wide open; put his hands up to his face, touching it.’
She demonstrated, putting her hands to her forehead and then her cheeks. I looked at her and back to the head at the window. Now a face appeared, pressed hard against the pane of glass flattening the features, two small, grubby hands palms facing towards me either side of the face. I put my hand to my mouth and pressed my lips together to stop from smiling..
I could still hear the young woman.
‘I think he thought that I had poured something over his head. When he looked at his hands and saw that it was blood he made a dive for me but I got out of the way and he fell onto the floor. The hat came off and there was blood everywhere.’
The little boy- it clearly was a boy- moved back a little and, looking straight at me, opened his mouth and stuck his tongue out. I began to laugh and then tried to turn the sound into a cough. Sharon and the artistically dressed woman looked at me and frowned before turning back to listen to their friend.
‘I didn’t know if it was the booze or me hitting him that made him fall over, but I didn’t wait to find out. I grabbed the kids and ran to my mum’s. I wasn’t dressed properly, still had me slippers on. I didn’t dare go back. So, I stayed there and the police came looking for me. They said they’d found him in the street, drunk, with this nasty cut to his head and he’d told them I’d done it. ‘‘Don’t be silly.’’ I said, ‘‘Look at me I’m only half his size.’’
‘‘Well do you want to go and see him? He’s up at the hospital,’’ they said. ‘‘We’ll take you up there if you want.’’
‘‘No, I think I’ll wait ‘til he’s sobered up a bit.’’
‘‘Might be best.’ they said.’’
Outside in the corridor a middle-aged woman, wearing an usher’s robe, came into my view, grabbed hold of the boy by his arm and pulled him away, mouthing the word ‘Sorry’ as she did so.
The young woman who had been speaking put her hands to her face, covering her eyes, bent her head down towards the table, pushed her fingers through her hair, pulling it back from her face before looking round at the others and smiling tentatively at them.
‘I haven’t been back.’ She added.
To be continued.
Attempted Murder 1. I started to find the silence uncomfortable when this woman began to talk in a low voice. There was an urgency in the tone that made me want to listen. I turned my attention back to the papers on my lap, pretending to work and hide my interest in the conversation. The woman was talking in a low voice and I could only just hear what she was saying. ‘The doctor gave me antidepressants after I had each of the kids. I had this post natal depression. You know what it’s like?’ She paused and looked round at the others but there was no response to her question, so she continued. ‘Mind you, it wasn’t really the babies that were the problem. It was him. He was always more violent just after the children were born. He’d wait ‘til I was breastfeeding and then start to hit me round my head. I couldn’t do nothing. Well you can’t do much holding a baby in your arms, can you?’ She didn’t pause for an answer but went on, ‘I’d just curl up over the little’un to protect him from his dad. The other two would be crying and pulling at him to try and stop him. But it made no difference; he’d just push them away. One year, it was the year Eddie was born, it was coming up to Christmas and I thought I’ve had enough. What I need is a nice quiet Christmas. So what did I do?’ She sat back, took a small, battered tin from her pocket, opened it, used the contents to prepare a thin cigarette which she lit and then inhaled deeply. ‘What did I do? Christmas Eve I got my pills and crushed them into his beer. Well he was too drunk to notice. That’ll keep him quiet I thought. He’ll have such a headache tomorrow he won’t want to get up and me and the kids can enjoy ourselves without him.’ I put my hand up to my mouth. The eldest of the woman looked towards me. I looked back at my papers and drew a question mark in the margin of the brief. That must have reassured her I was still working, the woman turned her attention back to the speaker who was tapping her left hand gently, but persistently, on the table top. ‘I thought he was about to go to sleep in the chair so I got him upstairs, got his clothes off and rolled him into bed. Well, it was quiet.’ she nodded as if to emphasis her words. ‘He slept all Christmas Day and Boxing Day as well. I thought I’d killed him.’ She took a quick intake of breath, put her cupped hand to her mouth and whispered, ‘Course, sometimes, I almost wish I had.’ ‘I kept going upstairs to see if he was still breathing. Eventually he came to. He couldn’t believe he’d slept through Christmas Day and Boxing Day. He went on at me until I told him what I’d done. I got a real pasting. He threatened to go to the police about it but he didn’t. For a while he laid off me, but then he started again. That’s it, I thought, I’m leaving.’ When no one spoke, I looked up. The woman who had told the tale caught my eye and then turned towards Sharon before shrugging her shoulders. In the silence a cell door banged shut on the floor beneath. The elder of the three got up and leant against the window ledge, putting her forehead against the cold glass. To be continued
As cold cases go they don’t get much more cold than this – permafrost level I’d say, but there are two further pieces of information that have surfaced over the years. The first was the release of documents by the Metropolitan Police in 2001, which revealed how far the Baker’s contacts were involved in the importation of narcotics.
The second is probably more speculative, as it is all hearsay, but it does appear to fit the rumours which were circulating at the time. In 1986 a resident of University of British Columbia Women’s Club told the author of the book, Ed Starkins, about a her friendship with an Irish nurse who had cared for a Jack Nichol. His father had been Governor General of British Columbia between 1920-1926, and he had hoped to give evidence at one of the many trials, that at the time of Janet Smith’s death he was on a train playing cards. His evidence was thought to be irrelevant and he was not called.
The nurse had said he had told her that he and a young woman called Lucille Parker attended a party on July 25th 1924 at the Baker home. He had got drunk and went to a second floor bathroom to stick his head under the shower in an attempt to sober up. Janet Smith appeared on the landing with a towel for him and at that moment Lucille emerged from one of the bedrooms and saw the two of them. She misinterpreted the scene and went beserk, punching and pushing at Nichols. In the course of this Janet slipped on the wet floor of the bathroom and hit her head on the bathroom spiggot.
Of course, if that was the truth, the offence was one of manslaughter, and the cover up could only to have hidden the party and possibly the use of drugs. Those attending may all have had their own reasons for keeping the events that night a secret.
What is certain is that she met and untimely death which has never been accounted for or explained. We like to think that no matter who the perpetrator or who the victim someone’s death should be fully investigated. Are we right in that belief?
The book I have referred to throughout these posts is called ‘Who Killed Janet Smith?’ by Ed Starkins and is published Anvil Press Publishers of Vancouver.
I have just read a book sent to me by a lawyer relative who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia; the book by Ed Starkins relates the story of an unsolved murder. The book makes compelling reading and is worth describing in these times when human rights are under threat. The book describes how in 1924 a twenty-two year old nursemaid of Scottish descent was found dead in the home of a wealthy family in Vancouver, British Columbia. What followed was an unbelievable catalogue of mistakes and led to numerous conspiracy theories, involving, amongst others, the attorney-general of the provincial state.
The local police force was informed of the death by a telephone call from F.L. Baker, a member of a prominent Vancouver family who told the officer, James Green, Janet Smith had shot herself. The officer appears to have accepted she had died by her own hand, as did Dr Blackwood who also attended the scene. The young woman’s body was removed by undertakers and, embalmed without an autopsy taking place, although nobody accepted responsibility for that decision.
A coroner’s jury found Janet Smith had committed suicide but a friend of hers, Jennifer Haddowe was adamant that the young woman would not have taken her own life. She persisted in that belief and was able to get the Council of Scottish Societies to take up the fight. At a second hearing the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of murder. Of course advances in forensic science have made the investigation of crimes less dependent on the oral evidence of witnesses, but the assumption by the police that she had shot herself would have been cast into doubt if the simplest of examinations had been carried out. The lack of a proper post mortem and the delay was a serious blow to the investigation.
Why did the police not conduct a more thorough investigation in the beginning? Were they inhibited by the wealth and status of the Baker family? Today that seems improbable, but it was only 1974 when Lord Lucan was assisted by his friends to escape trial for the murder of his children’s nanny. Did the Vancouver police anticipate the locally prominent and wealthy families closing ranks, and was the victim too unimportant?
As pressure increased on the police to find Janet Smith’s killer, someone in authority decided to take the unusual step of paying a private investigator to kidnap the Baker’s Chinese Houseboy, Wong Foon Sing. He had been the one to discover the body and had, he said, telephoned his employer who had gone to his office, to tell him. Whilst Sing was held he was threatened and tortured to try and force him to make a statement about what had happened to the nursemaid, but he always maintained he knew no more than he had already said at the two inquests. It’s right to say he was never accused of the crime and there was never any suggestion that he had been responsible throughout the inquiry.
Matters got worse, but I’m going to save that for another time. To be continued.
Although I have been in close proximity to quite a number of very violent men I have only been assaulted twice in the course of my work. The first time was whilst I was still working as a solicitor and had been instructed to represent an Iranian man who was charged with a number of rapes. He was in his late twenties and, when I first met him, was quite charming. Because of the seriousness of the offences I instructed a QC to defend him.
The allegations divided into two groups. The first two were made by the same young woman, who said she had met the defendant in Covent Garden where he had told her he was a student, newly arrived in London and knew no one. She took pity on him and at the end of the evening she invited him to her flat. It was there that he had forced himself upon her on two occasions, despite her resistance. His case was that she was a willing participant in the sexual activity. My client had left the flat the next morning and despite the police being called immediately they were unable to apprehend him.
The second set of offences was rather similar, but took place a few months later. Again he had met a young woman who was sympathetic to him and invited him back to her flat. What he was unaware off was that she was living with a female partner, who returned to the flat later that night and found the defendant with her lover who was clearly very distressed. The partner called the police and he was arrested running away from the premises.
We made an application to sever the two sets of allegations and to our surprise the Judge granted it. My client was acquitted of the first group of rapes but was convicted of the second. His defence that the woman had consented was not believed by the jury, not least because her sexual preferences were quite clear. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Immediately after being sentenced he was held at Wormwood Scrubs and soon I began to receive letters from him telling me he wanted to appeal against his conviction. We had already told him he had no grounds to appeal when we saw him in the cells below the Old Bailey, but despite that oral opinion and knowing, as I did, that no appeal was possible, I did obtain a written advice from the silk in the case. I forwarded that to the prisoner and hoped that was the last of it.
A week or two elapsed and then the letters started again, begging me to file grounds of appeal. I ignored them. One day after I had been in court I returned to the office to find amongst the usual list of telephone calls to which I needed to respond, a message from the Probation Officer at the Scrubs. I returned his call and he asked me to come and see my client and explain why he was unable to appeal. I agreed somewhat reluctantly to see him the next time I was at the prison, which I knew was only a matter of a couple of days hence.
Once in the interview room I repeated the opinion of the QC and tried to explain why learned counsel thought the verdict was not appealable, in as simple a language as I could muster. The client became very angry and told me I was nothing more than a whore because I did not cover my legs and my head. I told him I was leaving. By this time, he was screaming abuse at me and as I stood up to leave he lunged across the table at me and grabbed me by one arm. He didn’t get any further, as the prison officers had heard him shouting and they seized hold of him by the scruff of his neck and dragged him away from me.
It was a distressing experience and I needed a stiff drink that evening.
Arson is a frightening offence, smoke and flames can not only cause enormous damage but the risk to lives is always present. Early in my legal career a fire at one of the public houses in Blackpool was particularly frightening. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the fire caused extensive damage to the premises and meant the doors were closed for days in the middle of the holiday season. When the police began to investigate it became obvious that the publican’s son had watched the blaze and taken photographs of the fire appliances.
As the enquiry continued the Sergeant in charge found a scrap book which contained photographs taken at the scene of other fires in Blackpool, newspaper cuttings about other cases of arson and a broken footplate from a fire engine. The publican’s son was arrested and interviewed under caution, during which, although at first denying setting the fire, he did eventually admit that he had. He was charged and I was instructed to represent him.
When the fire broke out the defendant’s parents were not in the property, but his grandmother was and because of that he was charged with arson with intent to endanger life. The fire was attended by three fire engines and put the lives of a large number of firemen at risk.
The young man, my recollection was that he was in his twenties, had an interesting background. He had left school at sixteen and he wanted to join the fire brigade, but his application was refused. He was turned down again when he made further applications. He became obsessed with the fire brigade and set the fire at the public house so that he could watch the fire engines turn up and fight the fire.
The case was heard at the Lancaster Crown Court before a High Court Judge. He pleaded guilty and when the sergeant was called to give evidence of the defendant’s previous convictions, he took a very unusual step. When prosecuting counsel indicated he had no more questions for the officer, the detective sergeant turned to the judge and said, ‘My lord, I do want to say that during the course of the investigation I have spent time talking to the defendant’s grandmother; she is not well and I believe if the defendant was sent to prison it would hasten her death.’
The judge listened carefully to what the officer said and the other mitigation put forward by defence counsel. When he passed sentence he explained to the defendant that the sentence for arson with intent to endanger life was a period in prison, but because of the unusual plea made by the policeman on his behalf he would pass a sentence that allowed the defendant to return to his family within a matter of weeks.
When I was still employed as a solicitor, West London Magistrates’ Court was in Southcombe Street W14; a redbrick building with an impressive entrance in white stone. On the floor, as you entered was a mosaic of the Metropolitan Police crest, a reminder that this had been called a police court when it first opened. The name may have been changed, but the court was still run by police officers. They organised the list of defendants and had an office where they collected the fines imposed by the magistrates. Solicitors were allowed into the cell area to take instructions from their clients and that also gave access to the small room at the back of a waiting area where the matron dispensed cups of tea for a small sum. It was here that, if you had made friends with the local CID you would be given a brief outline of the evidence against a client. There was no practice of serving statements in cases that were to be heard by the magistrates. Only if the case was being committed to the Crown Court would a lawyer get to see the evidence against the defendant.
One of the warrant officers, a man known as Jock, was a caricature of a Scotsman, quite tall, balding with a fringe of red hair and a ferocious temper. His role was to run the list for the court. When a defendant arrived at the courthouse, whether on bail or brought by the prison van, they were ticked off on the sheets kept by the warrant officer. A defendant’s lawyer would, after seeing his client, tell the officer what application he would be making to the Magistrate. The policeman would then decide the order in which cases would be called, usually depending on the kind of application. Adjournments where there were no applications usually went first, then applications for bail and pleas in mitigation were left to the end. The solicitors appearing in the case before the magistrate were always keen to get their cases on as soon as possible; there was always more work to be done in the office, or another court to attend.
Jock tended to favour local solicitors when deciding on what order to call cases into court, barristers and out of area solicitors were usually put to the back. However, if for some reason you offended him, your case would be put down the list. It was often difficult to know what you had done to upset him. Not being deferential enough was perhaps the most common offence, but there were others. I soon learnt that the best way of getting my cases on first was to make sure I upset him as early as possible. My cases would go to the bottom of the list, but by the time the hearing began, I could guarantee that other lawyers would also have committed some error and their cases too would be transferred to the bottom and as they did so, my clients would get nearer the top. Just a question of tactics.
During my time in Blackpool I had only appeared in front of lay magistrates. Those upstanding members of the local community who the Lord Chancellor’s Department thought were fit and proper persons to dispense justice to their fellow citizens. They often lacked any real understanding of the law and sometimes struggled to assimilate the facts of a case, but I am sure they did their best. Often they had unqualified staff as court clerks who didn’t know the law either. That has all changed now and court clerks have to be qualified lawyers if they are advising the bench of magistrates on legal matters, and the justices of the peace are given much more thorough training.
My move to live in London, driven by the sexist behaviour in my home county and by my love of the theatre, brought me into contact with a different kind of JP, the stipendiary magistrate. They were a fearsome bunch and, at first, I was a little in awe of them. Over ninety per cent of all criminal cases are dealt with in the magistrates’ courts and the stipendiary magistrates, whether a solicitor or a barrister were much quicker at dealing with cases and expected those appearing in front of them to be brief.
St. John Harmsworth sat at the court in Marlborough Street, in the heart of the West End, next to the London Palladium and just across the road from Liberty’s. He was extremely punctual, walking briskly into court dressed in a pinstripe suit, a military tie of navy blue and dark red stripes and a fresh rose in his button hole. If he was strict in his interpretation of the law, he was also humane.
One morning I was sitting in court waiting for my case to be called on, when a fifty year old was brought into the dock. He had been charged with being drunk and disorderly. The arresting officer (they went to court then) stood in the witness box and said he had stopped the defendant as he been staggering on his feet on Oxford Street at about eight o’ clock that very morning.
‘I spoke to him to ask his name, Sir, and noticed his breath smelt of alcohol, his speech was slurred and he was unsteady on his feet, Sir,’ the policeman said. This was a formula all officers used when describing somebody as drunk.
The warrant officer, the man who controls the order the cases are called before the bench, moved forward and said, ‘He was only released from Pentonville this morning, Sir.’
‘What time were you released from custody?’ said St. John Harmsworth, addressing the man in the dock.
‘How did you manage to get drunk between six and eight?’
‘Well, your honour.’ (Defendants in the magistrates’ court frequently get the form of address wrong. Only Crown Court Judges are addressed as Your Honour.) ‘It’s my birthday and the lads in the kitchen at Pentonville brewed some hooch and we spent the night drinking.’
St. John Harmsworth looked at the charge sheet in front of him. ‘So it is. Well as it’s your birthday I’ll fine you five pounds or one day,’ he said. There was no need to explain to the defendant that t one day meant he was to stay in custody for the remainder of the court day. It was a common way of dealing with those whose offences were minor and means were limited.
As the prisoner was being led away the learned magistrate said to the warrant officer, ‘Release him as soon as he’s sobered up.’
In these changing times I was a little sad to see the court I had been to so often is now a boutique hotel.