The horse fair at Appleby in Cumbria is a well known meeting place for Romany families, but they also congregate in other places throughout the country. Some of our most famous race courses are near to sites where Romany families met and showed off their horses and ponies. Many have a continuing interest in horses even if their homes are moved by a different sort of horse-power, and even if their children don’t always go to school they learn to ride as soon as they can sit on a pony.
One of my case some years ago was defending a Romany man, called Smith, on a charge of assault occasioning grievous bodily harm and possession of a shotgun without a licence. The incident or should I say series of incidents took place at a beach in East Anglia which was one of those meeting places like Appleby. There was a long beach on which horses could be raced and, at night, they blocked off a straight road for trotting competitions.
Horses frequently changed hands at these events and it was the purchase of a pony for his son that lead to the fight for which Smith was now before the court. He had bought a pony from another gypsy who had disguised the animal by painting its distinguishing features, a white star on its head and four white socks, the same colour as its body. When the paint wore off and Smith realised the horse was stolen he demanded his money back. The horse thief refused and there was a fight as well as threats exchanged. The abuse mounted until they had a serious fight in which the horse thief was given a good hiding by Smith. Matters might have stayed there – Romany families are reluctant to involve the police in their affairs- but Smith was still demanding the return of his money. This time, he threatened to use a shotgun on the thief.
The seller of the pony must have taken fright because he called the police anonymously informing them that Smith had an unlicensed shotgun. The police went to his caravan and spoke to his wife who worked as a fortune teller. Smith in the meantime went missing taking his guns with him. After a few days, he returned home, but he left the guns buried in the sand. When the police came again he denied having any weapons, but it didn’t take the police long to find their hiding place, and he was charged with possession of them and of the earlier assault. He pleaded not guilty to the charges saying the guns were not his and as for the assault he was acting in self defence. I think he felt the complainant had only got his just desserts.
The case was tried at Norwich Crown Court, which at that time was in a very old building with no real facilities. I was not optimistic that he would be acquitted, Smith had been a prize fighter at gypsy fairs and the horse thief for all his dishonesty, looked an unlikely opponent. The guns were identified as having been ones Smith had bought from a licensed dealer only months before. However the jury went out and to my surprise were still considering their verdict at the lunch adjournment. The only place to get something to eat was an outdoor café rather like the ones taxi drivers use. I was standing waiting for my coffee and sandwich with my instructing solicitor and behind us was prosecuting counsel, when Mrs Smith walked up to us and asked us what would happen. Before I could explain, counsel for the Crown said, ‘Haven’t you brought your crystal ball, then you could tell us.’