History feature: Old court stories from Barking and Dagenham and beyond
- Credit: Archant
Tony Richards workes as a reporter on the Barking Advertiser, the Post and the Ilford Recorder in the 1950s. Here the 76-year-old recalls some of the court stories he and his colleagues covered, together with a few that have made headlines over the years.
»One case reported in the Barking Advertiser in 1892 was that of Rachel Hull, aged 18, who was jailed for three months for wilfully smashing a window. On hearing the sentence she screamed at the presiding magistrate: “Mind your false teeth don’t fall out.” He repeated the sentence, adding the words: “With hard labour.”
A former colleague of mine, who should have known better, was (according to Private Eye) consigned to Pentonville Prison in 1986 for contempt of court when he told a county court judge to “shut up”.
Each Monday morning at Barking Magistrates’ Court saw the inevitable queue of drunks who had been arrested during the weekend. On one occasion one of them gave his address as: “The Temperance Hotel.”
Another swore that his evidence would be “the truth, the whole truth and anything but the truth.”
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Yet another was appearing before a stipendiary magistrate accused of operating a five-card scam. He protested: “As God is my judge, I did not commit this heinous crime.” The magistrate replied: “He’s not, I am, you did.”
One case at Barking Magistrates’ Court involved the tenant of a flat in a high-rise block on Gascoigne Estate who, before going on holiday, asked the occupant of a nearby flat to keep an eye on his abode.
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The neighbour duly kept a keen eye on the flat, and broke into it when no one was around. He thereupon found that the place was in darkness because the electricity had been turned off, so he returned to his own flat to collect a lighted candle. The trail of candle wax which he left between the two flats provided compelling evidence of his guilt.
The dress code in court can be important. A Queen’s Bench judge refused to hear a barrister colleague who appeared before him not wearing a waistcoat.
In the late ’50s a colleague of mine on the Romford Recorder was ordered out of court because his otherwise immaculate appearance did not include a tie.
And a construction site worker, on a hot summer’s day, wore above the waist only a vest, adorned with the soil of the building site when he entered the witness box at a Romford inquest into the death of a workmate. The coroner fined him £10 (a week’s pay for a low-paid worker in those days) for contempt of court.
Another man exposed rather more of his body to three Lords Justices of Appeal when they dismissed his appeal. He got two weeks’ imprisonment.
Before 1970 many divorce petitions were contested because so much importance was attached to deciding who was the “guilty party”. Today a do-it-yourself divorce is available in many cases almost on the nod, just by ticking a few boxes, but in those days divorce litigation was an industry.
Prominent divorce counsel became world famous, and the press bench would be crowded. The cases produced some amusing anecdotes, not least when a woman petitioner was asked by her counsel: “How often did you and your husband have relations?” To this she replied: “Well, my Auntie Cissie and my Uncle Fred used to come round sometimes on a Sunday.”
Another classic quote came from counsel who was appearing in a paternity dispute. In language more appropriate to the Chancery Division he said: “My client is not the father of these twins, or either of them.”
Few people attend courts today unless they, or a relative or friend, are in some way involved. Some ushers seem blissfully ignorant of the meaning of “open court” and the oft-quoted words of a judge in 1925 that “justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.”
When I sat in the public gallery at Barking Magistrates’ Court a few years ago the woman usher questioned my reason for attending and finally introduced me to the Bench as “a member of the public.” Long may “members of the public” continue to uphold the principles of open justice.