Saturday, 8 October 2011

Time Travel: Highway Robbery and the Old Bailey

On the 29th of October 1817 Justice Park and the First Middlesex Jury tried a James Whitby, accused of stealing a shawl worth ten shillings from a Mary Ann Wort on the Hornsey Road.

The Honble. Mr. Justice Park. 
Painted by W.J. Newton, Miniature Painter in Ordinary to their Majesties.

The Old Bailey record of the trial is short. I wonder if it really took that little to condemn a man.

First the victim/main witness gave evidence

MRS. MARY ANN WORT: 'I am the wife of John Wort. we live in Duval's-lane, Islington. On the 3d of October, about six o'clock in the evening, I was in the Hornsey-road , near Duval's-lane, with my little boy, it was getting dusk. I met the prisoner - He said nothing, but caught hold of my shawl as he passed; it was pinned twice-it was a large shawl; he appeared to be intoxicated. I turned round and looked at him - I am sure he is the man. He took hold of it more forcibly, uttered an oath, and immediately pushed me into a ditch; he still had hold of my shawl, he had not got it off my person-it was not a deep ditch. I kept a firm hold of my shawl, by which means he pulled me on my feet again, and he then got the shawl from me. While I was in the ditch I told my little boy to scream out, and run home to inform them-it was about four hundred yards from home - I followed my boy home. The prisoner ran the other way. I saw no person come.'

Then her son (who according to his mother is 'a little boy') spoke like no little boy has ever spoken.

JAMES WORT: 'I was in the Hornsey-road with my mother. The prisoner came up and laid hold of her shawl; he appeared intoxicated. He went on a little way-my mother turned round, and looked him full in the face. He caught hold of the shawl with more force, and finding that would not do, he threw her into a ditch, and uttered an oath. My mother told me to scream out, which I did - I did not see any person come. She remained in the ditch two or three minutes - He pulled the shawl with such force that it dragged her out of the ditch - He got it from her, and ran over the hedge into a field. My mother told me to run home and give the alarm. I am certain he is the man.'

And then two passers-by confirm the story, both of them recorded in the same stilted style.

JOHN EDWARDS: 'I am a letter-carrier. On the 3d of October I was going down Hornsey-road; I saw a bustle at a distance, and immediately saw the woman go down into the ditch. I heard the little boy cry out, and immediately ran up. When I got near the place, I saw the prisoner go over the hedge into the field, with the shawl over his arm - I ran after him - He looked back, and saw me getting near to him and dropped the shawl. I still pursued - He jumped over a ditch, and fell into it-there is another ditch at the other end of the field - I got into it and secured him. Boards came to my assistance-he was in sight at the time, and saw the prisoner drop the shawl. I am certain the prisoner is the man that I saw struggling with the lady - He was never out of my sight from the time until I took him. I told Boards to pick up the shawl, which he did, and gave it to me. I am sure it is the same shawl.'

THOMAS BOARDS: 'I was going down the Hornsey-road on the 3d of October, in the evening, and saw the lady in the ditch, and the prisoner trying to pull her shawl from her. I saw the colour of the shawl, and saw the prisoner drop it, and picked it up - He was never out of my sight from the time that I saw him with the lady till he was taken in the ditch. I helped the last witness to pull him out.'

(If I were in a solemn mood and had the inclination I'd write something serious about how this official discourse flattens out their voices and makes what happened fit within a set narrative of crime and punishment. I'm not and I don't so I won't.)

Prisoner's Defence: 'I am a poor man with a wife and five children. My character has hitherto been unimpeached, and I humble implore mercy. I had no intention of using violence to the lady. I did not know what I was about, until I was told the next morning.'

LEWIS PAGE: 'I was constable of the night. When the prisoner was brought to the watch-house he was very much intoxicated.'

GUILTY . - DEATH . Aged 25.

The court recommended mercy, perhaps because Whitby had five children and had had good character. He was one of the less frightening highwaymen.

And he may have survived. A James Whitby who had been tried in Middlesex was transported
 to New South Wales for seven years in 1824.

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