Justices’ justice

From the court reports 175 years ago:

The Kentish Observer has a capital instance of “Justices’ justice”. Two comedians at Dover, James Fitzjames and Edward Gladstone were charged by Frederick Fox Cooper with assaulting him, and fined 10s. including costs. The same parties were then charged with threatening the life of Mr. Cooper; and required to find two sureties, in 20l. each, to keep the peace for two months, and in default were committed. They found bail, after being confined about three or four hours. To pass the time, they sang a duet, “All’s lost,” – which the gaoler construed to be “bellowing”; and in spite of their objection that it would hurt them in their business, he had their hair cropped; to which he compelled them to submit under pain of having nothing but bread and water. They were also told that they would have no dinner unless they picked oakum; and that unless they conformed to the rules of the prison they would be publicly whipped. The injured persons brought their case before the Magistrates on Friday; when the gaoler justified his conduct –

“He ordered the complainants to be ‘cropped’ and subjected to the same treatment s the other prisoners committed for misdemeanour. They had been examined by Mr. Coleman, the surgeon for the goal. They were clean. They neither of them asked to have their hair left on. He told MacDonald to treat these men as misdemeanants. He was bound to take their description. All prisoners were treated in the same way, and the rules of the prison left him no alternative. Persons of the higher classes of society, he said, had been served similarly; and instanced a Mr. Baring and a Mr. Beresford, who had their hair cropped in Dover Goal.”

The magistrates after some deliberation, said they had come to the conclusion that the Governor of the goal was perfectly justified in ordering the hair of the prisoners to be cut off, and therefore dismissed the case.

The Spectator, week ending September 10 1842

‘Picking oakum’ was a form of punishment in Victorian prisons; rope and cords, particular when tarred to keep waterproof, was a common and valuable commodity in the days before modern shipping and modern materials. The rope was usually made from hemp and when unpicked was used as wadding and packing. Picking oakum was a gruelling and dreadful task.

The fines were in ‘old money’  – 10s. is 10 shillings, 50 pence today, and 20l. is £20 – which in today’s money is about £1400, impossible  for poor people of the time.


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