Sometimes the news reports of the Police Courts of the metropolis give us an indication of how the hearing worked in practice. Most of the cases I’ve looked at over the last 7 months have a cast of characters: the ‘prisoner’/defendant; victim/prosecutor (this can be a police officer in later cases); witnesses (for both sides);members of the legal profession and, of course, the magistrate himself.
The accused had the opportunity to have their case heard before the police court or to go before a jury, but the latter risked a stiffer penalty so many probably opted to take their chances at summary level. I doubt many could afford a counsel so defended themselves. But until this case I wasn’t sure whether the prisoner could actually question the prosecutor or witnesses, or simply make a statement in their defence.
In late November 1845 John Studd Weeding (a ‘young man of respectable appearance’) came before the Guildhall justice in the City accused of stealing silverware from a London hotel.
Mr Radley (the owner of Radley’s Hotel on Bridge Street) testified that Weeding had stayed at his premises on Sunday night and that on the morning he had left, saying he had an appointment at a nearby hairdresser. One of Radley’s staff was concerned because the man had not settled his bill ‘or left any luggage’, so he ‘directed the porter to watch him’.
The porter followed Weeding at a distance and saw him enter a silversmith’s shop. There he sold a silver fork and a dessert spoon, both of which were monogrammed with an ‘N’. When this was reported back to the waiter who had raised the concern, he then undertook a quick inventory of the hotel’s plate, and soon found some items were missing.
At 5 o’clock the prisoner had finished a glass of brandy at the hotel when the waiter approached him and asked him to step ‘in to the counting house’ (presumably the accounts office at Radley’s). Here he accused him of taking one of the hotel’s silver spoons.
Weeding hotly denied this and said he could produce friends who would vouch for his respectability. The waiter said he was satisfied with this and suggested they send someone to fetch them.
At this Weeding backtracked and so the waiter called for a policeman who searched the young man. ‘Not only the spoon, but two silver forks, all marked “Radley’s Hotel”… were found in his possession. There were also three forks, a tablespoon and a dessert spoon, all marked ‘N’…as well as a duplicate for a teaspoon and three silk handkerchiefs, pawned for four shillings’.
The court was told that the police believed the items not belonging to Radley’s had been lifted from the Mount Ephraim Hotel (which was in Tunbridge Wells). The magistrate asked Weeding if he wished to question any of the witnesses, the first time I’ve seen a report of what may well have been standard practice. He didn’t and made no statement either.
The magistrate then told Weeding he was now likely to face further charges from Tunbridge in addition to the one at Radley’s and remanded him in custody so more evidence could be sought.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, November 26, 1845]