A waiter’s attempt to ‘over egg the pudding’ backfires.

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Many (indeed most) of the cases that ended being tried before a jury at the Old Bailey in the 1800s started with a hearing before a Police Court Magistrate. It was the duty and role of the magistrates to determine whether a person brought before them should be dealt with summarily (in other words by them without recourse to a jury) or be sent for trial at the sessions or Old Bailey. The less serious cases were sent to the Middlesex Sessions while the more heinous offences were generally reserved for the Bailey. In effect this meant that homicides, serious fraud or forgery, and violent theft and burglary ended up before the juries of London’s Central Criminal court (CCC).

When a case made it to the Old Bailey the pre-trial hearing in the Police Courts was often refereed to. If a defendant tried to change their tune at this stage the prosecution could and did use this against them. So, many of the cases that I’ve traced from the Police Courts to the CCC look very similar; in some cases we get a greater level of detail at the Bailey (because the reports of the summary hearings were often limited by space) but the basic fact are the same. In this case from 1898 however, the pre-trial hearing and the final jury trial seem to have several differences, and this probably contributed to the acquittal of the defendant.

In August 1898 William Farrington was drinking with his brother in the Hero of Waterloo pub in Waterloo Road, Kennington. It was 10.30 at night and Farrington taking a day off from his job at the Oval cricket ground where he was employed as the head waiter. At some point a man wandered across the room and thrust a pint pot under his nose and invited him to drink with him.

The man, Thomas Checkley, had been sitting with some companions and appeared to know the waiter. Farrington however, made out that the 30 year-old was a stranger to him and turned down his offer. Soon afterwards the Farrington brothers rose and left the pub. Once they got outside they were attacked by Checkley and his friends in the street. A policeman soon arrived and while most of the gang scattered, PC Frederick Habtick (45L) managed to secure Checkley. On the 19 August 1898 both Checkley and Farrington were in court at Southwark, the former charged with highway robbery and assault.

At Southwark Police Court Farrington complained that Checkley had punched him in the face, cutting his lip and then knocked him to the floor. Once he was down the other men had moved in to assault and rob the helpless man. One of the gang help his legs while another rifled his pockets and stole 28s from him.

The magistrate, Mr Fenwick, was told that the men were well known thieves. Detective Sergeant Divall of M Division, explained that Checkley belonged to  ‘Pickett’s gang’, a ‘notorious Waterloo-road’ group of criminals that had recently come out of prison. Checkley himself had recently served 15 months for robbing a ‘tipsy man’ of a watch and chain.

Faced with all of this evidence it was not a difficult decision for Mr Fenwick to commit Checkley to the CCC for trial and, on 13 September 1898 he appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with robbery with violence and theft from the person.

Here though a slightly different version of events emerged which probably helped to sow some seeds of doubt in the minds of the jury. The court heard much the same set of evidence from Farrington but under cross-examination the waiter stumbled a little. He admitted that he had actually shared a drink with Checkley in the pub, if only a small one. The defence argued that the men had in fact once been acquainted with each  other and had a fight some three months previously.

Checkley’s barrister then suggested that Farrington had invented the charge of robbery to ‘make it hot’ for his client; in other words he accused the waiter of inventing an additional and more serious crime as part of his ongoing feud with Checkley. The waiter denied this vehemently but I think the jury were convinced by the argument.

Curiously (given the evidence about street gangs offered by DS Divall at Southwark) the police seemed to have supported the defence (if not deliberately). Both PC Habtick and his station inspector (who was called to attend on the second day of the trial) stated for the record that when they had brought Checkley in they thought the charge was assault, not robbery. The inspector told the court that:

‘I saw the prosecutor when the prisoner was brought to the station—he had been drinking heavily all day, but was sober—he knew what he was doing—he said he had been out for a holiday that day and treated the prisoner to several drinks – the charge was striking the prosecutor in the face with his fist and kicking him on the head—nothing was said about his having been robbed’.

So had Farrington decided to use Checkley’s former criminal record to his advantage? It would seem so. Previous convictions dogged the footsteps of felons in the 1800s (much more than they do today) and were cited as reasons to prosecute and impose more serious sentences on those convicted. Had the jury not been distracted by the inconsistency in Farrington and the other police accounts of the incident I suspect Checkley would have been facing a spell of 5-10 years of penal servitude with all the horror that entailed. In this case, due in no small part to the honesty of the police a known criminal was acquitted of robbery and therefore in effect, acquitted also of assault.

Personally I would not like to have been William Farrington in the weeks and months that followed because I am  fairly sure that ‘Pickett’s gang’ would have been quite prepared to meet out their own form of ‘justice’ to someone that had tried to get one of their number sent away for something he had not done.

[from The Standard, Saturday, August 20, 1898]

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