A Frenchman’s ‘foolish frolic’ in Wardour Street

The_Crystal_Palace_in_Hyde_Park_for_Grand_International_Exhibition_of_1851

Part of the role of a Police Court magistrate in Victorian London was to determine whether cases that came before them ought to be sent up through the justice system. Much of the ‘crime’ they dealt with was petty, but far from all of it was. The magistrate was often the first stop in a longer process of prosecution; he heard the initial case put by the police (or a private individual) and decided if it required to be heard by a judge and jury.

The magistrate had quite considerable summary powers (the ability to sit in judgement on prisoners alone and without a jury) and these increased after the implementation of the Summary Jurisdiction Act (1855). Nearly all juvenile crime and a growing amount of petty theft, non fatal violence, and a huge variety of disorderly and anti-social behaviour was left to these law men.

Today’s case is an example of a justice having to decide whether he was going to deal with something himself, as a minor offence, or whether he felt it was serious enough to warrant a jury trial at the Middlesex Sessions or the Old Bailey.

Mr Bingham was presiding over a number of cases on a cold Monday morning in November 1851. He might have preferred to have been taking in the sights at the Great Exhibition which was in full swing at the time. Sadly for him, a steady stream of drunks, vagrants, petty thieves and wife-beaters demanded his attention instead.

At least Theodore Guibelei offered some light relief and a touch of continental sparkle to his morning of deliberation. Guibelei (most probably a Frenchman) was initially charged with theft by the policeman that brought him into Mr Bingham’s courtroom.

PC Martin (C68) deposed that he had found his man knocking at doors on Wardour Street in the early hours of Sunday morning. It was about 2am and so this strange behaviour attracted the attention of the beat ‘bobby’. As Guibelei left the doorstep on No. 43 PC Martin stopped him. Clearly unhappy with whatever response the Frenchman have the constable asked him to accompany him back to the door he’d just left.

It was then that PC Martin saw that the house’s door knocker had been wrenched off completely. Assuming that it was an accident or a prank the officer demanded that Guibelei raise the occupants of the house so that he could ‘square the matter’ with them (in other words apologise for the damage and offer to pay to repair it).

When the man refused he was arrested and taken to the nearest police station. On being searched two knockers were discovered, and it was found that the other belonged to a house in Princes Street. As a result Guibelei was charged with theft and damage.

In court the justice had to make a decision. Was the man a thief or some sort of prankster or nuisance? It mattered because if he sent him for trial for theft there was a very real risk that, if convicted, he could go to prison or worse. In court Guibelei had support from a ‘professional person’.

He told Mr Bingham that his friend was no thief and there was no ‘animo furandi’ [no intent to steal] on his part. It was all just a ‘foolish frolic’. And the magistrate chose to believe him. He said he would deal with there and then and fined him £3 plus £1 in damages for each door knocker. The Frenchman paid the money and left a free man.

Perhaps because of the class of the defendant or his representative, or maybe b

 

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, November 25, 1851]

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