Tables turned as a complainant becomes the focus of complaint

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Mr Selfe was the presiding magistrate at the Westminster Police court in June 1863 and he was not a man to be trifled with. So when James Cowen appeared not once but twice in his court to complain against another local man for criminal damage he was dismissed with a flea in his ear.

Cowen ran an ‘establishment called Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in Greycoat Street, Westminster. It isn’t clear what sort of place (shop, beer house, cafe, or club) this was but the name suggests that Cowen was politically motivated in some way. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel had a powerful anti-slavery message and in 1863 America was in the middle of its bloody Civil War.

James Cowen described himself as a ‘medical reformer’ and on his best visit to the court on Saturday 13 June he complained that John Theophilus Rowland had broken a board he was exhibiting outside his premises. Cown produced the damaged board and gave it to Mr Selfe to examine.

The reaction of the magistrate was not the one Cowan hoped for however. Mr Selfe read the words on the board (which were not recorded by the reporter) and declared that he was amazed that Rowland hadn’t broke it over the complainant’s head! The message it carried apparently defamed the British royal family and, in Selfe’s opinion, Rowland was quite right to get angry and smash it up. He dismissed the charge and the accused.

Cowan could (and probably should) have left it there but he didn’t. A few hours later he was back at Westminster to ask the magistrate if he would help him to bring a case to the court of Queen’s Bench.

He stated that ‘no man a right to prevent the expression of his political opinions, and he would certainly make an application to the Secretary of State upon the subject’.

Mr Selfe was scathing in his response and dismissal of the idea. While he was entitled to take his case wherever he wished he didn’t think it would get very far. He told Cowan of a recent case where ‘a person had exhibited an offensive caricature in a shop window which a relative had destroyed’. The man brought an action for damages which was dismissed, and he thought that this one would be as well.

However, ‘a man who insulted the public by the exhibition of an outrageous and disgusting placard could not complain of its destruction’, and once again James Cowan was sent packing from the Westminster courtroom with his tail between his legs.

If only we knew what the sign had said…

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 14, 1863]

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