Dangerous dogs or well loved pets? Two magistrates, two very different interpretations of the law.’

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The law is, of course, open to interpretation. In the 1880s the law concerning the control of pet dogs was, seemingly, as a clear as mud and so we can see that two magistrates chose to apply it in two different ways.

At Lambeth Mr Biron was in the chair on 8 June 1886. The clerk produced a string of dog owners were charged, by the treasury, with failing to keep their dogs under control. For the magistrate the law depended on how one interpreted the word ‘control’.

In a number of cases dogs had been found by police, wandering 20-30 yards from their owners or their owner’s home. If the dogs were muzzled, not on a lead, or no one appeared to be in control of them, more often than not a policeman would take their collars and take them back to the station. In those instances, if they had a name on the collar the owner was summoned to collect them.

In several of the cases brought before him Mr Biron dismissed the charge. If, for example, the owner said that the dog had just been let out in the morning (to do its ‘business’ one supposes) and was within 20 yards of the house then that was ‘under control’. In another case the owner said his animal was ‘within call’ and the justice accepted that. Indeed he accepted most explanations for why dogs were not on leads or muzzled and only one case, where a dog had bitten a child, did he find strongly against the owner who was penalised with a 10fine.

In this case though the owner had already been warned about the behaviour of his beast so perhaps that was more about demonstrating that the law had to be obeyed than anything else. The courts were quite strict on those that ignored instructions previously handed down by the magistracy.

Overall Mr Biron declared that it was ‘doubtless right to take dogs unmuzzled and without owners to the station, but when animals were within a few yards of the owner or his premises he could not see much good sense in it’.

North of the river at Clerkenwell Mr Bartsow took a different line on ‘dangerous’ dogs. John Adams was brought before him charged with not keeping his good ‘under proper control’ contrary to police regulations. Adams said that the dog was walking a yards ahead of him and that ‘some magistrates held this to be “under proper control”.’

Mr Barstow told him that ‘he could be bound by the decisions of other magistrates’ and fined him 5s. If it was off the leash and without a muzzle, it wasn’t under control. I suspect the newspapers focused on this because it was a law that was commonly interpreted differently, something that must have been confusing for dog owners and policemen alike.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, June 09, 1886]

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

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