I’m not sure this example of Victorian ‘justice’ would have troubled the magistrates courts today. I am even more convinced that it wouldn’t have resulted – as it did in 1895 – in a hefty prison sentence.
William Smith was minding his newspaper stall when he saw a young man approach a pillar (post) box in Threadneedle Street near the Bank of England. As he watched the man appeared to slide his hand into the post box opening and pull a letter out, which he put into his pocket.
Smith hailed a nearby policeman who quickly apprehended the thief. back at the police station the culprit gave his name as Henry Kempston (21) and admitted the charge. ‘I know I have done wrong’ he told the police sergeant.
The next morning he was brought before Alderman Davies at Guildhall Police court charged with the crime. He admitted taking the letter out but denied any intent to steal it. He had seen it sticking out ‘and foolishly took it right out, but meant to return it’.
Did he just want to be a postman? Alderman Davies, who sat in parliament for the Conservatives as an MP, wasn’t interested in any excuses and sent him to prison for two months with hard labour.
Men like Horatio Davies (right) were sometimes very far removed from most ordinary lives in the nineteenth century. Davies had come from humble origins however, having been educated at Dulwich College as a ‘poor scholar’. He had a reputation as being harsh of ‘wrong-doers’ but kind to the needy. He clearly thought Henry was the former.
When he was in his thirties Davies teemed up with his brother-in-law to establish a number of restaurants, bars and hotels; ultimately creating the Gordon Hotels Group. Three years after this case he was knighted and at some pint after that he purchased an ailing drinks brand from an oyster salesman in London. James Pimms had invented a drink that aid the digestion of those eating his shellfish but it had limited appeal. Sir Horatio Davies helped turn it into the national and international institution that it is today.
[from The Standard, Friday, November 08, 1895]