The histrionic farrier from Luton who drank himself silly at Barnet Fair


I grew up in Finchley in North London. It was then (and is now) a multi-cultural  suburban centre with a busy high street, a couple of nice parks, and good transport links to central London. However, a quick glance at G. W. Bacon’s atlas of the capital (see below right) shows that in 1888 (when the map was published) there was very little of the modern Finchley in evidence.


Church End (where I went to school) is just a small village and there are open fields all the way to what is now East Finchley. The railways (The Edgware, Highgate & London line) is there, as is the main southbound road towards Temple Fortune, Golders Green and then the main metropolis. Barnet, in the late nineteenth century then, was a largely rural place with pockets of suburban growth. This is reflected in this case from Highgate Police court in September 1898.

Thomas Hopkins, a 48 year-old farrier was brought up to answer a charge of being disorderly and of damaging a police cell.  The man wasn’t from Highgate or Finchley but had travelled down to the Barnet Fair from Luton in Hertfordshire. He’d been found at Whetstone on a Monday night, drunk as a lord, ‘behaving in a very disorderly manner’. The local police arrested him and locked him in a cell to sober up overnight.

Hopkins was belligerent however and made a great deal of fuss. He demanded water and complained that he was being allowed to die in the cell. When Sergeant Goodship went to see what all the noise was about the farrier threatened him saying:

‘If you don’t let me out, you will be hung in two minutes’.

It was an empty threat but typical of Hopkins’ histrionic manner. Throughout his arrest, incarnation and appearance in court Thomas managed to embroider his tale with exaggeration and melodrama. It amused the court’s audience if not the magistrates sitting in judgement on him.

‘I’m dying’, he told the police who had locked him up.

As he attempted to destroy his cell he promised to pay for all the damage, ‘even if it’s a thousand pounds’.

For context £1,000 in 1898 equates to about £78,000, which would pay a skilled tradesman wages for almost a decade!).

In court he was asked to explain himself and told the bench that on the previous Sunday he’d got two horses ready in Luton. One he intended to ride, the other would led by his assistant. But his wife refused to allow ‘his man’ to travel as well (perhaps thinking she’d need him at the stables).

He rode for 20 miles and called ahead for someone to meet him (who never showed up). He carried on and said he’d now walked for 200 miles, which collapsed the court in laughter. Luton is about 30 miles from Barnet so Hopkins was exaggerating wildly for effect. He wanted to show how far he’d tramped and how thirsty he was.

He was worried about falling victim to robbers as well. ‘There are any number of roughs lying about there’, he explained and revealed that he always carried a knife up his sleeve. When the police arrested him they took his knife away, and he lay still on the floor and pretended to be dead, ‘but I knew I wasn’t’, he added with perfect (if not necessarily deliberate) comic timing.

As the magistrates struggled to contain the laughter in the courtroom Hopkins played his final card. He claimed the police had try to kill him.

‘They gave me enough poison to kill the whole world’ he told his enthralled audience.

Sergeant Goodship gave a more rational explanation:

‘He told me he’d been drinking hard for a fortnight’.

The court was told that a doctor had been supposed to examine him in Luton before he left for the fair but hadn’t managed to before the farrier set off. Perhaps his wife and friends had been worried about the sate of his mental health. The bench could see that all was clearly not quite right with Thomas Hopkins and remanded him to the nearest workhouse infirmary so he could be checked out by a doctor. Ultimately, ‘mad’ or not, he would be sent back to Luton and his wife, though what fate awaited him there was unclear.

Barnet has had a horse fair since the middle ages and it would have drawn men like Thomas Hopkins from all over the south east of England. Horses and cattle were traded there and there was racing as well, at least till 1870. Now it exists as annual local festival, not a horse fair. The name of course is probably better as coated with cockney rhyming slang – Barnet Fair = Hair. So on Friday, after work, I’m off to get my Barnet snipped.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, September 13, 1898]

The cabbie and the lady who knew too much



The case that the Morning Post’s reporter chose to relate to his readers from the Westminster Police Court on the 6 February 1875 was a rather complicated, but interesting one.

It involved a cab driver and a well-informed female legal expert.

Caroline Prodgers summoned a cab from her Barnet home to take her to Belgrave Square where she had an appointment at the Austrian Embassy. On the route the cab passed the up the Strand, stopped at the Haymarket for half an hour (on her instruction) before waiting at Belgrave Square for three-quarters of an hour.

She then asked him to take her to Victoria Station and wait again. However, the cabbie (Benjamin Coombe) now informed her that he could drive her no further. His explanation was that he: ‘had completed over an hour in time and distance, and, besides, his horse, which had been out some hours, was jaded and required rest’.

Mrs Prodgers was not at all happy with this and refused to pay him his fare (and apparently she had great difficulty finding another cab to complete her journey). In consequence Coombe summoned her to Westminster Police Court to have Mr. Arnold (the magistrate) adjudicate on the dispute).

Mr. Arnold said that as far as he understood the law of the day the cabbie was within his rights. ‘by distance he was not compelled to drive more than six miles, and by time not more than an hour’. However, Mrs Prodgers believed she knew better, being a student of the law.

She stated that he had not completed the six miles (the waiting time, she added, was irrelevant, as they cab was not moving). As to whether the horse was tired, well he had not mentioned that to her.

Mr. Coombes argued, quite reasonably I think, that waiting time was crucial. Otherwise a ‘fare’ might take a cab at 9 in the morning and keep it out all day if they didn’t travel the full mileage. Really, he should have discharged Mrs Prodgers at Belgrave Square and gone home to rest his horse but he couldn’t because by then she was in the embassy.

At witness at Victoria (a constable named Chadd) said Mrs Prodger’s antics at Victoria had caused a disturbance which was only resolved when she found a cab to take her way. This probably cemented her resolve to resist paying Coombe what he was owed.

In the end the magistrate fudged it a little. He ordered the lady to pay her fare but said that Coombe could have presented his case better. He therefore only awarded 2s costs on top of the 2s 6d fare owed. For Coombe this probably meant that his day in court cost him in lost business, because on the day he had collected Mrs Prodger he had already earned 11s (£25) and could perhaps have hoped to have made twice that in a day.

[from The Morning Post , Saturday, February 06, 1875]