Justice is done – 1760s-style

Amy Jones, Naomi Kenny and Val Knowles in the public gallery.
Amy Jones, Naomi Kenny and Val Knowles in the public gallery.

PEOPLE packed into a north Northumberland courtroom to see justice done 1760s-style last week.

As part of nationwide events to celebrate 650 years of the Magistracy, Berwick Magistrates Court held an open day last Friday, which included a re-enactment of a real case from 1764.

Alan Knowles

Alan Knowles

Taken from the court archives, those at the open day saw John Matthewson appear on a charge of felony in front of a bench consisting of 12 landed gentry and the Mayor before the case was then re-tried by 2011 standards in front of three magistrates.

While in 1764 Matthewson was sentenced to transportation to America for seven years, today’s defendant was given a 12-month community order that included a supervision order and 180 hours unpaid work for handling stolen goods.

Before the American Revolution put an end to the practice, transportation to America was a common sentence in the early 18th century. Luckily not long after, Captain Cook managed to find a new place for England to send criminals.

Eric Grounds, a former magistrate who acted as raconteur for the day, said that some of his ancestors were among the first to be shipped to Australia in 1787, making his ancestors part of Australian aristocracy.

Eric Grounds, a former magistrate, acted as raconteur.

Eric Grounds, a former magistrate, acted as raconteur.

The other major difference was the time each case took with the 1764 version taking little more than a couple of minutes to send Mr Matthewson to America with little recourse for evidence.

The victim of the crime, Robert Frasier returned home late one night to discover that a box containing valuables had been taken. He immediately suspected Matthewson who had been at his house earlier that day.

He went round to the defendant’s lodgings and broke down the door, along with Constable Matthewson – a curiosity from the original case in that they had the same surname – and broke down the door to find Matthewson sat with the box and its contents strewn around on the floor.

Constable Matthewson told the court that Mr Frasier said “What are you doing with it, you scoundrel?”, to which the defendant replied “The devil was in me when I did all this.”

John Matthewson in the dock accompanied by Constable Matthewson.

John Matthewson in the dock accompanied by Constable Matthewson.

He pleaded not guilty explaining that he had spotted a young man struggling to carry the heavy box and helped him, taking him to his lodgings, before the young man disappeared.

However the Mayor, after very brief discussion with the rest of the bench, declared his story ‘a tissue of lies’ and sentenced him to transportation.

But there was a twist in the tale as Matthewson managed to escape from the court, despite being in leg irons, and wasn’t recaptured for almost a year.

In 2011, the case took longer with the defendant represented by a solicitor, witnesses called to the stand and a report from the Probation Service.

A bench made up of 12 landed gentry and the Mayor hear the charges in 1764.

A bench made up of 12 landed gentry and the Mayor hear the charges in 1764.

Constable Matthewson was called to the house of the defendant but had to resort to knocking on the door, rather than Mr Frasier knocking it down.

The defendant was also ordered to pay costs of £400 at the rate of £8 a week, to be deducted from his benefits.

One member of the public said: “I don’t want to be flippant but it would be easier to send him to America.”

Current chairman of the magistrates at Berwick, Carol Calder, said that she felt it had gone very well.

“There’s a lot of interest, but it’s a total one-off for the 650th anniversary.”

She added that it was good for people to see both what went on in court and to see what the court looked like as a lot of people haven’t been in before.

“We are one of the few left to have a raised bench,” she said.

“You are definitely looking at the defendant then and you can keep control of the court.”

There were also a selection of documents on display showing the history of the court.

The earliest indictments at Berwick Quarter Sessions were in January 1563.