Northumberland, History Society

Bell View resource centre, Belford
Bell View resource centre, Belford

Criminals on trial

The North Northumberland Family History Society welcomed Margaret Fox, former archivist at Berwick Record Office, who has researched Northumbrian people tried for crimes committed in Scotland.

This talk dealt with serious crimes tried at the High Court in Jedburgh. Members visiting General Register House in Edinburgh could make use of a Criminal Cases Index.

Jedburgh was on the Southern circuit for High Court judges. It provided plenty of examples of the various outcomes of trials other than a verdict of innocent or guilty, for example fugitation, desertion, not proven and insufficient evidence. We heard examples dating back to 1751.

There was the “sturdy idle beggars...vagabonds and sorners” from Rothbury and Alnwick. Though found guilty, they were released as it was believed they would simply commit further crimes. The expression “Jeddart Justice” refers to execution without a proper trial, stemming from a case when this was applied to a gang of villains.

There were so many conflicting statements for the case of Andrew Gray, of Wooler, in 1813, discovered to have bank notes sewn into his coat, who was also alleged to be Andrew Gregg, from Clackmannan, who had stolen a horse, that the case was dismissed because of insufficient evidence.

Cases of “irregular border marriages” were common, with “unofficial priests” presiding at such places as Lamberton Toll. It had been declared that “the celebration of clandestine marriage is of a heinous nature”. In 1661 this became a crime and was punishable by banishment. Sometimes these marriages were followed by further incidents, as in 1842 at Lamberton when charges of “assault and malicious mischief” were brought against wedding guests who refused to pay their drinking bill and allegedly assaulted the toll keeper.

David Hunter married Mary Cook in Belford in 1847, but when it was discovered he was already married he was tried for bigamy. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment. An interesting case concerned Robert Bruce, the master of the sloop Juno in 1855, on a voyage from Berwick to Leith. It was alleged he had killed the mate, Joseph Octon, on the charge of “culpable homicide”, manslaughter.

An argument had taken place over the master’s tea not being ready. In fact, his tea had been eaten by the crew when he did not arrive on time. Master and mate agreed to a fight on deck, and the mate died. Ship-owner and Mayor of Berwick Robert Ramsay spoke in his defence and Bruce was fined a shilling and obliged to keep the peace for 12 months, surety of £20 being stood by Ramsay.

Margaret’s interesting talk raised many questions, such as what were these persons doing in Scotland and why did the sentences vary so much? It was an excellent example of the wealth of details that can be found in such records.

No one in the audience would admit to ancestral connections with any of these criminals. However, it is always worth searching such records when ancestors appear to go missing.

Our next meeting is on Saturday, March 19, at 10am, at Bell View, Belford, when we will share ideas for organising family history research. Everyone is welcome.