How pinching a simple spud got young James into grief


One subject guaranteed to attract heated opinions is whether the courts today are too soft on criminals.

Depending on the crime, you will hear calls for the reintroduction of hanging as well as birching for young tearaways.

Because, apparently, things were better way back when and people had more fear and respect for the law.

While that may or may not be true, a trawl through the pages of the Sussex & Surrey Courier of 1914, turned up some rather harsh punishment for relatively minor crimes.

One case involved 12-year-old James Rogers who was hauled before a magistrate for the heinous crime of pulling up and eating some potatoes.

Young James probably thought the only risk he faced in pilfering the odd spud was a stomach ache. But he didn’t account for Mr R Morris, who owned said spuds, reporting him to the police.

Unfortunately for James, this was not his first offence and he did pinch quite a few of the tatties – 40 in total.

But the punishment seemed excessive. He was sent to serve his time on a training ship – which doesn’t sound the safest place for a child to be at the start of World War One.

Another boy who found himself strictly treated by the court was Cecil Frederick Reene, whose crime was much more serious than that of James The Potato Thief.

Cecil – who was referred to in the Courier as a ‘bad boy’ – was before the Bench for “assaulting an old woman”.

Like James, Cecil was a repeat offender. He was sent to a reformatory for five years.

It wasn’t only children who stood in fear of a harsh sentence.

Joseph Smith was sent to Lewes prison to do seven days’ hard labour after being found the worse for drink and laying in a gutter.

Joseph may have got off with just a slap on the wrist but he “cut up rough” when he was approached by a police officer and started “swearing and using bad language”.

With newfangled motor cars tearing around the countryside at speeds of 20 or even 30 miles per hour, the courts of 1914 found themselves dealing with an increasing number of traffic offences.

And even MPs and knights of the realm didn’t get away with speeding.

Sir Henry Calvert Williams Verney MP was stopped as he rocketed through Crawley at 20mph in defiance of the 10mph limit which was in place. Sir Henry did not appear in court and was fined £2 with 7s 4d costs.

PS Trott – who it is easy to imagine jogging alongside the car shouting “slow down, you maniac!” – told the court Sir Henry’s response to being pulled over was to ask: “How many more traps between here and Brighton?”

Like love and marriage, you can’t have motorists without also having speed traps.

Another lover of speed was Albert J Paul, who was fined 60 shillings after he “drove a motor char-a-banc through Crawley at the rate of nearly 20mph”.

It wasn’t just speeding which landed drivers in court.

Trevor Tweedale Edwards, of County Oak-villas, Crawley, was “summoned for not having the front identification plate of his motorcycle illuminated. The summons was dismissed on payment of 3s 6d costs”.

Percy Norman Hibbs, of Pease Pottage Bakery, Crawley, was “summoned for not having his motorcycle properly lighted and he was dealt with in a similar way to the previous defendant”.

And you have to feel sorry for poor old Arthur Marshall.

In the early hours of the morning, he pulled his van over in Ifield to catch a night’s sleep - as today’s drivers are advised to do if they are tired.

But instead of being praised for his common sense, Arthur was arrested by PC Skinner because his van didn’t have its lights on.

A fine of 2shillings and six pence followed, along with costs of six shillings - and you have to wonder if Arthur ever stopped for a rest again.

And finally, we have a ridiculous story which was dubbed ‘The Three Bridges Distress Case’.

The case involved Charles Alexander Paull and Richard Green who were feuding over an apron, mackintosh sheet and a piece of calico.

It’s not clear who was accusing who but one of the pair had taken the other to court for not returning the items. Whether they had been loaned or stolen was also not clear.

The court - no doubt recognising the row as being so petty even children would be embarrassed to take part - gave the men the chance to sort it out like adults.

The items were to be returned and the matter closed.

But Charles and Richard couldn’t do it.

The apron, mackintosh sheet and calico remained conspicuous by their absence and the clerk and magistrate ran out of patience.

The report said: “The clerk said it was a paltry affair, and the Bench dismissed the case.”

Whether Charles and Richard settled their differences is anybody’s guess.