West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Local History



The following reports are not from the courts of today, but from Pontefract about 130 years ago although all the cases mentioned here originate in Featherstone. I am indebted to Mr. Irvin Saxton for permission to quote from his excellent series of publications ‘The Featherstone Chronicles’.

Featherstone, by which I mean ‘Old’ or ‘North’ Featherstone, and Purston, up until 1868 when John Shaw sank Featherstone Main Colliery, were agricultural communities with a combined population in 1861 of just 616. By 1881 this had risen to 3953, the vast majority being miners and their families living in the area around Station Lane, called ‘South’ or ‘New’ Featherstone, and originating from Durham; Staffordshire; Wales; Lancashire, in fact almost anywhere but Featherstone!

This influx of people, and the new mining industry, brought to the Magistrates Courts a new set of problems to deal with. Many of these are no longer seen today in the reports in the Pontefract and Castleford Express, although there are some familiar cases such as drunkenness, violence and theft, but with very different sentences than those we now read about. There was no ‘Community Sentences’ then!

A note for those too young to remember ‘real’ money. There were 20 shillings to the pound and 12 pence to the shilling and to put money matters into perspective, in 1883/5 Bradley paid his groom £1 a week while a colliery enginewright earned £1-7s and a miner about £1-13s a week, depending upon his productivity.

And now to the actual cases:

In 1873, Francis Robinson, a music teacher, was bound over and given a severe caution for threatening to kill his wife (it was a severe caution mind).

Thomas Jackson, in February of 1874, was sent to prison for a month as a rouge and a vagabond after being found by a policeman sleeping in an outhouse!

There were at this time many offences that today may seem to us bizarre and here is such a case:

Two miners, summonsed for leaving their employ at Featherstone Main Colliery without giving proper notice and having been ordered by the Magistrates to return to work, (fancy being ordered to return to work by the Courts!) then summonsed the manager, Earnest Andrew, for failing to find them sufficient work in the mine.

The defence argued that no work was available due to there being no empty wagons to be filled and the bench, after much deliberation, dismissed the case, viewed as a test case by the coal owners, (I’ll bet it was!)

In September that same year, Thomas Galway was charged by the same Earnest Andrew with having a pipe whilst down the pit. The bench was told that such practices were exceedingly dangerous with the risk of causing an explosion and to make an example of him the bench sent Galway to prison, with hard labour, for a month.

It clearly did not have the desired effect for a year later Robert John Turner was fined twenty shillings and costs for a very similar offence, a considerable discrepancy in sentencing. Although I believe that such offences could be charged either under Colliery Rules or under the Mines and Quarries Act, only the latter was imprisonable.

Also sentenced to hard labour, this time for fourteen days, was Ann Irving who stole six-and-a-half pounds of beef, which she concealed in her shawl, from John Wood’s shop in Station Lane. Despite having four children and crying for mercy the Magistrates were unmoved.

A case against three men, charged with racing on a public road in an indecent state was dismissed when the bench heard that they were wearing running drawers. The men promised not to do it again!(I wonder what the Magistrates would make of the current state of dress, or undress, we see nowadays).

‘Tossing schools" were a popular, although illegal, form of gambling amongst the miners and in May of 1875 five men were charged with gambling on the highway by ‘tossing’ halfpennies and betting on the result, something I remember seeing during my childhood in Tanshelf. Each was fined £1.

Robert Marshall and his wife Jane had a travelling hardware van and shooting gallery, a strange combination one might think! One Sunday in July of 1875, during an attempted burglary, she fired a pistol at the thief, one William Cox, and when he was arrested she told the police that the gun had only a cap and no powder or she would have shot him! Cox got one month in prison. Any offers on what would have happened today, and who would have ended up in jail?

Having been arrested in West Bromwich, Edward Martin was before the Pontefract bench in June 1884 charged with having deserted his wife, who had subsequently been paid £10-9s Parish Relief. Despite claiming he had gone to West Bromwich for the sake of his health (to West Bromwich?) he was sent to prison for one month with hard labour.

The Magistrates of yore seemed to have had strange powers; they dismissed a case against John Button and the landlord of the Bradley Arms, James Fozzard, for drinking after hours on condition that they paid the costs! Did they make it up as they went along?

And finally, to bring us right up to date; George Buckley was fined five shillings for failing to send his child to school for the last three months. This was in May of 1886; the more things change the more they remain the same!

Eric Jackson

Also by Eric Jackson:

The Barnbow Lasses
Pontefract Sessions House
A Pontefract Battalion


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