It’s a real pleasure looking through the first few editions of the Spectator from 1828, where the police reports and brief news items conjure up the England of Dickens and Trollope. There’s a man who comes before the court for throwing his wooden leg at people and is reprimanded by the judge. In a riotous atmosphere in court, the pauper explains that he can’t very well work with a leg that’s a foot and a half too short. Eventually, the Lord Mayor intercedes:
‘Defendant, I have prevailed upon the parish to put you once more upon your legs properly; and let me entreat you never to throw away an old leg until you get a new one.”— (Loud laughing.)’
A similarly good-natured scene describes how three 21-year-old men, Hook, Wyse and Green are sentenced to be transported for 14 years for stealing part of a ‘flitch of bacon…Wyse, after hearing their doom, said, with much effrontery, “Thank ye, my Lord; I did not know I had so long to live!”’
In Ireland, a detachment of soldiers collapses into giggles after attending an execution. The executioner had made sure his face was covered (to avoid a revenge attack) not with the usual black vizor, but with a mask from the nearest toy shop. ‘When the executioner went to draw the bolt, he disappeared through a place like a window, and the next thing seen was the prodigious nose popped out of the window and popped in again, to see if all was right. There was no wonder that this was too much for the gravity of a poor soldier.’
There’s a romantic account of a fight over a coal hole (‘the less the cause, the brighter the glory’) and a description of how a man gets away with a one shilling fine for murder, to loud applause in the courtroom. It’s also worth reading these notes on some recent discoveries from the natural world: bees have fine feelings and are apt to take offence, dogs form alliances like kings and cats steal watches.
A more serious piece from August 1828 describes how a woman gets a business opportunity after prostituting herself and stealing a watch. When she’s brought before the magistrate, he takes pity on her and gives her a few shillings to set herself up as a fruit seller. The Spectator treats the story with compassionate clear-sightedness:
‘Had she confined herself to the sin of prostitution, and contented herself with its meagre earnings, its miseries would have been her lot; but as she superadded treachery and robbery, she succeeded in making known her destitute condition, and procuring the aid of compassion. The practical lesson is most mischievous, and yet it is hardly possible to blame the parties to it.’
Had she spoken to the magistrate about her difficulties before committing any crime, the article adds, she probably wouldn’t have got very far.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.