In 1907 Evelyn Henry Villebois Burnaby published ‘Memories of Famous Trials’. One of the cases he recalls was held at the Spring Assizes at Taunton before Chief Justice Alexander Cockburn in which four poachers from Yeovil, Somerset were alledged to have kicked to death local policeman Nathaniel Cox.
One of the most remarkable cases that Cockburn ever tried took place at Taunton on the Spring Assize of 1877. The Chief Justice went the Western Circuit especially to try the case, and never were the judge’s clear grasp of the facts of the case and marvellous ability to place them before the jury more clearly displayed.
A policeman, named Nathaniel Cox, was alleged to have been kicked to death by four poachers in a narrow lane leading down to a railway arch crossed by the London and South-Western Railway at Sutton Bingham, off the high road from Yeovil to Crewkerne. The four prisoners charged with murder were Geo. Hutchings, the father, Giles and Peter, his sons, and Chas. Baker, who all resided at East Coker, a small village in Somersetshire.
On the night before the Yeovil fair these four men drove in a cart along this road, and on turning off the main road and down over a very steep hill and through the lane (the old man driving the cart), passed the policeman Cox, and wished him goodnight. Their story was that they intended to drive that night to Dorchester, some miles distant, to bring back a horse to sell at the fair.
The theory of the Crown was that they intended to drive to Melbury Park, the residence of the Earl of Ilchester, for the purpose of taking deer or game; in any case, they did not continue their drive long, for it came on to rain, and the same cart with the four prisoners made its way up the lane, where they were met by Cox and Police-constable Stacey, who attempted to stop the cart.
A free fight and scuffle ensued, the policeman’s staff was broken, and Cox met his death by kicks and blows. Stacey appears to have made away, and the prisoners managed to evade justice some time, and were afterwards discovered in a hay-loft belonging to a farmer named Richards, arrested and charged with murder, the Richards’ being indicted as accessories after the fact for harbouring them.
The case caused the greatest excitement, and Cockburn, knowing the case was a sensational one, spared no pains to give proof of his marvellous skill and ability. Amongst the witnesses called for the Crown was a rubicund and well-nurtured gentleman who, I believe, received a good salary as analyst for the County of Somerset. ” What is this gentleman going to prove? ” asked Cockburn. ” He is going to give, my lord, evidence as to a hair found on the toe of the boot of the prisoner Baker,” replied counsel. ” Surely,” said the judge, ” the witness is not going to identify this single hair as one of the hairs belonging to the head of the murdered man. I can scarcely make it out with a microscope, much less with the naked eye. I refuse to admit this evidence; it would be unsafe. Unless this gentleman has examined the hair of every animal God has made, I fail to see how his testimony can be valuable . ‘
Cockburn’ s summing- up in this case was masterly, and my memory recalls it as if I heard it yesterday. Turning to the jury he began, ” Picture to yourselves, gentlemen, a dreary November night, the eve of the Yeovil fair, and see the four prisoners driving along in a cart, and turning down the lane which leads to the railway arch, wishing the policeman Cox, at the top of the hill, ‘Good-night.’ Whether intending to proceed to Dorchester or Melbury it will be for you to decide. In a short time they return; it is very dark, and as it would seem to me, with one man driving, and that man the elder prisoner, and the others probably walking up the hill to ease the horse, they are confronted by Cox and Stacey, who stop the cart.”
The learned judge was here very emphatic in laying down the law. Every law-abiding citizen has a right to use the Queen’s highway unmolested, and that the police in this case had no right to stop the cart without reasonable ground of suspicion, and that the person stopped had a right to use reasonable violence to proceed. Cockburn made it very clear that in this case the police were the aggressors, and that a verdict of murder would be unsafe, and that the crime, if proved, would be one of manslaughter.
He narrated in graphic style the particulars of the fray and motte, and pointed out that the fight must have taken place behind the cart, the body of the policeman being stretched across the lane, and that probably the elder Hutchings, who had driven on, was no party to the outrage.
The jury retired to consider their verdict, and the judge requested his clerk, who was sitting next to me, to write out the sentence of death in the plural number should he be called upon to pass it. The jury returned in about an hour, and amid breathless silence, to a crowded court. The clerk had his hand on the clasp of a little bag underneath his seat containing the black cap, but a verdict of manslaughter against all four prisoners called for a different sentence. ” Now,” said Cockburn’s marshal, his half-brother, to me, ” you will hear something very fine. He was sitting up last night at the ‘ Lodgings ‘ preparing his sentence.”
” Prisoners at the bar,” he commenced, ” for those who take man’s life with malice prepense for them the punishment is death. Then there is manslaughter, so closely on the borderland of murder that penal servitude for life must follow. I am not going to pass on you that sentence, but one of weary, weary years of servitude, and I can only hope that during your captivity you will repent of your great sin. The sentence on each and all of you is that you be kept in penal servitude for the term of twenty-four years.”
Baker asked permission to speak, and informed the judge that the old man had had nothing to do with the affray, but had driven the cart on, and did not know what had taken place until himself and the two sons had rejoined him. ” I will communicate with the Home Secretary,” said the judge, ” and probably the old man will be spared the punishment which awaits you.” A free pardon was granted Geo. Hutchings, and, by a curious irony of fate, the elder prisoner, who died shortly after his release, lies side by side in East Coker churchyard with the policeman Cox.
The sequel of the story is strange. I saw all three convicts during the time of their imprisonment at Pentonville, Dartmoor and Portland. On my ride from Land’s End to John o’ Groats I visited Mrs Baker. Giles Hutchings escaped from Chatham, swam the Medway, made his way back to his old home over the hills above Sherborne, hid in a wood, managed to elude the Dorset police, who were on the alert for him, finally made his way to Southampton, crossed to the Isle of Wight, worked on a farm at Niton in the undercliff, was recognised by a butcher who had known him and who rounded on him. He was re-arrested and completed his years of servitude at Portland, where I saw him in the chain room, a place where the irons and handcuffs are kept. He was then wearing the parti-coloured leg of the knickers of a prisoner who had attempted to escape, and was finally liberated on December 31, 1897. I saw him again in his old home a few days after he had regained his freedom, and he gave me a graphic account of his escape from Chatham, and how he managed to evade capture. When last I heard of him he had gone back to the farm at Niton, and was doing well.