Arrival at Court
Emotions would have been running high for suspects first stepping into Petersfield’s courthouse. Their fate lay in the hands of the magistrate: what judgement would they make?
Innocent or guilty, anyone held in custody faced the same walk from Petersfield police station to the courthouse, in handcuffs. Only a court magistrate could decide whether they were free to go. Court began at 10:00am, so anyone arrested after dark had to wait for hours in the police cells.
Once at court, suspects sat in the waiting room with a police officer. There might have been others waiting: people involved in civil disputes requesting a court summons, or defendants, who had been released on bail, returning to face trial. One by one, the usher called them to the dock to plead their case and hopefully, win over the magistrate.
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Prisoners tried to escape on their way from the cells to the courthouse. Les Mackey, the last Court Usher to serve here, remembers chasing one defendant across Petersfield in his gown.
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Court usher’s suit and gown
Worn by Les Mackey, usher at Petersfield Magistrate’s Court until its closure in 1995.
Magistrates don’t wear gowns. The only gowned person at Petersfield Magistrates’ Court was the usher. Their job was to make sure everyone was in the right place at the right time. This included directing people to take oaths which, for people with a religion, meant swearing to tell the truth on their holy book.
Oath cards used at Petersfield Magistrate’s Court, 1950 – 1990
Note the difference in wording between the oaths that adults and children, or juveniles, had to read before giving evidence.
New Testament bible
Used for swearing oaths at Petersfield Magistrate’s Court.
Summonses for Coroner’s Inquisitions at Petersfield magistrates court, 1960s – 1995
If someone in the local area died unexpectedly, a coroner would hold an inquiry into the death at Petersfield courthouse. The police called on local people to be members of a jury, using summonses from this book.
Petersfield's new courthouse
£1 fine for theft of hay. This was the first sentence given at Petersfield’s new courthouse, decided in this room on 11 January 1893.
William Nicholson, MP for Petersfield, was one of the local magistrates who heard the case. With two other magistrates and a legally trained clerk, he decided the verdict and sentence here in the Magistrates’ Retiring Room.
This was a typical case for Petersfield’s new Petty Sessional Courthouse, where the maximum sentence was three months’ imprisonment. The magistrates sent people accused of more serious crimes to be tried in Winchester.
Just over 100 years later, on 31 March 1995, magistrates met at Petersfield courthouse for the last time. Coincidentally, the final case was for non-payment of fines.
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The ‘Cage’, a hole in the ground covered by a grate, was Petersfield’s police cell in the early 1800s. It was next to the old Town Hall in the Square, where court was held until 1893.
Crime and punishment
Imagine committing a crime because you’re cold, or going to prison because of who you love. This was the nature of Victorian crime, but it didn’t change much in over 100 years.
Begging, stealing, and sleeping out were the most common crimes in Victorian Petersfield. For Walter Harris, a night in a cell was better than sleeping on the street. After breaking a shop window in front of a constable, he tore up his clothes, which earned him two months’ shelter in prison.
A more serious crime was ‘gross indecency’, used to convict gay men for as little as kissing or holding hands. In 1928, a farmer from Harting was given 18 months imprisonment for gross indecency. A local man was arrested in 1988, 21 years after the government began to decriminalise homosexuality. ‘Gross indecency’ was finally removed from law in 2004.
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The punishment for Victorian children who had committed a crime was a few painful strokes of the birch rod. Children in Petersfield were given ‘the birch’ for setting a haystack on fire and stealing a bottle of chutney.
It used to be up to the victim of a crime to provide evidence. Since that responsibility was transferred to the police in 1879, criminal investigation has come a long way.
In 1917, Petersfield police identified a notorious criminal using the recent discovery of fingerprinting. The police arrested John Davies on suspicion of deserting the army, but he gave a false name. His fingerprints revealed that he had previously been arrested for many serious crimes.
By 2006 forensic science was much more advanced, enabling Petersfield police to solve a murder by analysing DNA. The killer had thoroughly cleaned the crime scene, but the forensic team found a microscopic piece of DNA linking him to the murder. His friend was also the first in England to be offered immunity from prosecution for helping the police.