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The Tale of Thomas Redding, part one…

March 31, 2010

I always enjoyed the unusual emanating from the Courts and many column inches of The Bristolian were filled with these cases. A particular favourite of mine was heard on Saturday 26th May 1827. The proceedings of this morning were unusually barren of interest” There were indeed very many cases originating in drunken squabbles, and complainants and defendants were alike anxious to put in their bruises as evidence of ill usage, but of more solid matter there was great lack” The most curious charge was that of the landlady of a Public House on the Quay, against a young woman for eating a vinegar cruet. The Magistrate stared, as well he might; the girl cried, and the landlady with a most serious aspect, assured his Worship that she did not wish to punish the poor girl, but really could not afford to lose the value of the property. “What was it worth?” “Two shillings, if you please, Sir,” was the reply. Some elucidation of the glass eating affair was now sought, but nothing beyond the assertion that she had ground the cruet and ate it, could be elicited from the whimsical epicure, who, in the event, was doomed to The Bridewell until Monday.

Of all the Schools for the study of life, there is none that surpasses that exhibition of folly, fraud, and fun, than that found in a Police Court. Nor can a novice in the ways of this wonderful world derive greater advantage from any source than a perusal of the animated volume of nature there presented to the observation of the bye-stander.

Thus, one fine summer’s day during that year, patrolling Clare Street and Corn Street, for lack of better occupation, I observed a small knot of men in front of the Council House and among them two municipal police, notably one Barrell, of whom I enquired what was going on. “The Alderman is getting through the night charges,” was the reply. I asked if it were an open Court, and was answered in the affirmative, and told I might go on in if I pleased: and I did please; and, escorted by Barrell, went in.

Alderman Fripp was the sitting Magistrate, and a charge of smuggling was being preferred and investigated. The prisoner at the bar was named Thomas Redding, and the Custom House Officer, William Underwood, told his tale. He said the prisoner had arrived on the Cork steamer the previous evening, and as the passengers landed across a plank gangway from the vessel’s deck to the quay, several had passed the ordeal of the Officer’s scrutiny at the marine end of the plank, and had duly landed. When Redding, carrying a two gallon stone bottle, was about to follow their example, he was prevented by the questioning of the Officer as to the contents of his suspicious looking bottle.” “Whiskey, Sir” was the prompt reply of honest Tom; whereupon he was turned off the ship’s deck with the intimation that he was to await the convenience of the Officer in the cabin. Underwood stated that the sailor had admitted that he had not paid duty on the whiskey, and so Redding and the spirit were duly taken into custody and walked across the temporary gangway, the criminal first and his captor, carrying the whiskey, in close attendance, to be placed in a lock up for the night and then on to the Court of Justice in the morning.

Then came the turn of the accused, whose simple defence was that he was a seaman on board H.M.S. Revenge and had obtained a fortnight’s leave, for the purpose of seeing a married sister residing in Cork. Aware of his intended visit, she had written to her brother asking him to purchase and bring two gallons of London stout, promising to replenish the bottle with the best Cork whiskey on his return to England. This contract was strictly adhered to and hence his present difficulty. He knew nothing about spirit duties; he meant no harm to anybody; and hoped the Magistrate would let him go back to his ship at once within the period of his leave. The worthy Alderman told him he could do nothing of the kind, the of fence had been cleanly proved and unless he paid a penalty of a hundred pounds, he would have to serve for five years on the coast of Africa.

On hearing the decision, the poor fellow burst into tears, and falling on his knees, implored mercy. He said that he had injured no one; that he had never been in trouble before, and that he had always maintained a good character whether on board ship or ashore.

The Alderman said that he could not help it. The prisoner had broken the law and must abide the consequences. Feeling this to be a very hard case, and acting upon mere impulse, I advanced to the desk of the Magistrate and, apologising for my interference, said that I thought if he again read the evidence, he would see that it did not bring the prisoner within the terms of the Act of Parliament.

“And who may you be, and by what right do you interfere?” enquired the Worship.

I replied that whilst my name was immaterial, the legal bearing of the evidence of the Custom House Officer and the sufficiency of that evidence to the conviction of the prisoner was very material to the poor man at the bar and to the legal administration of justice.

“You have no right to interfere, Sir, and if you say another word, you will be turned out of the Court,” was the Alderman’s reply”

“God bless you Sir; do stand by me. I haven’t another friend in the world, this will ruin me for ever,” said Tom Redding with a trembling voice, and still on his knees.

Again I protested against the illegality of the conviction and besought a hearing as to the insufficiency of the evidence.

Without another word Alderman Fripp ordered: “Barrell, put that man out!”

I felt a grip on my collar and speedily found myself outside the door of the Justice-room, where I remained until the prisoner was brought out by one of the officers, whom I accompanied to the lock-up, cheering the down-cast prisoner and promising to visit him in the evening. I well remember my dear father, Headley, saying to me, “My boy, always act upon impulse, and ten to one you will act rightly; for impulse is from the heart; whilst if you dally with natural impressions, and natural feeling and natural instinct, you are very likely to argue yourself into wrong conclusions, subjecting blood to brain, the heart to the head.”

This may possibly need some qualification; but I am not about to argue the wisdom of my father and only, refer to his advice by way of accounting for my unconsidered intervention between Messrs. Fripp and Redding. I had clearly acted upon impulse and I have never felt that I acted unwisely.

That evening, and the next day, and the next, I made myself thoroughly acquainted with my imprisoned client and determined upon my course of action for the purpose of effecting his liberation and circumventing Magisterial illegality and injustice.

On Saturday June 16th; I attended the Council House where The Right Worshipful the Mayor; Alderman Daniel and Alderman Brook were the residing Magistrates.

As their worships were about to retire, I observed that I had been waiting for some time at the convenience of the worthy Magistrates, to whom I was desirous of making a pro forma application.

The Mayor (resuming his seat, and motioning the worthy Aldermen to support him on either side), asked, “Well Sir, what is it?”

“My application, gentlemen, has reference to the unfortunate seaman recently convicted in this Court of the offence of smuggling, and whose severe punishment has, very naturally, interested myself and many others on his behalf. It will be in the recollection of Mr. Alderman Daniel, that I yesterday applied to him for an order to visit the poor fellow, with a view to effect such arrangements as might be best calculated to procure his restoration to liberty. The necessary instructions having been given to Mr. Evans, the keeper of Bridewell Prison, I this morning obtained an interview with Thomas Redding. Having good reason for desiring other communication with the poor fellow than could be afforded by the small opening in the door of the room in which he is confined, I made a request to the under Keeper for admission to the apartment. This having been refused me, and that refusal having been repeated by Mr. Evans himself, on the plea that it would be contrary to the custom of the prison so to admit me without an order from your worships. I now make application for the required permission.”

The Mayor considered for a moment and then said, “The hardship of this man’s case is admitted by the Court, and I am sure I should be very glad to promote his liberation; but I consider…. I consider Sir, that we cannot give you the permission you ask. I, for one, should have no objection; but, as I said before, I don’t think we can permit you to go into his room to speak with him.”

“No, certainly we cannot,” Alderman Daniel interjected, “besides, of what use would it be? I can’t see that any good could arise from it, for we all know it is a hard case, and I believe the Magistrates intended to send a petition to London for a mitigation of his punishment.”

Mr Harford, a clerk, informed the Court that it was sent off that morning.

Continuing, Alderman Daniel said, “And, therefore, it would be useless for you to interfere in it; besides, we can’t grant your application.”

This open dialogue continued with the Mayor adding, “The poor man’s case was brought before me some days ago, and I remember I thought the offence was very trifling, and innocently committed; indeed, I told the Custom-House people that they ought to consider well before they proceeded against him. Redding was then remanded, and I confess I was much surprised when I heard that the officers were determined to prosecute him to the full extent of the law.”

Alderman Daniel, exhibiting signs of anxiety interrupted to say, “But we already petitioned on behalf of this man, and so no permission to go into his room can be granted.”

These ramblings more than astonished me, “I had thought, gentlemen, that the permission solicited by me would be a matter of course; but, as you do not seem to view it in this light, I enter somewhat more at length into the circumstances under which I have applied to you. As a friend and advisor of this ill-used seaman, I am desirous of establishing his innocence by convicting the man, on whose evidence he was committed and sentenced, of wilful and purposed perjury. Thus, from the evidence in my possession, I believe I shall be enabled to do; but it is necessary that I should have an opportunity of private conversation with Redding, in order to fully develop the circumstances of his case, and make final arrangements of the measures which might be thought preferable to adopt with reference to any ulterior proceedings.” [Here there was a sudden rush of several individuals from the passage into the room.] “Keep the door shut! exclaimed the Mayor. I continued, “My conversation with Redding cannot, under the present arrangement, be so perfectly confidential as I desire. It will be obvious to you when I state that, at whatever hour I visit him, there are individuals present, before whom I, of necessity from such particular explanation of the plans by which it is proposed to obtain our object, as is desirable and indeed indispensable to the furtherance of the ends of justice. What assurance can I have that the under-keeper is other than the bosom friend of the man about to be charged with as gross perjury as ever was committed? And it will not, surely, be expected by you, gentlemen, that I should so endanger the safety of poor Redding as to put it in the power of any stranger to betray, prevent, and counteract those measures which are, by the conviction of your witness, to liberate your prisoner. It is under these inconveniences I apply to you for such an order on the Keeper of the Bridewell as may enable an innocent convict to establish that innocence of which he has been robbed, in estimation at least, by the wilful and deliberate perjury of another.”

“You have been told, Sir, that an application has already been made on Redding’s behalf by the Magistrates,” said Alderman Daniel;” and really you will not assist in the attainment of your object by interfering any further, I have no doubt the application will be successful.”

Exasperated by the blindness of the Court to my point, I none the less continued, “Supposing it is as successful as could be desired, his mere liberation would be an act of mercy; a favour for which it becomes not the innocent to sue. Gentlemen, this poor fellow is entitled to justice, and if we shall be enabled to show that the evidence on which he was convicted was false in some part of its most essential points, it is surely preferable that the guiltless and the guilty should participate in equal distribution of justice, than that the former should be considered as an object of mercy and the latter be permitted to escape that punishment which might operate as a wholesome caution to others subjected to a similar temptation. Besides, Gentlemen, it is less a question with this unfortunate seaman, whether he shall obtain his liberty in six days, rather than seven, than it is whether he is to be set free with the unspotted character he has hitherto maintained, or with the blasted name which the sentence on a convicted smuggler will forever be attached to him.

With due courtesy Alderman Daniel asked, “But, Sir, suppose the advice you should give this poor man might be such as ought not to be given him?”

“That is a supposition, Sir, which you are not justified in advancing,” I replied.

Alderman Daniel asked if I were a Solicitor, to which I replied in the negative. He continued, that if I had been legally qualified then there would have been no objection to my admission”

“Gentlemen,” I said, “Redding has not the means of employing a Solicitor, and I should feel obliged to Mr. Alderman Daniel if he would have the kindness to define the precise difference between a rich man’s Solicitor and a poor man’s friend; especially as I am ignorant of any legal enactment bestowing privileges on the former to the prejudice of the latter.”

Alderman Daniel attempted a reasoned reply by stating that it was more than probable that I would not provide him the same advice as that given by professional legally qualified gentlemen.

My brain was running with the well oiled wheels of the mill, “Then Gentlemen, to meet this objection, I will state, and I do so with much gratification, that a highly respectable Solicitor of this City has kindly promised his gratuitous assistance in the case of this unfortunate man; but it can scarcely be expected of him that he should lose half his day in dancing attendance at the Bridewell, when, by the interposition of another, the object may be sufficiently attained” It is, then, as the direct medium of communication between the poor client and the humane Solicitor, that I conceive I can advance the justice of this case, and I trust your worships will not refuse my application in this particular instance; and I then more confidently rely on your support, from the liberal and just view which your observations lead me to conclude you have taken on the subject of Redding’s imprisonment and sentence.”

It was now apparent to me that however clear the argument was put the stubborn Aldermen were set to have their way; Alderman Daniel added, “Why, if we were to admit you into his room, all Bristol might apply to us in a similar manner.”

I returned, “But the anticipation of so improbable an occurrence is surely unfair towards the first applicant. I would submit, Sir, that on the realisation of your fears, the objection now urged would have more weight than it can have at present.”

“We cannot permit it,” Alderman Daniel replied, “besides, we have no right to grant your application: you must go to the committing Magistrates.”

This took me somewhat by surprise, “Of whom I am entirely ignorant. Perhaps you will permit me to observe that I conceived the present Bench fully competent to the exercise of this power; and, if so, I trust you will not send me all over the City to hunt for others. I do not even know who are the committing Magistrates.”

“Alderman Fripp, and……. ,”    the Mayor paused and beckoned to the clerk for the additional information, which he gave as Alderman George Hillhouse.

In turn, each member of the Bench told me again that they could not give me the permission I require, even though they would be happy to do so if it was in their power, and I was told that I must put my request to Alderman Hillhouse or Alderman Fripp. I left the Council-House with the distinct feeling of being ‘fobbed off.’

I immediately set myself the task to investigate the current situation concerning the Petition, or Memorial, or Remonstrance that had been said, by Mr. Harford, to have been sent by the Magistrates of the City of Bristol to the proper quarter for the remission of the sentence on this unfortunate sailor. I was clearly informed, at 3 o’clock on Saturday June 16th, that it had been sent; an answer therefore might have been received on Monday morning; but four posts since have arrived and gone, and the poor fellow is still in the Bridewell.

I refrained from any active interference at this point, in the way of preparing a Petition, in case such action might have appeared invidious, and proved detrimental rather than otherwise to the interest of Redding. But now sufficient time had passed that I now conceive I may act on the supposition either that the proceeding had not been sufficiently prompt and energetic, or that there is some foul play, of which I am as yet ignorant. I shall therefore throw away any false feeling, and act upon the impulse of the heart, which truly obeyed, will seldom prove detrimental in its result.

All eventualities were being considered and by way of the most uncomfortable access through the part opened door of Redding’s cell I helped my poor friend to write a Petition pleading for his freedom. The copy read as follows:-

To his Royal Highness the Duke of Clarence, Lord High Admiral of Great-Britain.

The humble Petition of Thomas Redding, now a Prisoner in The Bridewell of the City of Bristol,


That your Petitioner was paid off from H.M.S. Revenge, at Portsmouth, on the 11th of May, last. That your Petitioner, being naturally desirous of seeing a sister and brother-in-law from whom he had been separated for seventeen years, proceeded to Cork for such purpose on the second instant, in The Severn,’ Steam-packet, from the City of Bristol. That your Petitioner returned by the same conveyance to Bristol on the sixth instant. That on arrival of the packet in the dock, your petitioner had in his possession a two gallon keg of Irish Whiskey, for which he had paid the sum of 19s. at a spirit store in Cork, under the declaration, that he purposed taking it with him to London, and under the supposition that the high price charged him included all duty. That the person of your petitioner was seized on board such vessel, and before he had landed or attempted to land, by a Custom-House officer with the name of William Underwood. That he was detained a prisoner in the cabin, until the said officer left the packet, and that he was then landed in his custody, and placed in confinement on shore. That on the fourteenth instant, he was charged before the Magistrates of the aforesaid City of Bristol with the offence of smuggling – that he was convicted on the oath of the aforesaid Wm. Underwood, who swore that the capture was effected when your petitioner was on land” That your Petitioner is now under sentence to serve on board the Royal Navy for five years. That your Petitioner is prepared to establish the charge of perjury against the witness, Underwood, by proving that he effected his caption on board The Severn Steam-packet. That your Petitioner conceives his case one of peculiar hardship, and can refer your Royal Highness to the convicting Magistrates Messrs. Aldermen William Fripp and George Hillhouse, who in common with the Right Worshipful the Mayor of Bristol, have severally expressed their regret that the Act of Parliament on which the Customs’ Supervisor in this City had thought proper to proceed, did not allow any mitigation of the sentence. Your Petitioner humbly and respectfully conceives that to your Royal Highness, the case of an oppressed seaman cannot hut he one of considerable interest, and he therefore, in full confidence, throws himself on the justice of your Royal Highness, beseeching such and as early relief, as may be consistent with the elevated rank and truly British character of your Royal Highness, and necessary to the relief of an imprisoned seaman, convicted for an offence ignorantly committed and on the perjured testimony of an interested witness. And your Petitioner, as in duty bound, will ever pray, etc.


Bristol, June 26, 1827

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