On this Day 28th December 1921

The Price of Justice in Penzance

The Christmas Magistrate? (Wikipedia)Christmas over, and – here in West Cornwall - time for the wheels of justice to turn once more. At Penzance Guildhall, the magistrates have gathered. We may picture them settling down in their seats, turning wearily to their agendas, and rather wishing that some sectors of the population could be relied upon to make good resolutions for the coming year.

The first case is straightforward. A Mousehole woman, removed to the County Asylum at Bodmin back in November on the order of the magistrates, has been found to have £1170 in the bank. Clearly, she must pay the cost of her removal (£8/0/6d) and the cost of her weekly upkeep (£1 6/3d).

And then the members of the bench wearily turn to matters connected with festive over-indulgence. Not their own. Obviously. Two men drunk and disorderly at Pendeen on Boxing Day. “Bad language on the highway”, says P C Ede. Twice he persuaded them to go away quietly. Once they came back, but the second time he managed to calm them down and after that they stayed at home. They had been “very quiet ever since”. Both unemployed – one a carpenter, one a miner. Skilled men, fallen victim to the harsh times. The magistrates consider seven shillings and sixpence a fair price to pay for their crime.

At Lower Trewellard, there’s been a bit of trouble among the womenfolk. One – we shall call her Lilian - has summonsed another, whom we will call Mabel. Lilian presents her case first. There she is, minding her own business, “soaping in the clothes” on a Monday morning (12th December, to be exact). Along comes Mabel and “hollered in at the door ‘You have my brush’ “. Well, this is quite correct, as Lilian freely admits to Mabel. The problem is that – just as Lilian has Mabel’s brush – so Mabel has one of Lilian’s. Her “lime brush” to be precise. Lilian has a strong sense of justice: knows what’s right. “If you give me my brush, you shall have yours,” she says to Mabel. “Upon that”, says Lilian, Mabel “heaved to me on the top of the head with the chamber brush, and I was running in blood no time”. At the point Mabel’s husband puts his oar in, starts shouting encouragement. 'Heave to her,' he shouts. “She scat me reeling," Lilian concludes, adding that Mabel threw hot suds into her face. And in court here is Lilian’s daughter, backing her up – although later she rather muddies the water – so to speak - by admitting that it was her mother who started that particular bit of the business. Mabel adds for good measure that Lilian had some of her furniture, and has been throwing it about during the altercation. At this point, perhaps, both women look expectantly at the magistrate, both hoping to see the other shamed. If that is the case, both are disappointed: Lilian’s case against Mabel is dismissed. The women go home, to resume their lives as best they may.

Next case. Another woman, a widow from Castle Gate, is asking the magistrates to make a Gulval man pay for the upkeep of a child he has fathered on her. An ex-army chap, he’d promised marriage - gone so far as to borrow her “keeper” ring, saying he’d use it to get a wedding ring of the right size. But then, the age-old story. He’d “disappeared ring and all”. The case has already been adjourned twice and on each occasion the chap has insisted that he still wants to make an honest woman of the widow. But she has to be frank – baby notwithstanding, she really isn’t so sure about him now. After all, what kind of provider will he be? He’s admitted that he sold the ring she lent him, sold it for five shillings. The widow is granted five shillings a week – the apparent value of the ring, ironically – but not before she is questioned about her habit of drinking in public houses. The licensee of the Yacht Inn, down in the rough part of Penzance, is called upon to give evidence – as is the widow’s mother. Which of these witnesses would be more humiliating?

And so the morning wears on. Three men are fined five (or in one case ten) shillings for riding bicycles without lights. Another man is charged with being in “a rather excited condition and making use of indecent language”, on Christmas Day itself, in Marazion. Like the Pendeen men, he is fined 7/6d. And finally, in the last two cases of the day, two men fined ten and five shillings respectively for failing to send their children to school.

What do the magistrates make of all this?

Five shillings: the price of fathering a child – to be paid weekly, for a further 15 years; the price of neglecting your bicycle lights; the charge for allowing –or perhaps encouraging - your child to truant.

Seven shillings and sixpence: the penalty for using indecent language and being disorderly in a public place.

Ten shillings: the price of any of the above, if aggravating circumstances obtain.

One pound six and threepence: the cost of a week’s upkeep in the asylium.

Sources & Notes

Cornishman, 4th January 1922, page 5

The modern equivalent of 5/- (25p in decimal currency) in 1921 would be about £6 or £7; 7/6d would be worth about £10. At the other end of the scale, the Mousehole woman had the equivalent of over £25,000 in the bank. Her removal to the asylum cost, in present day terms, about £200 but the charge for her weekly upkeep – rather shockingly – was the equivalent of only £30. https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency/default0.asp (accessed 2 12 2017)

On this Day:

Browse all 'On This Day' Features

Penwith Local History Group
On this Day:

Growing Up in West Cornwall. A Publication by the Penwith Local History Group

"Growing Up in West Cornwall"

Edited by
Sally Corbet

price £10
plus p&p


PayPal – The safer, easier way to pay online.