The Wickersley Farmer.

During the Victorian period the courts had to judge whether a man was temporarily insane through drink, and whether that might be a reason to excuse him from his crimes. Such a case was brought before the magistrates at Doncaster on 1 January 1856, when a very respectable farmer from Wickersley was charged with common theft. Twenty nine year old Thomas Wilson was charged with stealing a shawl, a gown, an apron, a child’s dress, two dust sheets, three towels and two umbrellas to the value of 13s. These objects were the property of Alexander Milner the landlord of the Wood Street Hotel, Doncaster and they had all been stolen from the hotel bedrooms.

It seems that on 16 December of the previous year Police Constable Theobald of the Doncaster Police force had spotted the prisoner acting suspiciously outside the hotel. Later that evening about 5 pm, he met the farmer again carrying a bundle under one arm and two umbrella’s under the other. Wilson could give no explanation for having the articles, and so he was taken to the lock up where his pockets were searched. To the constables complete astonishment, he found the farmer also carried a watch as well as two promissory notes, one for £500 and the other for £200.

At first Wilson tried to tell Sergeant Pawson that he had a brother-in-law living on Garden Street, Doncaster and had obtained the objects from him, but the Sergeant knew well that there was no Garden Street in the town. Subsequently Wilson was brought before the Doncaster court and one of the magistrates asked Sergeant Pawson if the prisoner had been drunk at the time of the arrest. But the officer replied that he was fresh [intoxicated] when he was brought into the station, but certainly not drunk. Thankfully the social position of Thomas Wilson was such that he was able to afford to employ a barrister to defend him, and at this point Mr R N Phillips rose to defend his client.

He stated that Thomas Wilson had always been respectable farmer, as well as being elected as an overseer of the poor in Wickersley. He had a wife, a very comfortable home, and at the time of the offence, a considerable amount of money in notes upon his person. However the barrister told the court that he was unable to account for his clients very strange conduct. Mr. Phillips admitted Wilson’s guilt, before pointing out that on the day of the robbery he had gone to Doncaster to sell a horse at the fair. The magistrates therefore had no option, but to examine Wilson’s state of mind at the time he committed the offence.

Mr Phillips, using very forceful language, stated that he would bring witnesses to prove that his client, although he was very respectable, was a man soon excited by indulging in even the smallest amount of liquor. Therefore the claim that he had made about a mythical brother-in-law must be viewed as a result of labouring under temporary insanity. The barrister claimed that in this condition Wilson did not know what he was saying or doing. He concluded by pointing out that his actions were more of an act of folly, rather than of felonious intent. Mr Phillips therefore asked the court for an acquittal, which would allow his client to leave the court cleared of all criminal charges.

The barrister concluded that if the court was in agreement, Wilson ‘could then atone for his for his conduct by striving again to occupy that respectable position from which he had so quickly fallen.’ The first witness he produced was a Benjamin Robinson who worked for the prisoner. He claimed that his master had always been honest in his dealings, although he had been drinking on 16 December. He stated that he had been drunk at 5 pm when Robinson left him in Doncaster and that he had been acting ‘wild and strange.’ However, when cross-examined, Robinson admitted that his master had committed a similar offence at Rotherham some years previously.

Mr. Phillips told the bench that on that occasion, Wilson had been acquitted on the grounds of intoxication adding ‘and therefore he was as innocent as ever he was before’. However, the prosecution Mr. Marratt challenged that. He said that from the defence’s argument, it would seem that a man had to do nothing but get extremely drunk, commit a felony and then plead drunkenness simply to escape justice. The next witness Mr Phillips called was Mr. Charles Lowe a respectable quarry owner of Wickersley. He told the court that he had known Thomas Wilson for some years and was convinced that he was not right in his head when he was under the influence of liquor.

Other witnesses gave similar evidence, which proved that Wilson was ‘more of a madman than a thief.’ From the evidence it would seem that even the smallest amount of liquor affected Thomas Wilson’s brain, so much that he was not aware of what he was doing. Mr Marratt stated the case for the prosecution and read out the conversation between the prisoner and the police officers in which he mentioned the fictitious brother-in-law after he was charged. His statements made no sense and he queried that if Wilson had been so intoxicated, then was this considered to be the conduct of a man who was perfectly insensible to what he was doing?

The prisoners defence, Mr Phillips told the court he did not go so far as to say that his client was insane, for he knew that if it amounted to insanity, that the court had the power to order the prisoners confinement. However he stated that he did not want to go that way, therefore he had not dwelt much upon it. The jury listened to both accounts before returning a verdict that they found Thomas Wilson to be guilty, but with a recommendation to mercy. In passing sentence the chair of the magistrates stated that he felt that he agreed with the jury and added:

‘I do not consider the case calls for severe punishment and I would have thought the same if the prisoner had not been placed in such good circumstances as he was. It pains me to pass sentence, but I hope it would be a warning to the prisoner not to allow the temptations of drink to overcome him any more. I do not wish to see him among the felons at Wakefield prison. Therefore the sentence of the court is that he be imprisoned in the common gaol of the borough for the space of one week’.

It was reported that Wilson was so greatly excited during the delivery of the sentence that he sobbed aloud and appealed for mercy several times. However the leniency of the sentence was regarded with great satisfaction by a large number of the prisoner’s friends who were in the court.

I am no expert at diagnosis, but it does appear that Thomas Wilson was possibly a kleptomaniac which is now classified as ‘an impulse control disorder’ which is usually committed for reasons other than those of personal gain. Although it was little understood in those early years, now it can be treated with the use of drugs. However you do get the feeling from the accounts of the case, that it was only Thomas Wilson’s good standing in the community and the fact that he was wealthy enough to employ a barrister to defend him, which had, in the end set him free.

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