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A Look At Cross-Border Crime was the title of the Friends of Berwick and District Museum and Archives spring lecture, held after its AGM. The speakers were Margaret Fox, former Berwick archivist now working mainly in Scotland, and Linda Bankier, the current Berwick archivist.
Taking the Scottish side first, Margaret briefly outlined the Scottish legal system and the resources available at the National Archives in Edinburgh.
Circuit courts, established in Scotland in 1692, were held in various parts of Scotland twice a year, and although Northumbrians travelled widely and cases involving them were held all over Scotland, Margaret decided to take as a theme crimes committed by Northumbrians tried in the Southern Circuit, which comprised the counties abutting the borders.
The nature of the crimes and trials gives us invaluable light on social conditions of the times. For example, child murder was very prevalent, most often perpetrated by women – over 200 in Scotland between 1800 and 1850. Concealment of pregnancy was also a crime.
If someone did not turn up at court when ordered, they could have all their goods confiscated.
A verdict peculiar to Scotland was called “crime not proven” and resulted in the release of the prisoner.
Margaret highlighted three cases. The first concerned John Foster, from Berwick, who celebrated clandestine marriages in Lamberton. The marriages were not illegal, but those celebrating it could be prosecuted. John Foster confessed to it, but could only be apprehended if he went to Berwickshire so he just stayed at home.
The next case, from 1854, involved an incident on Coldstream Bridge. John Tait, from Thornton near Kirknewton, was accused of attacking William Hogg and throwing him off the bridge, causing injuries. As no one could be found to serve the indictment in Kirknewton, it was done in Duns and the trial took place in Jedburgh.
Many witnesses were called, but as Hogg could not swear that it had been Tait, the verdict was “not proven”. It seems that what really happened was that Tait and Hogg, the best of friends, had spent all day drinking in Coldstream. On the way back they both relieved themselves over the parapet of the bridge and Hogg fell into the water.
The third case involved the 35-year-old master of the sloop Juno, Robert Bruce, who in 1855 was accused of the culpable homicide (the Scottish version of manslaughter) of his ship’s mate, Joseph Ockton, from Spittal. The ship was berthed at Leith. There had to be a trial by jury as Bruce pleaded not guilty. A witness for the defence was the shipowner Robert Ramsay, of Berwick, who was also the mayor.
Bruce was found guilty, but the judges were extremely lenient and he was let off with a fine of 1s and an order to keep the peace for a year. The accused had not even been in prison during the trial, but had been bailed by Ramsay.
Bruce had gone to Edinburgh to drink. Ockton had thought he would not be coming back in time for his tea so he ate it. An argument ensued and the two decided to fight. Ockton fell backwards and was dead.
Linda Bankier next took the floor and explained the English legal system. First were the Assizes, which took really serious crimes, then there were Quarter Sessions, and finally Petty Sessions.
Until almost the middle of the 1800s, Berwick consisted only of the part north of the river, the other side belonged to the county of Durham, and Northumberland was even further south. Even until 1835, Tweedmouth was not part of Berwick.
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Berwick could try serious cases and impose the death penalty.
Linda went on to describe some actual cases. Only one of them could be considered to be cross-border, although the others did reflect the morality and social issues of the area at the time.
During the First World War, people were concerned about lights showing, and on March 30, 1917, a woman in Westend was accused of having a candle in her window. On March 17 soldiers were cautioned for riding bicycles with lights on the walls.
At the same time, when animals were moved at night, lights were required in Northumberland, although not in Scotland. A farmhand from Coldstream was accused of taking animals to Newbiggin without lights, but the case was dismissed when it was determined that he had been acting in good faith.
Going further back in time, we have the case of Elizabeth White, who in the 1850s had been numerous times in jail and in the stocks for disorder, drunkenness and soliciting.
Elizabeth was a very sad case. Deserted by her mariner husband, by whom she had two children, she was left destitute, and had a further two illegitimate children. She was arrested 115 times in 25 years and came to a very sad end on February 14, 1871, when she was found frozen to death on the walls.
In 1787, at the Quarter Sessions, Peter Gentle was charged with stealing oats and barley from his employer. Margery Thompson, of Spittal, testified that Gentle had offered her some barley, and later oats, and she was stopped as some workers noticed that grain was disappearing. Thompson said that she had got it from Gentle, but Gentle testified that she was mad and was not guilty.
The case came to court in the summer and Gentle was found guilty and sentenced to transportation, but he broke out of the Berwick jail on October 23, 1787, and a 10 guinea reward was put out for his capture. The story went into both Newcastle and Edinburgh newspapers, but we do not know what resulted.
Finally, Linda mentioned the Moen case of 1816, where a gang was indicted for counterfeiting coins, a very serious crime at the time as it was considered high treason and punishable by death.
James and Mary Moen were part of an Irish counterfeiting gang whose ringleader was Bernard Duffy. Members of the gang came to Berwick and all took the same room at Mary Anderson’s lodging house in Walkergate, although they claimed they did not know each other. All the time they were purchasing goods and services and paying with false coins.
Copper and various tools were subsequently found in their room and the case went to court on July 24, 1816. The perpetrators were found guilty, sentenced to death and ordered for execution, but were given mercy and received respite from the Prince Regent, and the sentence commuted to transportation for life. It turned out that Mary Moen was heavily pregnant and had given birth to a son a few days before the sentence.
The men went first and the women were transported in 1817. It is presumed that Mary Moen’s son went with her. Here the story ends and we do not know what happened to them in Australia. Maybe they wound up having a good life, or maybe not.
The whole incident was reenacted by Berwick Youth Theatre in 2005, with scenes taking place in the Guild Hall and on the Quayside. In this connection, Linda’s just-born daughter made her stage debut as the baby about to be deported.