Sam Wright and the unwilling prosecutor

Aspiring barristers are still routinely taught that the role of a prosecutor is not to obtain a conviction at all costs but to act as a “minister of justice”. How much more important this was in the mid-nineteenth century when a “prisoner” (and he was always a prisoner) on a capital charge had no right to give evidence on his own behalf and no right to representation by counsel. Nor, in the ordinary case would he have had any means to pay for it.

The now forgotten almost case of Regina v. Samuel Wright, heard at the Old Bailey just before Christmas 1863 must have appeared to Blackburn J. as another ordinary case. The sort of sordid crime that he did not like to linger over, devoid as it was of any legal point of interest.

Sam Wright was a bricklayer. The son of a “respectable” Norfolk man, his wife had died young, leaving him to bring up 2 children. Unable to cope Sam had entrusted the day to day care of his children to his own parents: a 65 year old half-blind father and a virtually deaf mother. Sam took up with a London woman nearly ten years older called Maria Green. Maria was said to be of “highly respectable” lineage, although she had never married and she had, in the words of the contemporary press “addicted herself to intemperance and profligacy.” Much to the dismay of Sam’s father, who strongly disapproved of the relationship, they took lodgings on the top floor of a house at 11 Waterloo Road in South London.

The couple’s addiction to intemperance and profligacy was to lead to catastrophe. On the Saturday exactly one week before Christmas day Sam and Maria went together to The York Hotel and then to The Feathers pub, probably an establishment that stood on the south side of the river, directly opposite Somerset House . They ordered a quartern of gin and were seen to be somewhat quarrelsome before returning home to their lodgings sometime after midnight. Some were later to say that inside The Feathers Maria had slapped Sam in the face, but Sam himself never made any such accusation. A friend of Maria’s, Jane Courte, who accompanied them on the walk back home was to testify subsequently that neither was drunk, although Maria was highly excited and crying. There were undoubtedly sharp words between them; Maria, it seems, may have been threatening to leave Sam for another man, but eventually all went quiet.

Shortly after 4 a.m. Hannah Ireland, the tenant in the room immediately below Sam and Maria’s room was woken by loud cries. She went upstairs to be confronted by a scene of horror. Maria Green was lying on the point of death near the fireplace. She was just able to articulate the words “he has done it, he has cut my throat,” before expiring from the effects of two deep wounds on either side of her neck. Wright was not in the room at first, but returned almost immediately. He too was covered in blood, not only that of Maria, but also some from cuts to his own hands and face. The weapon that had inflicted the injuries was obvious, a fearsome cut-throat razor, dripping with blood.

Miss Ireland ran into the street to fetch a Constable and shortly afterwards PC Newton arrived to find Sam sitting in the room next to his lover’s corpse. Sam handed the police officer the razor, remarking as he did so: “I did it with this and I suppose I shall be hung.”

Under closer questioning it seems that Wright claimed that he had been woken roughly by Maria while he was asleep. He was reluctant to blame her, but on he gave an account in which she may have threatened or even attacked him with the razor. He leapt out of bed and, while still dozy with sleep, he attempted to wrest the razor from her and cut her. Maria told him “I’m sorry, Sam, I did not mean to do it!”, though whether this was a reference to her earlier threat to leave him or to her having attacked him as he slept was unclear. It seems, in all honesty, a somewhat improbable account given the extent of her injuries, but on the other hand there were no witnesses and there was the undoubted fact that Sam himself had sustained some significant cuts. Even if self-defence was a non-starter, perhaps a plea of provocation could have reduced the offence to manslaughter. No inquiry seems to have been made of his mental state. But all this must remain entirely speculative because Wright’s account was never tested, and no legal defence was ever mounted.

Following his arrest on Sunday, events moved with a speed that seems to us incredible and was considered unseemly even by contemporary commentators.

On Monday morning Wright was brought before the Metropolitan Magistrate, a man with the wonderfully Dickensian name of Mr Burcham. Having heard from three witnesses, none of whom were asked any questions by the unrepresented Wright, Mr Burcham committed him for trial at the Old Bailey.

On Tuesday an inquest was conducted. Without the participation of Wright the outcome could never be in doubt and the coroner’s jury duly returned a verdict of wilful murder against Samuel Wright.

On Wednesday morning 3 days before Christmas 1863, just before 10 o’clock in the morning, Wright was taken the short distance from the sombre fastness of Newgate Gaol to stand his trial at the Old Bailey.

There was no way that Wright could have afforded the 150 guineas or so charged by leading counsel in a case of murder. He had no money and even if they had known of the proceedings – which seems somewhat doubtful given the difficulty in communicating with Norfolk – it is unlikely that his elderly parents could have afforded much by way of representation.

So Wright appeared before Mr Justice Blackburn unrepresented. Blackburn J was still a relatively recent appointment to the High Court bench. The great judgements that were to make him famous to future generations of law students – Rylands v. Fletcher, Smith v. Hughes and Foakes v. Beer – were still in the future, but he was already an awe inspiring figure on the bench. As for Wright, his own wounds had not yet healed and he must have been in an agony of despair and terror.

Utterly alone and bereft of any legal advice Wright could see no way out. He had killed Maria, therefore he had committed murder. He spoke only to identify himself and to enter an unequivocal plea of “Guilty” to the charge of murder.

For murder in 1863 there could be only one sentence: death by hanging. Mr Justice Blackburn inquired of Wright whether he fully understood that he had pleaded guilty to wilful murder:

“I do not wish to influence or dissuade you from the course you have taken, simply to be sure that you understand your position.”

At this point the one real hero of this sad case intervened.

Mr Campbell-Sleigh, already a veteran of many murder trials was instructed to prosecute Wright. Having read the papers, which cannot have taken him very long, he privately expressed the view that a jury would probably find him guilty of manslaughter but not of murder.

He appears to have been shocked by Wright’s plea, knowing as he did that he faced an inevitable death sentence and had had no legal advice. Before Wright could answer the judge, Campbell-Sleigh rose to his feet and invited Blackburn J. to consider granting an adjournment. He told the learned judge the reason, namely that Wright had had no legal advice. The suggestion was that the trial could be adjourned to the next assize. But like the worst sort of inhuman judicial machine (they still exist today) Mr Justice Blackburn was having none of it. The expeditious disposal of Court business in the week before Christmas was of more importance than justice.

“I have read the papers and there is nothing in them which requires legal advice.”

In the view of Blackburn matters were perfectly straightforward and simple, as indeed they were for an eminent lawyer who was not going to be personally inconvenienced by the death sentence he was about to impose. He repeated his question to Wright; did he understand?

Wright was by now barely able to stand, but he managed to mutter in a barely audible voice that he did understand. This was satisfactory to Blackburn and the case now continued as the simple guilty plea that it was.

Mr Campbell-Sleigh’s opening is not recorded, but in truth it mattered little what he said. Although the grisly ritual required that Wright be asked by the clerk of the court whether he had “anything to say why sentence of death should not be imposed according to law,” having pleaded guilty there was nothing that he could have said that would have made any difference, and shortly after ten o’clock Blackburn J. intoned the dreadful words that he would be “taken to a place of lawful execution and there hanged by the neck until you are dead.” He added for good measure that Wright had no chance of a reprieve.

In fact this was untrue. Even in the mid-nineteenth century many murderers did have their death sentences commuted to penal servitude for life, and when this was done most were released after ten to fifteen years. That same year a notorious – and wealthy – murderer from Derbyshire called Townley whose pleas of insanity had been rejected by a jury, had been reprieved after the intervention of the Home Secretary, Sir George Grey. Like Wright, he had murdered his lover. Unlike Wright he had wealthy and influential friends and competent legal representation. On the instructions of commissioners personally appointed by the Home Secretary he was declared mad and sent to a lunatic asylum instead of the gallows.

Wright was not returned to Newgate, but to the equally grim Horsemonger Lane Gaol to await his execution, which was fixed for early January 1864. But it soon became clear that there would be little public appetite for vengeance in this case. A petition was got up demanding mercy for Wright. A reprieve was widely anticipated. The prosecuting counsel Mr Campbell-Sleigh joined the campaign and personally visited the Home Secretary, Sir George Grey, raising hopes that Wright might be spared the gallows like Townley. By contrast Blackburn J. coldly insisted that the “law could take its course” so far as he was concerned.

The Home Secretary agreed with the judge, which led to outrage in the press with suggestions that there was one law for the rich and another for the poor. But the law did indeed take its course oblivious to the calls for mercy which continued right up to the eve of the execution.

Shortly before nine o’clock on the 12th January 1864 the wretched Wright was led onto the gallows constructed on the roof of Horsemonger Lane Gaol. Ten thousand extra policemen had been deployed in fear that the mob might attempt to storm the prison. But they were unnecessary. Popular though a hanging was as a public spectacle, thousands stayed away in protest from this particular one, which was widely regarded as judicial murder. Local houses and businesses even shut their blinds in protest and the crowd was rather smaller than usual. One of those present, a Mr Shephard Taylor, knew the condemned man because some years earlier Wright had found and returned to him a silver watch that he had lost at a building site. He reported the hanging:

The general public and all the newspapers without exception advocated clemency on the part of the Crown, but the Home Secretary was inexorable. The blinds were down in all the neighbouring streets and the military were called out in case of an attempted rescue. When the unfortunate man appeared on the scaffold, loud cries of “Take him, take him down” were heard in every direction, to which the unhappy man responded by repeated bows to the multitude, he still continued bowing and was actually bowing when the drop fell.”

The widespread repulsion at Wright’s execution re-invigorated the small but far from insignificant movement to abolish capital punishment altogether, as well as the much larger campaign to stop public executions. Later in the year a Royal Commission on capital punishment was established and within five years public executions had ceased, although hangings continued for another hundred years.

None of this did any harm to the career of Blackburn J, who rose steadily through the judicial ranks to end his days in the House of Lords. Though his intellect was respected by all, he was not popular with his colleagues. He eventually retired during the long vacation because, as he claimed, he did not want anyone to go to the expense of a retirement dinner. In fact, as a colleague told him, he need not have worried as nobody would have come anyway.

Campbell-Sleigh never took judicial office but in 1868 became the last practising barrister to be appointed Serjeant-at-law. He had a flourishing Old Bailey practice along with a more lucrative role as standing counsel to the Bank of England. He later moved to Australia where he was cold-shouldered by the legal profession in Sydney, but made more welcome in Melbourne, where he was especially popular as a defence brief.

Horsemonger Lane Gaol was closed in 1878 and demolished two years later. But London criminal practitioners will all be familiar with Inner London Sessions which was built on the site of the old prison.



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