Prosecuting Society

On 21st February 1820, a special meeting was convened at the Three Crowns to record an interesting case that had occurred at the inn only three days earlier, viz.

“Whereas two persons, one answering the description of a horse dealer and the other that of a farmer or horse dealer, the first dressed in a dark great coat and a blue coat under – about 5 ft. 8 ins. high, dark complexion, his upper lip very thick – on a black horse with cut mane abt 14 hands high – the latter dressed in a brown great coat & brown coat under abt. 5 ft. 10 ins. high very full fresh face, stout & fair complexion, brown hair on bay horse abt 15 hands high. Their ages appeared abt. 45 years, were at Mr. Wellses house at W. Green on Friday the 18th of Feb. inst. and offered in payment for their own and their horses refreshment a One Pound Bank of England note marked & no. as follows 7205 – Novr. 20th 1819 – signed C. Tabor – which there is every reason to suppose is a forged note. In consequence of such suspicion and their offering a Ten Pound Note immediately after for change”

This was in the days when notes were not often seen in the village; possibly this one was suspiciously new. George Wells, the landlord, and another member of the society, James Knight, followed the two men when they left.

They traced the pair through Loxwood and Cranleigh as far as Albury, where they ran them to earth in bed at the inn.
It is believed that they were on foot, but Albury is nearly twenty miles from Wisborough Green. Possibly they had travelled in a carrier’s cart that ambled along to Guildford.

At the inn, George Wells waited outside, while James Knight made enquiries of the landlady. He didn’t pay much attention to two women who stood listening. He took them for a couple of maids just being inquisitive. He told Wells what he had discovered and while they talked things over, maybe wondering whether they ought to apprehend the two men or get the help of the local tythingman, one of the girls scuttled away up the stairs. She informed the men who scrambled into their clothes, rushed down stairs and saddled their horses that were tethered at the back of the inn. When Knight walked back into the inn, having made up his mind to do something, there was the rattling of hooves on the road and the quarry was away. Wells and Knight considered any further pursuit fruitless!

It was never known why the two men had bolted. Perhaps the two men thought the pound note to be forged even though it was later proved to be genuine. Nor shall we ever know whether the girl was an accomplice. Was the landlady in the plot herself? Did they wait long enough to settle her bill? If they did, she made herself an accessory.

The affair cost the society 15/6, for in the accounts against that sum we find written: “Pd. Messrs Wells & Knight a Bill expenses for endeavouring to apprehend two Persons supposed to Distribute Forged Notes.”

Certainly it was a good thing for the members’ pockets that they had so little to do, for the law was always costly. Still, expense was not the only consideration, and there must have been a deal of satisfaction over the case of the tramp in 1820. On April 10th in that year Mr Richard Launder, who by then was Clerk, wrote in his minutes:

“Whereas it is represented at this meeting by Mr Geo. Wells, a member of this Society, on the evening of Friday the 31st of last A Person whose name to Mr Geo. Wells is unknown but who Travelled the country in the Character of Mendicant, did on the evening of the aforesaid Day steal from the Tap Room of the 3 Crowns Inn, Wisborough Green a Pair of Shoes value abt. seven or eight Shillings the aforesaid Shoes were delivered into the Possession and care of the aforesaid Mr Geo. Wells by Mr Ricd. Elliott of Arundel,”

And the hunt was up. The tramp bungled the thing very badly, for not only did he make for the very place he should have avoided, but he advertised his route by actually offering the shoes, for sale at Bury, and near the inn there of all places. He still had the shoes in his possession when he reached Arundel .where he was caught and committed to the Quarter Sessions. Then, after one of his characteristic flourishes, Mr Launder continues:

“It is agreed by the Members Present that the Person should be Prosecuted at the Expense of this Society Trusting to the Liberality of Mr. Ricd. Elliott for any share that he may feel disposed to take to himself in the Expense of the said Prosecution.”

There is no entry in the accounts to show that Mr Elliott responded to the suggestion, and what with the meeting to talk things over and their share, those shoes cost the Society £6 19s., but the honour of the Three Crowns was worth it.

Elsewhere in the minute book there is nothing so thrilling as that chase. Crime was slack, and from start to finish the society did not average two investigations a year, and most of them were on the trivial side, not much more than the “woman who stole his Green Faggot stuff &c.,” or “four Bushels and a half of Oats” stolen out of a field called the Five Acres and traced to the house of one George Puttock in Plaistow. Good enough excuse for a special meeting and an ordinary at eighteen pence, but not much more. Only every now and then is there a case that attracts the reader’s attention a hundred years later.

The accounts help in the case of the burglary at Mr Elliott’s shop. Burglaries were not very common. The “Peck Bottle of Peppermint” was really only larceny even if it did cost the society all but thirteen pounds; but in 1814 Mr John Hemming’s storehouse was broken open and bacon and cheeses stolen. That was burglary. The shoes in 1820 was larceny again. In the next year “the Dewling House” of Mr William Streeter was entered and some spoons and provisions stolen, but the burglars apparently remained uncaught. In 1822 Thomas Holden of Billingshurst stole a brass candlestick from the Three Crowns, but had the sense to bring it back again to the next meeting where they were on the point of instructing Mr Wells to proceed. All this, except in the larceny cases, without a conviction. But in 1827 Mr Richard Elliott’s shop was entered and some shop-goods and provisions stolen, and on this occasion we can tell from the accounts that the society were more fortunate. There we read, “Pd. Mr. Rd. Elliott sundry Bills for the expense incurred In apprehending Holden and Wife. £5 10s. 4½d.” In the following year the solicitor’s bill appears, and Messrs Ellis and Hales were paid £5 4s. 8d.. while the tythingman received fourteen shillings. The reward of fifteen pounds does not appear to have been claimed, but without it the society had to pay a total of £11 9s. 0½d.

In the next year, 1828. there was a burglary at the Poor House.

“Whereas there was a Noise heard in Different [parts] of the House between 1 & 2 o’clock in the [night] on 30th of April – and [on] inspecting it [was] found a Door was Broak open – and Jane Smart and her 3 Children, and Rhoda Pollard & Jane Hard was also absent,”

But he was evidently writing in the midst of discussion, for he has omitted words and has had to make corrections. Possibly he joined in the discussion, for the members were deciding that they could not possibly look after what was obviously the affair of the parish. He finishes off:

“it [was agreed] by the Members Present that the Parish should take the Business therein arrising &c and adjourned this Meeting.”

That half-told burglary in 1828 was the last interesting piece of business before the society. In 1829 a sheep was reported stolen, but was found later on under the ice; William Curry and Thomas Reeves stole a bushel of beans; Thomas Steyning stole some peas, and that was their last case. The society was dissolved on 4th March 1830, when the balance of the stock was paid out to the remaining members, each of the twenty-two receiving ten shillings.

The role of the prosecution societies disappeared when Sir Robert Peel created a police force throughout the country that gave rise to the popular names for a police constable of ‘Bobby’ and ‘Peeler’ though the latter term is hardly ever used today (in 2008). Despite the cessation of their primary function, many societies continued as social clubs holding their annual dinners as before at the Three Crowns and the Onslow Arms in Loxwood. It is believed that the Arundel Prosecuting Society still meets annually at the Norfolk Arms for this very reason.

So, 38 years after John Older had stumped into the farmers’ room at the Three Crowns with his bandages and bad temper, the Wisborough Prosecuting Society came to an end. It may not have run a very distinguished course; it may have failed in most of its bigger cases; it may have looked very silly over that one-pound note, and have burnt its fingers over the handkerchief; it may even be said of it that it only brought to book a few petty malefactors with a handful of stolen peas in their pockets, or an unexplained faggot in an outhouse; but who would say that the effort had not been worth while, or the good fellowship of the dinners unimportant, or that at such an unsettled time of day this corner of West Sussex would have been as law-abiding as it was if the Prosecuting Society had not been eating its dinners and ordinaries at the Three Crowns? If we are tempted to smile at them now from the protection of the modern police force, we can be pretty sure that the good citizens were glad of their protection in the early days of the nineteenth century.

Twenty-two of them – farmers, landowners, innkeepers, formed the society, and though it had risen once, in 1820, to 47 members, and the annual dinner in that year cost £10 7s. 2d., there were 22 members when it was dissolved in 1830. Registers were none too well kept in those days, and even when they were, the details are sadly insufficient for us to make out much in detail. Still, when all allowance has been made for downright mistakes and for guessing wrongly, it looks very much as though four or five of them saw the thing right through to the end.

I like to think of them, getting on a bit by then, sitting at the head of the long table at the Three Crowns that evening. The vicar was there to say grace, though he was but a newcomer of only ten years to the village and the society, but John King was not there to take the chair. He lived at Loxwood, and perhaps he was not up to the drive, or perhaps he could not endure to see the old ways changing: But Thomas Edwards was there, and so was James Grinstead, and Richard Edwards and, above all, Richard Launder, the Clerk, who had written his free, flowing hand, and made his odd mistakes, and left out all his stops, and adorned his pages with his bold flourishes since 1808, when he took over the minute book from the curate. Mr Edwards, now very senior, was probably teased about his pickled pork; maybe Launder, now free at last from his task of taking minutes, recalled the tale of the peck bottle; perhaps George Wells, the landlord, came in for a share of twitting about one-pound notes, and possibly someone asked Dr Thornton, the vicar, if he kept his toolshed locked nowadays. Reminiscence would make them a cheerful enough gathering in spite of the final curtain that was about to drop, and between them that night they drank eight bottles of wine and two bowls of punch, with another seven and threepence worth of grogs, brandy and drams, and they smoked four shillingsworth of tobacco. A good night was had, even if it was the last.