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The Air Rifle


A week after William Hempsall’s acquittal for burglary he was back in court. This time he was specifically charged with stealing an air rifle belonging to his former employer Colonel Harry Croft of Stillington Hall.

This trial wasn’t as lengthy as the previous one - there was firm evidence that the air rifle had been in Hempsall’s possession and that he had tried to dispose of it.

The other main evidence revolved around the question of whether the air rifle that had been in Hempsall's possession did, in fact, belong to Colonel Croft. Mr C. Harker of York confirmed he knew the rifle well and had sold it to Colonel Croft, along with its pump, some six or seven years previously. He had last seen it three years before the police had brought to him for identification.

Though on the question of when the air rifle was last seen the evidence was less convincing. No witness, during close questioning by the defence, could say credibly that the air rifle had been seen after Hempsall had left Croft’s employ. So the defence proposed that the air rifle could have gone missing at any time - not just on the night of the burglary.

That was a small victory for the defence who ultimately lost the case. Hempsall was convicted of stealing the air rifle on 6th March 1847 and was sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment with hard labour.

His actual conviction was for larceny (stealing personal property) rather than for housebreaking (burglary), which seems to indicate that the prosecution had to be undertaken on the assumption that Hempsall had stolen the rifle before he left Colonel Croft's employment. Though Croft, as can be seen from the next case, was still trying to imply Hempsall was guilty of the burglary at Stillington Hall for some months afterwards!

William Hempsall died in Northallerton House of Correction shortly after he was sentenced.


The Cheque

Repercussions from the burglary continued throughout 1847 and on 6th September that year resulted in one of Stillington Estate’s tenant farmers – William Drake Cook – taking Colonel Croft and his agent James Walker to York County Court.

Cook was seeking damages as Colonel Croft’s agent had seized goods from his farm in lieu of a debt caused by the loss of the £170 cheque allegedly stolen during the burglary.


A Complicated Case

The case was described as ‘complicated’ as it chiefly centred on whether or not Croft was guilty of laches – a legal term meaning that the plaintiff taking action against a defendant for debt is disbarred from seeking recovery of that debt if they have prejudiced the defendant by waiting an unreasonable time before taking action.

These were the facts in the case as laid out by several newspapers:

Cook rented a farm from Croft at £400 yearly and had been doing so for two years. On 14th December 1846 he had paid Croft a half year’s rent  - £30 in cash and the remainder in the form of a cheque that had to be presented to a banker in Oakham where Cook had placed money to cover the debt. Once that cheque was in Croft’s hands Cook said that he thought his Autumn rent was paid in full.

However, Croft hadn’t presented the cheque. He said he had been ill with a heavy cold and had been unable to travel. Then, of course, it had been stolen. Cook claimed Croft was negligent firstly in not cashing the cheque promptly and secondly by not securing it.

Cook stated that the money had been available for Croft or his agent since it was deposited with the banker but that at no time had they sought a means to collect it. He had paid his Spring rent by cheque and Croft both accepted and cashed it, but made no mention of the sum owed from the previous year. It seems that Cook had made very clear that the cheque he paid Croft on 5th April 1847 was his Spring rent. He had even gone to the length of writing it on the cheque.

 


Goods Seized

Croft and his agent instead of tackling Cook over the cheque, and their inability to cash it, took an action that caused Cook a great loss in earnings and revenue for his tenanted farm.

They had waited until he finished his harvest and then seized his ‘away going crops’ in lieu of the debt. This was something that Cook claimed Croft had agreed never to do when he took up the tenancy on his farm. Cook said he believed that the goods taken were well in excess of the monies owed - to make good the losses incurred by the burglary, it was implied.


Incriminating evidence

Croft intimated that he had hoped when Hempsall was convicted that the whereabouts of the cheque would come to light so it could be cashed and that was the reason for the delay, but it was pointed out that Hempsall had been acquitted of that particular crime. The chief judge, Mr R Wharton, said he was in no doubt that whoever did steal the cheque would have destroyed it as it was incriminating evidence.

While the five judges trying the case were sympathetic to Cook’s pleas they had to rule strictly on the law and the final ruling stated that Cook was partly to blame for the situation as he had chosen the Oakham banker for his convenience rather than Croft’s or his agent's. It went on to say that payment of a cheque did not discharge the debt until monies were drawn on that cheque. By presenting the cheque late to Croft, the rent strictly being due at Michaelmas, Cook himself could be said to have been guilty of laches.

The judges agreed that Colonel Croft had been in some part negligent in not dealing with the business of his estate more promptly, but that given the circumstances he had been put in an awkward position. They decided that in this case laches could not be applied as Cook was not prejudiced as he still had the funds in the Oakham bank at his disposal.

Judgement was for the defendants.