Members of the Linlithgow and Stirlingshire Hunt who liked a good day out on horseback also enjoyed meeting up at hunt dinners. After an evening’s drinking and eating at a Linlithgow hotel a few of the diners rounded things off with some window-smashing fun. Two of them ended up in court. Sir William Henry Don faced charges in a Linlithgow court of malicious mischief and breach of the peace at the station there and on a train to Edinburgh.
The other case was a bit of an Edinburgh sensation, with Sir John Dick Lauder of Grange accused of assaulting a railway guard who challenged him about damage to a carriage. The trial was reported in great detail. The jury must “shut out entirely from their minds any rumours they might have heard” ordered the Edinburgh sheriff, while at Linlithgow the jury were warned against “being influenced to the slightest degree by the reports they might have heard out of doors regarding this matter” as some had been “exaggerated even beyond what the Crown [had accused Sir William of]”
The story was obviously good for plenty of gossip, all across the country. One version not mentioned in court was carried by the John O’ Groats Journal:
A Couple of Larking Baronets
… it is said … they pitched the waiter out of the window, and when remonstrated with by the landlord, told him to put the waiter “on the bill”, which was done, and no injury set down at £50, and promptly paid.
That headline makes it clear the story is not just about drunken vandalism after a hunt dinner. It is also about class and Victorian attitudes to the gentry. When dealing with “larking baronets”, some journalists, witnesses and lawyers tended to emphasise the “frolic” and “light-hearted” side of the men’s “pranks”. The Edinburgh station-master suggested, via a messenger, that staff might take the “gentleman’s card”, and at first the police were also reluctant to get involved.
The Linlithgow jury found the case against Sir William “not proven” even after evidence from two of his fellow diners that he had pulled down notices at the station, turned off gas-lights and “rattled” the station-master’s hat with a cane. On the train he had torn down green silk curtains, brass curtain rods and hat-straps, thrown a bell out of the window and climbed on the roof. And that was just the evidence from other members of the Hunt, including its Master, who might have been expected to tone down anything incriminating.
Other witnesses said the wining and dining at the Star and Garter Hotel had ended with smashed windows, and with stolen potatoes later used to break glass at the station. A railway bell was taken away and found the next day a few miles along the track. There was “strutting”, a “good deal of singing” and “humorous” aggression towards the station staff. The defence thought it was natural for the gents to be “hearty”, and there had been no breach of the peace. Nor was there proof of any crime being committed within the county of Linlithgow, they said. The charge of “malicious mischief” was more appropriate for men who “having an ill-will towards their masters, burned their mills, or killed and strangled their cattle”. The sheriff said the not proven verdict “relieved him of what might naturally be expected to be very painful to himself” as well as “the party at the bar”.
The Edinburgh sheriff, 1 however, was placed in the “painful position” of having to pass sentence after Sir John was found guilty of “simple assault”.
There are a hundred recollections and associations stretching back even to the playful companionship of infancy, which make the task imposed upon me a very bitter one.
Sir John Dick Lauder
The vandalism to the train carriage with its “cut cushions”, missing foot-rug and cracked lamp was a prelude to the main incident discussed in the Edinburgh court: an assault on a railway guard, William Jesse Basset. He had dared ask John Dick Lauder about the damage when he came back looking for his hat, with his friends already gone. There were different stories about whether Sir John gave the guard “two or three rapid pushes”, several blows with a clenched fist, or blows plus a kick in the belly.
Donald Monro, [a] policeman, stated that … Sir John said, “Let me have a kick at him.” Witness told him there was no kicking allowed. The gentleman then called out, “My name is Sir John Dick Lauder.” … [He was] working through the effects of drink.
The policeman had seen kicks attempted, but did not know whether they landed. He was facing the wrong way to see clearly, he said.
Before the trial Sir John had apologised to Basset and sent him a letter and £5. This was honourable and “conceived in a good spirit”, said the sheriff. The jury found Sir John not guilty of the kick or of injury to the person. For “simple” assault he was fined £10 or 30 days imprisonment.
This fine was immediately paid, and Sir John accompanied by his friends then left the court, which was crowded during the whole trial, which lasted from eleven till four o’clock.
References and Pictures
- Caledonian Mercury, 15 April, 1850
- Scotsman, 30 March, 1850
- The History of the Linlithgow and Stirlingshire Hunt, 1775-1910, James Rutherfurd, Blackwood 1911
- Mr. Sheriff Gordon ↩