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Court in Time

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The most recent of the Old Mansfield Society's series of books about the history of the town is "Court in Time", by Tom Gamble. It tells the history of Mansfield's magistrates and some of the interesting people they have encountered over the years. Here are a couple of samples:

Rationing and the black market, 1939-45

Ration books had been issued by November 1939, and the first items (bacon and butter) were rationed from 1 December that year, followed in due course by many other commodities, including meat, sugar, tea (in July 1940), margarine and cooking-fat. Food rationing made life difficult for householders, and it is not surprising that some were tempted to find ways round the restrictions. In one case the mother of a young man in prison went on using his ration book, and another whose daughter was accidentally issued with a duplicate Identity Card used it to claim an extra ration book; a couple legally separated contrived to have their children registered at both addresses, and there were some instances of ration books being found, stolen, altered or forged, but such cases were not frequent.

Tradesmen, on the other hand, had more numerous and complex problems to face. The sheer number of regulations and price-changes, estimated at 10,000 by mid-1944, made it difficult for even the most conscientious to stay on the right side of the law. Rationing and the shortage of goods limited trade and price controls restricted profits, to say nothing of purchase tax (imposed first in October 1940) and the form-filling processes of accounting.

Attempts to stimulate trade by imposing conditions of sale on goods in short supply could lead to sharp fines, as a West Gate shopkeeper found who insisted that customers bought a rabbit before he would sell them eggs. Similarly, the market-stall holder offering tomatoes only to those who bought his beetroot or peas was fined £5, the Bench Chairman observing that there was a lot of this kind thing going on in Mansfield and the Ministry of Food should be after "bigger fish" than this.

Those in the catering business had a particularly hard time and may have been exposed to more than their share of temptation. Inevitably, some succumbed, and some dodgy deals ended in Court. The man observed at 2.20a.m. sidling away from a lorry in Stockwell Gate carrying a carcase of lamb ended up with two consecutive six-month spells of hard labour, but also led enquiries to a cafe and to a hotel whose owners incurred heavy fines for receiving stolen goods. The landlady of another hotel tried a different tack. She wrote to her sister in the Republic of Ireland asking her to send a quantity of bacon, marking it "Present: bacon." The letter was intercepted by the Censor, and a successful prosecution followed for "attempting to obtain rationed food contrary to the regulations."

Price controls applied to virtually everything (batteries, stockings, a china display cabinet, a second-hand micrometer), and even trifling infringements were punished with what now seems extraordinary stringency: a Skerry Hill shopkeeper fined 10s. for selling a tin of plums for 1s. instead of 11d; another in Newgate Lane for charging eightpence-ha'penny per pound for Bramley apples instead of 8d.; the Co-op at Rainworth, charging 1s.7d (not 1s.5d.) for two tins of milk. One example from June '44 illustrates the complexity of some of these controls. Eggs were rationed and price-controlled, but not if they were intended for hatching. In that case each egg had to be marked with the letter "H" in red, the buyer had to give a certificate that they were for hatching, and the retailer had to keep a record of the buyer's name and the quantity of eggs sold. In this transaction no certificate was given for the 18 eggs bought by Mrs.White at the uncontrolled price of 6d. a dozen. She said she just thought they were special - ostrich's eggs or something. She ate them. She was fined two guineas, and the owner of the West Gate shop suffered a £25 penalty.

Some other regulations were no less complex and obscure in principle and in application, such as the one prohibiting the carriage of fruit and vegetables more than 40 miles as the crow flies, and the case against Mansfield Hosiery Co. for exceeding their production quota for stockings, this at a time when stockings were in desperately short supply.

Clothes rationing, which began in June 1941, brought further hardships and temptations in its train. In one case involving a market trader who had acquired several thousand clothing coupons illegally Mr. Hopkin produced a persuasive plea in mitigation: the coupon system though excellent in many ways tended to be hard on poor people who could not afford better quality goods, and so those which they did purchase wore out more quickly and the people found themselves without coupons; it was with the desire of helping such people that coupons were not required to be surrendered; Mr. C. therefore approached Mr. S. who tried to help him. This philanthropic image was tarnished by the prosecution's evidence of Mr. S's previous conviction for illegal possession of clothing coupons and Mr. C's five-year history of market trading with £300 per week turnover and no record of having ever paid income tax. The five defendants faced massive fines totalling £1,112.

Car trouble, 1946-78

Town centre streets did not easily accept the motor-car, and with the rapid increase in road traffic after the war the need to regulate its flow had already led to the introduction of an experimental one-way road system by mid-1947. A more extended system in 1948-9 failed to solve the problem and a scheme to impose limited waiting and unilateral parking was imposed, followed in 1953 by no-waiting orders in Albert St., West Gate, St.John St., Clumber St., Church St., Bridge St. and Leeming St.

Such an emphasis on restriction led to an increasing number of prosecutions against drivers and a rising sense of resentment on their part, aggravated by their perception that road signs were inadequate. On one day in May 1955 ten motorists, all unfamiliar with the town, were in Court for driving the wrong way up town centre streets (Church St., mostly), and the Bench Chairman was moved to say: "It does make us think something is wrong at this corner. If something can be done we shall have to do it, otherwise we shall have people afraid to come into the town." In similar circumstances a month later even the police voiced sympathetic opinions in Court: "All these people can't be void of reasonable intelligence, but transgress with no intention of doing so." In short, the law seemed to be turning law-abiding citizens into law-breakers.

The appointment of Traffic Wardens in 1967 was intended to improve matters until a new redevelopment scheme was to take effect in the town centre. By this time the population of the borough had risen to 55,610 and of the 18,250 householders in Mansfield 6,320 owned one car and 810 owned two or more. Traffic offences were back-logged to such an extent that by the beginning of 1969 the police were suggesting the need for special Court sittings to dispose of cases up to five months old. Complaints by motorists, shoppers and shopkeepers reached spate level by mid-1971, and a letter in the local press (October) enquired: "Will you please confirm that it is not true that Mansfield is going to put gates on all the roads leading into the town to keep motorists out - they are going to bury them in the holes in the road instead."

It was unfortunate that the Market Place, the most convenient parking area in the town, was not available when it was most needed, namely on market days. Saturdays when the Stags had a home match with a gate of, perhaps, 20,000 and cars bumper to bumper on Nottingham Rd., could be a nightmare for traffic police, but that problem took care of itself over the years, even before the new town centre development offered more parking space in the Spring of 1976.

The Court had other matters to deal with in connection with road traffic and by 1952 they commonly numbered 10 - 20 cases per session. By that time exceeding the speed limit had become more frequent and the customary two-guinea fine had begun to rise. Speed was still being measured according to the pursuing police-car's speedometer, and the Borough Magistrates expressed concern about the reliability of this method over short distances, such as 0.3 miles, although they had no doubts about a £20 fine on a motorist doing 60-65 m.p.h. along Clipstone Rd.West, Ravensdale Rd. and Bath Lane in 1963. Explaining that he believed the police were trying to race him did not help his case. Shortly afterwards radar equipment was used experimentally in the Mansfield area by police armed also with walkie-talkie equipment and warning notices. It came into regular use in 1965 and was by that time, according to the police, generally accepted by motorists, who had previously regarded it as unfair. The likelihood of being caught and the imposition of heavier fines (£30 - £50 by 1975) did not seem to discourage drivers from exceeding the speed limits and Court lists containing 50+ such charges were not unusual by that date.

Drink/driving prosecutions were infrequent in the early part of this period: only three per year in the mid-1950s, rising to seven or eight ten years later. Fitness to drive was still a matter of opinion in 1958, for instance, when a lorry driver was found slumped over the wheel and responded to the charge of being drunk with: "I'm not, you know. Too wide you are. Too wide you be. I see you are too wide for me." Drivers regularly claimed to be in full control after six or seven pints of beer and were sometimes supported by the doctor's opinion. In just such a case (July 1967) the police observed the driver unsteady on his feet after his car had been involved in a collision, forcing the other vehicle on to the verge. The doctor pronounced him "not unfit to drive; garrulous, but he knew the time and read a newspaper article quite well." He was acquitted, though he would certainly have fallen foul of the breathalyser which was used for the first time in Nottinghamshire only a month later. As a result of the new technology the number of drink/driving prosecutions began to rise, nearly all to success, reaching 67 in 1972 and 90 in 1976.

The breathalyser did not go completely unchallenged. The middle-aged man seen staggering about in Exchange Row, then reversing his van erratically out of Market House Place forcing a woman pedestrian to leap for her life, twice dismantled the breathalyser equipment and at the police-station told the doctor he was dead and therefore had no blood to give. In Court he claimed to remember nothing about the incident until three weeks later, but admitted to having supped three bottles of wine and meekly accepted a £70 fine and a lengthy disqualification.

Road traffic offences, including drink/driving, rose to more than 2,700 in the Borough Court by 1976, many of them of a technical nature to do with licences and other documentation. One of them turned dramatic when the 23-year old driver being questioned about a stolen Road Fund licence snatched the suspect document from the windscreen and swallowed it.

In addition to that total there were some 88 TWOCs in the adult Court plus 13 more by Juveniles, another offence becoming more numerous over the years. These were nearly all "joy riding" incidents, part of the law-breaking-for-fun cult. One of them had an ironic ending: the 17-year old youth had found the car unlocked, with the key in the ignition, in Pelham St. and had taken it for a birthday jaunt with friends. He had the decency to return it later to the Market Place, but unfortunately in parking it backed into another car - a police panda. Another TWOC in June 1959 produced an extraordinary demonstration of summary justice. Three men were seen at 10.45 p.m. getting into a car on Windsor Rd. and the owner phoned the police. They were caught in Nottingham at 12.30 a.m. and appeared in the Borough Court later that day, two of them to receive custodial sentences and one a Probation Order, all in little more than 12 hours.

©1999 Tom Gamble