A class case: did Captain Belstead make a mockery of the law?

800px-G_Pagliei_-_Au_jardinIn 1842, the Spectator [1] noted an anomaly “in the courts of justice”, and presented it to its readers in wonder. It was a case that should have caused bad feeling against the defendant – but didn’t. The rather polite case, heard at the Surrey Quarter Sessions, was, indeed, an anomaly.

Captain Henry Belstead [2] had been the secretary of a savings bank in Richmond, Surrey. He turned out not to have been a good choice for the job, and had given in to temptation by committing forgery and embezzling his customers’ money.

He was charged with several indictments, one of which involved some 15 counts of forgery, and another with embezzling £13. The charges related to various trustees and customers of the Richmond Savings Bank, including Sir Charles Price, Fanny Paisse, William Wheeler and John Capon.

This might have been to help support his family; Henry had a wife and four children between the ages of four and 11 to feed; but the newspapers did not believe that his offence was “one of those dishonesties which a needy man in circumstances of pressure may be tempted to commit.” [3]

On coming before the court, the Bradford Observer noted that “it might have been supposed that to violate the sacred deposits of parsimonious industry would excite the bitterest rancour against the delinquent” – in other words, the people who had had their savings plundered might have been a bit naffed off with Belstead.

But, much to everyone’s surprise, they were not angry at all; instead, those sitting in the public gallery had “an overflow of kindly feeling”. In addition, Henry’s counsel “commenced the mockery of justice by making a sort of apology for the prosecution, and by throwing some of the blame on members of the Managing Committee [of the bank], who had failed to watch the Secretary as closely as they might and should have done.”  [4]

The outcome of Henry Belstead's trial at Surrey Quarter Sessions (via Ancestry)

The outcome of Henry Belstead’s trial at Surrey Quarter Sessions (via Ancestry)

Perhaps Henry had earned respect through his long association with the area. Although not born in Surrey, and married in Dover [5], he had lived in Richmond since at least 1830, and his children had all been born and baptised there. [6] His army background also made him a local figure of respect.

Among those who spoke in his defence were two men whom Belstead had served in the King’s Own Light Infantry between 1813 and 1827 – a Colonel McDougall and a Colonel Fox, who both “testified to the high character borne in the army by Captain Belstead”. [7]

A friend of Belstead’s – ironically, a magistrate at Richmond, Mr Garrick – also spoke highly of the prisoner, stating that they had been acquainted for eight years, and that Belstead had always conducted himself well.

Despite having brought the prosecution in the first place, Henry’s former customers now pleaded with the judge for Belstead to be treated with mercy, with the recorder stating that the court would “acquiesce” in any application made to the Home Secretary for mitigation of the sentence.

As a result of all this, “the judge all but apologised in passing sentence”, suggesting that if he had been able to, he would have “passed over” the indictment for forgery – but his “hands were tied” by the need, as The Examiner put it, “administer some measure of justice, scanty and inadequate as it was.” [8]

But sentence him, the judge finally did. The much loved Henry was given two years in the local house of correction for his crimes. [9]

"Norfolk Island jail" by Steve Daggar - originally uploaded to Flickr as part of the Norfolk Island set.

“Norfolk Island jail” by Steve Daggar – originally uploaded to Flickr as part of the Norfolk Island set.

Although the Spectator and the Bradford Observer viewed the case with humour, taking a kind of pleasure in Belstead’s lenient treatment by the courts, The Examiner was more critical.

It felt that Belstead had been treated well purely because he was a former army captain with long service behind him; that this was a class issue. It warned people not to place “gentlemen who have served in the army” in positions of trust, for if they commit crimes in that employment, they would not be punished properly. In short,

“Let it be at once understood that no punishment, or half-punishment, goes with half-pay, and that the community will know how to protect itself against that singularly privileged class, for whom a relaxation of the criminal law is so flatteringly reserved. […] How indecent, how disgraceful, is such an example!” [10]

It seems as though The Examiner was wrong in its belief that there would be no lasting punishment for Captain Belstead, however. On leaving prison, he returned to the army, where he was stationed at Norfolk Island, in the Pacific Ocean – a small and isolated convict penal settlement. [11] How apt.

 

Footnotes

1. Repeated in The Bradford Observer, 22 December 1842

2. 1841 census for Marshgate, Richmond, Surrey, via Ancestry

3. The Examiner, 1842, 818, via Google Books

4. The Examiner, 1842, 818

5. Marriage record for Henry Belstead at Maria Chalk at Dover, 24 September 1829, via Ancestry

6. Baptism record for Charlotte Maria Murrey Belstead, daughter of Henry Belstead Esquire and Maria, at Richmond, 1 December 1830, via Ancestry

7. Launceston Examiner, New Zealand, 22 July 1843 [sic], via Trove

8. The Examiner, 1842, 818

9. Surrey Quarter Session records for December 1842, via Ancestry

10. The Examiner, 1842, 818

11. Obituary of Charles Torrens Belstead, The Mercury, Hobart, Tasmania, 26 June 1894, via Trove. Charles was described in this obituary as “a gentleman of the highest integrity” – unlike his father, then.

Advertisements