I recently published a piece on Chelping, a poetry event which occurs at the magnificent Leeds Library every other month, and whilst on their website I noticed a talk being given by His Honour Judge Paul Worsley QC. Admission was free so I got myself a ticket.
At the end of the Swinging Sixties I embarked on a law degree in London but due to a combination of circumstances I had to drop out after a couple of terms. Far out man, peace and love. Fast forward fifteen years and I am in a job where I spent several mornings per week in the old Bradford County Court on Manor Row. On Tuesday to Friday the cases were normally held in chambers, before what was then called a Registrar but is now known as a District Judge, so we were dressed in suit and tie, the informal setting akin to a conference room. The Monday sessions, however, were in open court before such luminaries as Judge Pickles who was quite famous at the time, I won’t say what for, but His Honour would be togged up in his purple robes and wig sitting aloof on an ornate chair high above the rest of the court and never failed to get the butterflies doing aerobatics in my stomach no matter how many times I did it. When the court moved to the new premises the setting was not quite as forbidding but still engendered a certain amount of apprehension.
I can’t begin to imagine, therefore, what it must have been like to appear before His Honour Judge Paul Worsley, QC who sat for several years at The Old Bailey in London, officially known as the Central Criminal Court, where he heard serious criminal cases rather than the civil ones with which I was concerned. This meant that if you were in front of him the end of the hearing could see the accused spending the rest of their life in prison rather than deciding how much per month the defendant was ordered to pay off their debts.
It is one such murder case which is the subject of Paul Worsley’s new book The Postcard Murder, A Judge’s Tale. I think that I can drop his full title now as he didn’t use it during the talk and it is too late for me to be sent down for contempt of court. The case in question was heard in Number 1 Court of the Old Bailey in 1907 by Mr Justice Grantham and concerned the murder by decapitation of a 22 year-old woman, Emily Dimmock. It was described by the presiding judge to be ‘…one of the most remarkable trials that is to be found in the annals of the Criminal Courts of England.’
The reason for the title is that everything hinged on a postcard found in the premises of the deceased which was given to the press to publish in the hope that someone would recognise the handwriting. This was obviously long before the days of the internet. Because of this involvement of the general public interest was intense and the whole nation was on tenterhooks as to who the culprit would turn out to be.
The point about the prosecution and trial was that it was that it was based on purely circumstantial grounds rather than any concrete evidence. Even though it took the jury only 17 minutes to reach its verdict there were grave doubts about the decision.
As you would expect the author has done meticulous research on the case reading the transcript of the trial as well as all of the newspaper cuttings and peripheral documents held in the archives at Kew in coming to his own conclusion about the verdict. Being someone who has tried murder cases sitting in the same chair in the same court as Justice Grantham – I will still use his proper moniker as he seemed a bit on the harsh side and although dead for over a hundred years sounds like the type of person who would come back to haunt me for much less of a misdemeanour than dropping his title – he is in a rare position of being able to empathise. He said that when he was reading the records from the case he could picture the view of the court that his predecessor would have had, the smell of the place and the ambience not available to others.
The story is told by using an imagined conversation in 1911 between Justice Grantham, by then retired, and his son. As I have said, the judge was a Victorian hardliner whereas his son was the product of the Edwardian era when attitudes were a little more relaxed. The author has done everything he can to get inside the minds of both protagonists in order to set out the facts and explain their decisions using the moral values of the time. He also speculates on other aspects which were not brought to light. He includes a chapter explaining how the trial would have had to have been heard today using current jurisprudence rules which I am sure will be an eye-opener.
I don’t propose to go into any further detail about the book save to say that I was so intrigued that I shelled out a tenner of my own money on a copy! Pass the smelling salts I am having an attack of the vapours.
Paul Worsley began his career practising in chambers in Leeds before climbing the judicial ladder which led to his stint as a judge at the Central Criminal Court. He is a very affable chap and his presentation, done without a script but full of detail, showed what a brilliant mind he has, perfectly suited to the assimilation of difficult evidence and its translation into layman’s terms for the enlightenment of the jury so as to assist in their understanding of the case they were hearing. He also brought coffee and cakes.
I am now looking forward to reading my new purchase but sadly it will have to wait as I have lots of stuff to write myself over the coming weeks, there is a rumour going round that it will soon be Christmas. At least this year I will have something to help me avoid soap opera tragedies and children’s films over the holidays. Thank you Your Honour.
The Postcard Murder, A Judge’s Tale is published by Pilot and comes in at a very reasonable £9.99.