Is it the one with a feather in ‘er ‘ead?

OldCourtBurfordAfter approaching forty years in the Probation Service, I can claim to have worked in a wide variety of locations including Magistrates Courts, Crown Courts and Family Courts as well as the Court of Criminal Appeal, but the most memorable was my time spent in Burford Magistrates Court!

Yes, Burford did have its own court, on the hill, inside the old police station where justice was, supposedly, dispensed in an even handed and lawful way…

The main players were of course the magistrates themselves, whose integrity was beyond doubt, but their awareness of life around them was less complete. The Magistrates’ Clerk was known as “Mad Jack”… probably because he was; there was a court usher who would diligently shout out the names of defendants required in court, resorting to walking up and down Burford Hill shouting the names if no reply was forthcoming from within!

As ever, there was a selection of solicitors who would turn up from time to time, there was a selection of defendants charged with a large array of offences, and there was me.

The first time I went to Burford Court, colleagues had warned me that it was like nowhere else in the system. I arrived wearing my suit and carrying my briefcase to be met by Mad Jack the Clerk. He eyed me with deep suspicion and asked if I was a solicitor. I said I was not and before I could tell him who I was he pointed to the dock and said to me, “Get in there they are waiting.”
I did as I was told. Within milliseconds, the magistrates came in, all of them, moving sideways like the Tiller Girls. The women were required to wear hats and gloves, and looked formidable. At this point Mad Jack asked me my name, and I gave it to him. He said I was not the defendant they sought so why was I in the dock? I said he had put me there….stony silence….the first real case was called.

All the local defendants knew each other, and would discuss their prospects amongst themselves; one of them was a bit nervous and fearful about appearing before a chairman of the bench she had encountered before. One of her chums was trying to be supportive and asked her if the magistrate was “the one with a feather in ‘er ‘ead?” Hoping to offer reassurance to her nervous companion the fear about the feather was confirmed, the two discussed possibilities and went into court to be ‘weighed off’ by the bench. (The magistrate ‘with the feather in her head’ had a large hat wedged firmly in place, and from its rear, there sprung a long and springy peacock’s feather. I am not a physicist, but there was a certain fascination with the feather because if the magistrate looked left the feather would spring right, and the reverse if they looked right; if they shook their head the hat nearly took off).

Over time, one got acclimatized to the often illogical events in court; one always had to expect the unexpected…usually from the bench!

The chairman, on one occasion, was a titled landowner who spoke perfect English albeit with an accent so far back as to make it indecipherable. He was also somewhat out of touch with real lives. When he announced a fine was being imposed on an unemployed labourer he asked,
“Ken you pai nigh?”
“Nah” was the response.
“Eoh, are you on scwarty?”
“Nah” was the reply again.
“Eoh, do you heve sevvings”?
“Nah.”
“Eoh, does your father give you an allowance?” … aaargh!

The magistrate with the feather in ‘er ‘ead, was chairing a panel in the Juvenile Court where some pathetic child was brought for sentencing. Upon reading a psychologist’s report, she looked at the child sternly and said, “It says in this report that your IQ is only 74….now you have got to do much better than this.”

Imagine the consternation when a male defendant appeared for his third offence of indecent exposure that took place on the hill in Burford. The three offences on separate days occurred in the early morning as the Burford milk float went past…the chairman said it was fully understandable because the defendant came from Wolverhampton!

I could go on, but I won’t…but I do remember it with a measure of warmth, and I think I got in on the tail end of a time when things were very different to the present day

Martin Hallam

December 2018 – January 2019