THE CORO­NER’S COURT

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - READER STORY -

The of­fice of coro­ner is an an­cient one, go­ing back to the reign of Wil­liam the Con­queror. The word de­rives from the word for ‘crown’ and the coro­ner is di­rectly re­spon­si­ble to the monarch, not an in­ter­me­di­ate power.

The coro­ner ‘was’ the court: it was not nec­es­sar­ily a build­ing. Where the coro­ner was sit­ting in ses­sion, that was the coro­ner’s court. Very of­ten, par­tic­u­larly in ru­ral ar­eas where there were lim­ited civic fa­cil­i­ties, the coro­ner would con­vene his court in a pub­lic house. This may well have been the case with David’s rel­a­tives.

The coro­ner’s court would con­duct an in­quest to de­ter­mine the man­ner and means by which a per­son met their death, when it was not ob­vi­ously by nat­u­ral causes. The coro­ner would have both med­i­cal and le­gal qual­i­fi­ca­tions; he would sit with a jury, usu­ally made up of eight lo­cal men. The court had to be pub­lic so the pro­ceed­ings were of­ten re­ported in the lo­cal press.

It was not usu­ally the coro­ner’s duty to ap­por­tion blame, but up un­til 1977 a coro­ner could is­sue an in­dict­ment if he be­lieved a crime had been com­mit­ted. This was the sys­tem in Eng­land and Wales, while in Scot­land the procu­ra­tor fis­cal in­ves­ti­gated sus­pi­cious deaths.

In cases of sui­cide, coroners tried their best to bring in an­other ver­dict, to min­imise dis­tress to the fam­ily and per­mit burial in con­se­crated ground. In the case of David’s rel­a­tive, how­ever, the ev­i­dence was stark and the ver­dict would have been ‘felo de se’ – he com­mit­ted a felony against him­self.

bro­ken win­dows, set­ting fire to the cur­tains and shout­ing “push the devil through the win­dows and drive the bug­gers out!”. Ac­cord­ing to an ar­ti­cle pub­lished in

The West­ern Gazettee on 11 Novem­ber 1881: “The wife of the de­ceased Henry Spencer looked out of an up­per win­dow to re­mon­strate with the ring­leaders, when she was fired at by some­one with a blank charge from a pis­tol or gun – the weapon is not known – and the weapon be­ing within a short dis­tance, a por­tion of her hair was burnt and the woman much fright­ened. It is stated that not less than 20 shots were fired at Hen­ley, but he sus­tained no per­sonal in­jury.”

When the lo­cal con­sta­bles ar­rived in the early hours they found it hard to iden­tify who had been in­volved in the riot. How­ever, sev­eral peo­ple, in­clud­ing Ellen, said they were cer­tain that one of the mob was Sa­muel Spencer – Henry’s brother and David’s great un­cle. Sa­muel was ar­rested, along with four other men, and ap­peared at the County Po­lice Court sit­ting at Brid­port on Mon­day 20 Novem­ber 1881. Ac­cord­ing to news­pa­per re­ports, this was a lively trial at­tended by a large crowd.

Giv­ing ev­i­dence to the court, Ellen claimed that dur­ing the at­tack Sa­muel “seemed to be of­fi­ci­at­ing very busily and tak­ing a very ac­tive part”.

But both the trial and the riot seemed to take their toll on an al­ready-un­well Ellen, and she passed away on 30 De­cem­ber 1881.

The trial went on with­out her, of course, but it seems as though Ellen’s fam­ily had given up their fight for jus­tice. Although the five men pleaded guilty, on 4 Jan­uary 1882 it was an­nounced that: “The pros­e­cu­tion did not wish to press the case against the de­fen­dants, who had ex­pressed them­selves sorry with what they had done,” ac­cord­ing to the quar­ter ses­sions case files. The trau­matic se­ries of events had also taken their toll on the well­be­ing of Ellen’s mother, El­iza who, it was re­ported in The Brid­port News, was found dead hav­ing “blown her brains out” on 20 March 1882.

Shame­ful se­crets

“I just couldn’t be­lieve that it had all hap­pened, in my fam­ily!” says David. “And that it had in­volved my great un­cle Sam, who I al­ways knew as this be­nign old chap in his 80s and 90s. He was just a gen­tle man with a good sense of hu­mour.

“I strongly sus­pect there must have been some de­gree of shame in my fam­ily and that’s why I didn’t know about the riot. No one wanted to bring it up.

“I think it’s of­ten the way in fam­i­lies. They don’t talk about these things and it cer­tainly wasn’t done when I was a child in the 1950s.

“When I think about the re­la­tion­ship I had with my grand­par­ents and com­pare it to what I have now with my own grand­chil­dren, it’s to­tally dif­fer­ent. I’m so much closer to my grand­chil­dren and if they want to know some­thing, I think they’d ask me – but I would never have asked dif­fi­cult ques­tions of my own grand­par­ents.

“I didn’t ask and I wasn’t told. In the end I had to find out for my­self.”

In­quests were of­ten held in pub­lic houses

De­tails of the riot were re­ported in vivid de­tail by the lo­cal press

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