THE CORONER’S COURT
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.
“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