Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Flocking to Gloucester

Eighty-five years ago today, the trial of Beatrice Pace for the arsenic murder of her husband began at the Shire Hall in Gloucester.

The prosecution was led by the Solicitor-General, Sir Frank Boyd-Merriman, KC, and Beatrice was defended by Norman Birkett, KC. The presiding judge was Sir Thomas Gardner Horridge.

Alongside the tense legal duel that took place inside the courtroom, however, the case was notable for the near-carnival atmosphere on the streets outside.

The following passage from The Most Remarkable Woman in England gives an idea of the dramatic scenes on the streets of Gloucester 85 years ago today: 

Norman Birkett, KC
One of [Norman] Birkett’s later biographers was a young reporter in Cardiff at the time, and he later commented on ‘the anguished apprehension in everyone’s mind’. ‘Day after day’, he recalled with some exaggeration, ‘the newspapers were full of little else’ but the case.  Not only curious strangers flocked to Gloucester but also ‘villagers who have known the Pace family for many years’.

As the trial opened on Monday, 2 July, the Liverpool Echo reported, ‘what seemed to be the whole population of the little village of Fetter Hill today journeyed by motor omnibuses’ to view the trial.  ‘What all these people hope to do or see’, remarked the Daily Express, ‘is doubtful. The public space in the court is small, and only those who have privilege tickets will be admitted to the other part.’  Fewer than one hundred public spaces were available.  The police struggled to keep order as long queues – one each for women and men – formed on the first day of the trial at seven o’clock.

Mr. Justice Horridge
The court had been ‘inundated’ with applications for places in the public gallery, and among the successful applicants were ‘novelists and dramatists’, some of whom were ‘well-known’ (though, sadly, unnamed).  Despite sporadically poor weather on the first day, crowds of as many as 2,000 people gathered, the majority of whom were women.  A Daily Mail reporter stated: ‘Never have I seen so many women at a murder trial.’

On the second day, the crowds returned by bus and ‘obtained the foremost places in the separate queues of men and women outside the Shire Hall’.  (‘Among the crowd that surged about the hall’, it was noted, ‘were a number of American women tourists, who, having read of the case, halted in their motoring tour of the West Country to take part in the women’s demonstration.’ )

(The Most Remarkable Woman in England, pp. 92-93)

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