Montagu Williams and the case of the stolen fur cloaks – not one of his greatest triumphs

200px-Montagu_Williams,_Vanity_Fair,_1879-11-01

Montagu Williams, by ‘Spy’, Vanity Fair, (1879)

At the beginning of August 1876 Harriet Sutcliffe stood in the dock at Marylebone Police Court accused of stealing four expensive fur trimmed velvet cloaks. Harriet was a 52 year-old ‘wardrobe dealer’ and the cloaks she was supposed to have pinched belonged to Messers. Marshall & Snelgrove, silk mercers on Oxford Street.

The charge was a serious one and the complainants had deep pockets. To prosecute the theft they had hired Montagu Williams, a prominent barrister in his day. Williams would later (in 1886) become a Police Magistrate himself before taking silk two years afterwards. He died after a period of illness in 1892 but has left us his reminiscences in two volumes, one of which (Leaves of a Life, 1890) I picked up in a bookshop in Hay of Wye at the weekend.

In late 1876  Williams was hired to defend a nobleman, Count Henry de Tourville, who was accused of murdering his wife in Austria a year earlier. According to Williams’ story* the charge was that De Tourville had killed his wife Madeline ‘by pushing her over a precipice in the Stelvio Pass of the Austrian Tyrol’. The motive was deemed to be financial as the pair had only recently married and the former Mrs Miller owned a ‘considerable fortune’ estimated by Williams at over £65,000 (or around £3,000,000 today – worth killing for perhaps).

The tale reads like a Sherlock Holmes mystery but Williams doesn’t seem to have been able to affect matters. The count was presented at Bow Street before the magistrate Mr Vaughan who (having listened to a great deal of evidence that demonstrated that he certainly had a case to answer) committed him for trial. The count was extradited to Austria, tried and duly convicted of murder.

He was also accused of poisoning his first wife (with powdered glass in her coffee, something alluded to in Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 masterpiece Decline and Fall), attempting to burn down his own house with his only child in it, and, finally, with shooting his mother-in-law.  De Tourville was sentenced to death but reprieved on condition he spend the rest of his days ‘working as a slave in the [Austrian] salt mines’.

Given that Williams had such tales as this to regale his audience with it is hardly surprising he overlooked the case of a fifty-something second-hand clothes merchant accused of stealing items from a  major high street store.

shop_lady_Marshall_Snellgrove

There were three lawyers in the Marylebone court that day, Williams (who had been instructed by Messrs. Humphreys and Morgan), Mr Beesley, who appeared for the defence, and Mr Grain who represented the interests of a mantle manufacturer named James Cruse. Cruse was the man who had made the cloaks (mantles) and so Grain was probably there to provide evidence on behalf of his client as to the value of the items.

The magistrate, Mr Mansfield, listened to the case presented by Williams and the defence offered by Beesley that the items had been legally acquired and that there was little chance that a jury would convict her of theft on what he had heard. The magistrate decided to send the case to the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) but allowed bail for Mrs Sutcliffe which he set at £300 (plus two sureties of £150 each). Montage Williams advised the magistrate that a warrant had been issued to find the defendant’s husband who seems to have had something to do with the supposed theft; so far however, he was lying low.

I rather suspect the evidence was as weak as Mr Beesley adjudged it to be because despite a series of separate searches I can’t find the case in the Old Bailey. Maybe that is why Montagu Williams chose not to immortalise it in print.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 02, 1876]

*Montagu Williams, Leaves of a Life, (1890, 1899 edition) pp.208-212

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