Justice John Byles: Some of His Interesting Court Cases

Justice John Byles studied law in Britain in the 1820s and 30s and became a member of the Inner Temple, a professional body that provides legal training, selection, and regulation of its members. The Inner Temple was also one of the four inns of the court and to be called to practice as a barrister in England and Wales, a person had to belong to one of these inns.

By January of 1858 John Byles, born John Barnard Byles, was promoted to the bench. During his time as barrister, he defended several notables criminals, including the murderer Daniel Good, who end up on display in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors and who became infamous among London police departments for escaping their custody. In fact, because of the police’s bungling and inability to quickly catch Good quickly, the Detective Branch was set up to improve efficiency in apprehending suspects such as Good.

Justice John Byles - Daniel Good

Daniel Good. Author’s collection.

Justice John Byles was also made a Knight Bachelor and Justice of the Common Pleas and while on the bench as a judge he often oversaw cases at the Central Criminal Court in London. One case that Byles presided over involved 19-year-old Claude Scott Woolley. He was charged with “wilful murder” of Samuel Lee, a potman employed at the Drayton Arms in Chelsea.

Lee was a short powerful man who had been sent by his master to collect money from workmen building some houses. Thus, when he came up missing a search was made and his dead body was discovered inside one of the unfinished houses. Robbery appeared to be the motive as the money Lee had collected was not found upon him. Moreover, it was reported that his death was caused by a plasterer’s hammer and that five of the wounds he suffered would have certainly been mortal, although it was likely that it was a blow to the back of the head that killed him:

“Dr. F. Goderich, the surgeon who examined the body … described the injuries [Lee] had received… it appeared as though, in the first instance, a tremendous blow had been given at the back of the head, which had felled the deceased to the ground, and rendered him insensible, and that while on the ground he was beaten in the front of the head.”[1]

About a year passed and there were no clues as to the murderer of Lee. The case went cold until Woolley finally turned himself in to Inspector Palmer. Woolley did so because according to him:

“Poor old Jack (meaning the deceased) was at his bedside every night, staring at him with those large eyes of his, and he could not stand it any longer.”[2]

Woolley was tried before Justice John Byles in 1871. After the evidence was presented, Byles summed up the case to the jury noting that the question before them was whether Woolley was telling the truth. The jury deliberated less than an hour and found him guilty of murder:

“Justice John Byles, who had put on the black cap, addressed the prisoner, and said that the jury, after most attentive consideration, had come to the conclusion that the statements he made as to the commission of this crime were perfectly true, and he did not see how anyone who had heard the evidence could come to any other conclusion.”[3]

Justice Byles then concluded by passing the formal sentence of death upon Woolley and although Woolley’s case was low key and just one of the numerous murder cases Byles presided over, some of the cases that came before him were high-profile. That was the situation in 1862 when Byles heard the Roupell case, a notorious English legal dispute that centered on documents alleged to have been forged by William Roupell, the illegitimate son of Richard Palmer Roupell, who possessed extensive properties in London and the Home Counties.

William Roupell. Public domain.

William wanted to be a part of fashionable society and by 1853 he had spent a lot of money in his attempt to achieve a name for himself. He was also in serious debt and so he launched a sequence of deceptions and forgeries to obtain much of his father’s property dishonestly. William’s father had died in 1856 and had left much of his property to William’s brother Richard. William destroyed his father’s will and then forged a will leaving the inheritance to his mother. However, he made himself the executor and then he also forged a deed conveying Norbiton Estate to himself, which he then sold to a Mr. Waite.

By the beginning of 1862, William was no longer able to service the mortgages that he had taken out on the misappropriated property. On 30 March of that same year he became desperate and destroyed some of his papers and fled to Spain. However, he returned to England later that same year, was recognized, and arrested for fraud and forgery.

William’s brother Richard sued Waite for possession of Norbiton Estate. Richard contended that he would have inherited the estate under his father’s will, if William had not destroyed it. The trial began at Guildford on 18 August 1862. William’s financial difficulties and the alleged facts of the frauds and forgeries came to light during the trial, and, furthermore, William testified that he had committed the frauds and forgeries and that his brother was unaware of his schemes.

On 24 September 1862, William appeared at the Old Bailey before Justice John Byles. William pleaded guilty to the forgery. Thus, upon hearing the case, Byles emphasized the seriousness of the offenses committed by William and sentenced him to penal servitude for life.

As to Waite’s defense, he believed that William was colluding with his brother Richard for some possible compensation. Unfortunately, his defense was never heard because the case was settled, thereby dividing the value of the estate between Waite and Richard. Additionally, Richard spent the rest of his life attempting, largely unsuccessfully, to recover some of his lost fortune from the misdeeds perpetrated by his brother William.

The Roupell case was not the only well-known case that the Justice John Byles presided over. Another was the case of Catherine Wilson, a nineteenth century serial murderer who poisoned her victims after encouraging them to change their wills in her favor. One of her victims was Maria Soames and that trial began on 25 September 1862 with Wilson being defended by Montague Williams.

During the trial it was alleged that Soames died from the effects of colchicum after rewriting her will in favor of Wilson. Allegations and gossip that Wilson killed others surfaced but were not admitted at trial. Although Wilson was convicted of only one murder, it was generally thought at the time that she killed at least six other victims. Moreover, when she was sentenced to death by Byles he alleged that her counsel had defended “the greatest criminal that ever lived.”[4]  

Besides the high-profile murder case of Wilson, Justice John Byles presided over another murder case. It involved a woman name Frances Turner who had married William Kidder, the father of her illegitimate child Emma. After the marriage, William had another illegitimate child with another woman. The child was named Louisa Kidder Staples. Frances never liked Louisa and according to the Frome Times:

“[Frances] was a woman of violent temper, and there seemed to be very little doubt that she entertained great antipathy toward her stepdaughter, … and it was proved that she frequently beat her very cruelly, her pinafore and other article of clothing been seen, on several occasions, covered with blood, and she was also represented having made use of deadly threats towards the poor child, and particularly that she would take her out and drown her.”[5]

On 17 August 1867 there was fair at New Romney. The Kidder family went to visit Frances’ parents. Nothing appeared to have happened until the 25 August. That is when William left for a time, Frances’s parents went out for a walk, and Kidder sent her sister Rhoda out for a walk with Emma. Kidder was then left alone at home with Louisa. When Frances’ parents returned home, they found Frances and Louisa missing and began searching for them. Unfortunately, they found nothing.

“About ten o’clock … [Frances] returned … without the child, and her clothes were very wet, and, upon some questions being put to her by her mother, she said that as she was coming home with [Louisa] … they were frightened by two horses, and [Louisa] fell into a ditch, and she went in after her and tried to get her out, but was unable to do so.”[6]

Frances’ parents thought her behavior suspicious and because of prior threats and ill treatment against Louisa, William did not believe Frances either when she told him the story. In fact, he accused her of murder and called a police constable. Frances was then taken into custody as a search for Louisa was also conducted. Soon the child’s dead body was discovered in a field called Cobb’s field.

“There were marks as of a struggle having taken place on the bank of the ditch, and it appeared that the water was not more than a foot deep, so that the suggestion on the part of the prosecution was that … [if] the child had fallen into the ditch accidentally she could easily have extricated herself, and that the unhappy child had been forced violently into the ditch, and held under water until she was suffocated. … Another fact … in support of the prosecution was that directly after [Frances] was left alone with the child … she took of her Sunday clothes and put her in an old ragged frock, and [Kidder] also appeared to have changed her own dress before [they] went out.”[7]

The trial was held on 12 March 1868. Witnesses included Frances’ husband, mother, father, and sister. All of them provided damaging evidence about how much Frances hated Louisa. After hearing the case, the jury took minutes to decide the fate of the accused. Frances was found guilty, and Justice John Byles concluded that she deliberately drowned Louis and stated “that she had been convicted upon the most conclusive evidence of the wilful murder … and … without making any further observations at once proceeded to pass the awful sentence of death.”[8]  

Frances later admitted that she had killed Louisa but insisted her death was not premeditated. Her denial carried no weight and she executed in front of the Maidstone Gaol at noon on 2 April 1868. The hangman William Calcraft put the noose around her neck and then pulled the lever. In attendance were around 2,000 people, including Frances’ husband William.

A third well-publicized murder case that Justice John Byles presided over happened in 1872. Reverend John Selby Watson was a British classical translator. He was charged with killing his wife, Ann Watson. His case became notable because he entered a plea of insanity as his defense.

Justice John Byles - Reverend John Selby Watson

Reverend John Selby Watson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

On 8 October 1871 Watson was found by his servant, Ellen Pyne, lying unconscious on the floor. He had taken prussic acid and alongside him were two notes: one addressed to Pyne that contained her wages and a second note to Watson’s doctor that read:

“I have killed my wife in a fit of rage to which she provoked me. Often and often has she provoked me before, but I never lost restraint over myself with her until this occasion, when I allowed fury to carry me away. Her body will be found in the room adjoining the library, the key of which I leave with this paper.”[9]

The dead body of Ann Watson was found battered. Apparently, Watson had beaten her to death two days earlier with the butt end of his pistol. Despite his claims that his wife provoked him, evidence at trial did not support such a claim. Furthermore, after his wife’s killing, there seemed to proof that Watson premeditated her murder because according to the Reynolds’s Newspaper:

“Mr. Watson was ready with a falsehood immediately [after his wife’s death]; and … [pre-ordered[ the packing cases, which could have been for no other purpose than the concealing … [her] body.”[10]

After hearing the evidence, Justice John Byles summed up the case for the jury noting that he strongly opposed Watson’s insanity defense. The jury returned a verdict of guilty but recommended that Watson receive mercy on account of his age and previous good character. Byles refused and instead sentenced him to death. However, public outcry and trial affidavits from doctors ultimately resulted in Byles changing his ruling and Watson’s sentence being reduced to life imprisonment.

Justice John Byles began to have health issues and stepped down as judge but went on to become a member of the Privy Council. He continued in that role for some time. In retirement he was mainly occupied with his literary interests until his death at the age of eighty-two on 3 February 1884. He died at his residence at Harefield House in Uxbridge.

Although Byles presided over numerous important cases, one of the things he is best remembered for is his influential and seminal publication written in 1829 on bills of exchange, A Treatise on the Law of Bills of A Treatise on the Law of Bills of Exchange, Promissory Notes, Bank-Notes, and Cheques, commonly referred to as “Byles on Bills.” The shortened version reputedly caused Byles to name his horse “Bills,” so that when he was approached people would utter “Here comes Byles on Bills.”[11]

References:

  • [1] Morning Advertiser, “The Murder of a Potman at Brompton,” June 8, 1871, p. 7.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Recent English Causes Cêlêbres 34 (1890); Harper’s Weekly Magazine, p. 247.
  • [5] Frome Times, “Murder by a Stepmother,” March 18, 1868, p. 4.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Reynolds’s Newspaper, “Central Criminal Court,” November 26, 1871, p. 6.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] M. A. Clarke et al., eds., Commercial Law: Text, Cases, and Materials (Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 644.

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1 Comments

  1. mike guilfoyle on March 13, 2022 at 1:38 am

    A truly fascinating account of the 19 c Judge John Byles-

    I am assuming he was also the presiding judge in an unusual court case from the Old Bailey/Newgate from 1861 -George Inkpen convicted of the murder/suicide accessory in Deptford of Margaret Edmonds & who was later reprieved from a death sentence after a popular outcry?

    Mike Guilfoyle
    Vice-Chair : Friends of Brockley & Ladywell cemeteries.

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