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1806: Court hears a strange case of false arrest at Cuckfield Place

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

Star (London) - Thursday 07 August 1806

Lewes August 5th


Mr Garrow told the jury, that this was a case which called upon them for their most grave and serious attention, inasmuch as it involves the future prosperity of a very young and very honourable man.

The plaintiff in this case was an attorney, and the son of a clergyman, who had educated him with the greatest care and attention, so as to qualify him to become a respectable member of that profession which he had since become a member of.

Cuckfield Park (formerly Cuckfield Place) circa 1900

The defendant, Mrs Serjeantson, was a lady residing at Cuckfield and she possessed an estate of £5000 per annum. The other Defendant, Mr Serjeantson, was in no way implicated in the transaction, and he was joined in the action merely because he was the husband of the lady, for, in fact, he had lived with her but 12 months after they were married, for he found it more convenient to live apart.

The plaintiff had had great expectations from the Defendant; she had promised him much, and as she was his godmother, he had conceived hopes that some of those expectations might have been realised. He had, however, to appeal to a court of justice for reparation for a most cruel injury which he had sustained at her hands.

The action was brought for an assault and false imprisonment, and in fact the imprisonment was by delivering him into the custody of an officer, charging him with a capital felony, in having stolen £60 from her dwelling house, which, as she was pleased to say, was done on the following occasion:-

On the 10th of March last, the plaintiff, by invitation, was to have dined at Cuckfield Place, the house of the defendant. He did not, however, dine there, but he arrived after dinner. This at first displeased his godmother: however she became pacified and in the evening she employed him in sorting and endorsing parcels of letters. She next made him count several parcels of money, which were put in separate bags and ticketed; and then it was she took it in her head afterwards to conceive that he had robbed her, and that she had seen him slip the 60 Guineas into his pocket; but if she had done so, would it not have been natural that she should have immediately complained?

But not so. The young man retired to bed, breakfasted there the next day, and took his leave as usual. He paid one or two intermediate visits between that time and the 23rd of March, when he was taken into custody; and then in consequence of a letter from Colonel Sergeantson, the ladies son, he attended at Cuckfield Place.

The Colonel told him that he had sent for him on a most unpleasant business, for his mother charged him with robbing her of 60 Guineas. The young man was thunderstruck at the charge, and when he had recovered the powers of his mind, vindicated himself from the charge. He was shown into the lady’s bedroom, and shortly afterwards the constable made his appearance, and then the following curious dialogue ensued. When the constable appeared, she addressed him -

“Ah, Coffin is that you?” -

“Yes Ma’am.”

“Then take this fellow into custody.”

“Pray, Ma’am, what fellow?” -

“Why, that fellow Morgan.”

“Morgan!” Exclaimed the constable, in a surprise.

“Yes, that fellow, Tom Morgan.”

“For what must I take him?”

“Why he has robbed me”

The constable hesitated, and asked "but am I warranted to take him without any warrant?”

“I tell you take him,” said the lady, “and let me have no altercation, I know your office better than you do. If you let him go, I'll be damned but I'll play hell with you."

Under this severe injunction, the constable did take him. He was kept in custody of the Headborough all night, and having important business to transact at the Assizes at Horsham the next day, he was permitted to go there, the constable accompanying him. – The defendant, however, though she had full opportunity of following up her charge, the grand jury being then sitting, having worn out her strange freak, permitted the plaintiff to be set at large. It was for this injury he now sought reparation. Mr Garrow then went into an able statement of the value of character to a professional man, and then entreated the jury to award him most ample damages.

Jacob Coffin, the constable, stated, that he was sent for to Cuckfield Place, on Sunday, the 23rd of March; he saw Mrs Serjeantson about five o’clock, in the bed room . He then detailed the conversation as Mr Garrow had stated, except as to the swearing :- she only said, if he let the plaintiff go she would play the devil with him. He took the plaintiff to the Talbot Inn, at Cuckfield, and there he delivered him into the care of Mr Crouch, the Headborough.

Thomas Crouch the Headborough, deposed, that he kept the plaintiff all night at Cuckfield. The next day he accompanied him to the Assizes at Horsham and in the evening, as Mrs Serjeantson preferred no regular charge against him, he permitted him to go at large.

Ann Green, the maid of Mrs Serjeantson said she remembered Mr Morgan coming to their house on the 10th of March after dinner. He slept there at night, and retired between 11 and 12. Her mistress did not retire to rest until five in the morning. After that visit her mistress used to throw out hints, such as

“Green, you know I am very correct in my account,” -

“Yes, Ma’am.” -

“I can take my oath to it,” -

“Of what, Ma’am?” -

“That the money is stolen."

At length, one morning, she said to the witness, "Green, sit down on my bed; remember I am going to place great confidence in you. I am robbed." –

“Really, Ma’am? When?” -

“On my son’s birthday. I will believe my own eyes. I saw Morgan shuffle the sixty guineas into his pocket"

"Really, Ma’am (said the waiting maid), and you let him go away?" –

“Yes; that was through delicacy."

After this conversation when Mr Morgan came the next time he was apprehended in the manner stated by the former witnesses. On cross-examination, she said, that on the night of the 10th Mr Morgan slept at Cuckfield Place; his room door was open in the morning; she went into it to delivered a message from her mistress. He breakfasted there, and nothing was said. It would have been quite easy to have detained and searched him, if her mistress had been so inclined. Her mistress, she said, was near 70, and about three years ago she married her last husband, who is about 30. They lived together about a twelvemonth.

Mr Garrow then would have offered evidence to show that the plaintiff had been a person of exemplary good character, but the Lord Chief Baron held that the character of every British subject must be presumed to be good until the contrary was shown.

Mr Serjeant Shephard, for the Defendant, addressed the jury in a very eloquent speech, in which he desired the jury not to give heavy damages. He argued that the defendant had acted from mistake, and it was from weakness of mind, and not from malignity that she had acted. He said, he could not induce a stronger proof of dotage, than that an old woman of 70 with £5000 per annum, should have, within three years, married a man of 30. He admitted the jury must give a verdict against her, but he hoped the damages would be temperate.

The Lord chief Baron observed to the jury, that this was a case which required the greatest attention, and a calm and temperate consideration. The plaintiff stood in this situation, that he must live by the goodness of his character, and the confidence he would thereby acquire with the public. He was not like a man who retailed cloth or other ways. The conduct of this woman had been to strangle this young gentleman, in the birth of his professional life. The jury had heard of what value character was to an attorney, and it had been well said, that there were two most opposite faces of that class. The bad ones were baffled hostes humani genesis, but then there were others as excellent. He then saw in court three of the latter character the Clerk of the Primus, who sat below him; the gentleman on his right hand, whose excellence he had known for 25 years past (Mr Mason, solicitor of the exercise), and the gentleman on the other side (Mr Jones, of Tunbridge); these were ornaments to their profession. The young gentleman, who complained before them on that day, had to complain, that as far as in the defendant lay, she had ruined his prospect of enjoying the fame character. He had suffered a grievous injury, and they would give him ample recompense. Verdict for plaintiff – damages 1000 Guineas.

hostes humani genesis - the enemy of human birth

primus - 'first order'

Headborough - a parish officer having the same role and function as a petty constable.

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