The cases that changed Britain: 1785-1869 (Part I)

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Times Law Reports: from bottled snails to cannibalism
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June 19, 2008
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The cases that changed Britain: 1785-1869 (Part I)

From Times By Gary Slapper

It is a question to excite the repressed student in every lawyer: which cases have most shaped British law over the past 200 years? To celebrate the launch of The Times Archive, we asked Gary Slapper, Professor of Law, and director of the Centre for Law, at the Open University and long-time Times Law columnist, to trawl through more than two centuries of Times Law Reports and to pull out the 100 most important, influential and colourful cases since the newspaper began publishing in 1785.

Davies v East
January 8, 1788

This decision was a classic early example of the courts holding someone to the terms of a commercial bargain over goods whose quality he had inspected and accepted. The action was in Westminster, the defendant a cabinet maker who had agreed to purchase 13 mahogany logs for £18. The seller argued that the wood should be paid for as agreed but the buyer said that the batch of logs was worthless, as it differed from some of the samples he had inspected. There were holes in it “so great that you might put your head into them”; according to one wood expert, it was the “worst he ever saw”. But the verdict went in favour of the claimant, who was entitled to be paid the agreed price of £18 by the cabinet maker because the sale batch was, in general, the quality of wood he had agreed to buy.

Ormond v Payne
July 9, 1789

This colourful case involving a butcher and a prince’s coachman embodied the metropolitan bustle of the age; it was also notable in the development of personal injury actions. It concerned an ordinary man who was injured by a royal carriage. The claimant, George Ormond, was a butcher who lived in Turnham Green, West London. The defendant, Don Payne, looked after the affairs of the Prince of Wales at Carlton House. The butcher sued Payne after the Prince’s coachman, George Smith — for whom he was legally responsible under civil law — drove into the butcher’s cart, breaking his leg. The coachman, according to Ormond’s claim, was in a terrible hurry and “in liquor”. The moment the horses were harnessed and he had mounted the box, he had “called for a glass of gin, drank it, threw the glass violently upon the pavement, flogged his horses” and sped away at a gallop. The jury found that Payne was liable for the coachman’s actions and awarded £100 damages.

The King v Dodd
May 30, 1808

In the early 18th-century, investors poured money into the South Sea Company on the strengths of its hopes of a great trade with South America. In 1720 it collapsed. Many other companies failed around the same time, and joint stock organisations — whereby a company’s capital comes from shareholders — were discredited and eventually banned under the so-called “Bubble Act”. In 1808 the Act was used controversially against a businessman named Dodd. He had published a couple of prospectuses hoping to raise £50,000 by issuing shares but Lord Ellenborough, the Lord Chief Justice, ruled that such a scheme was unlawful. He said he hoped others would not engage in similar “mischievous and illegal projects”. In other words, commercial activity in 1808 was restricted to unincorporated partnerships, under which each partner is liable for all the business. Companies as we know them did not really become popular until the Companies Act 1844.

R v Burdett
November 28, 1820

The defendant, Sir Francis Burdett, was charged with seditious libel after he wrote a letter containing strong expressions about the conduct of the Government in dispersing the “mutiny” at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester on August 16, 1819. The letter claimed that unarmed men and women had been “inhumanly cut down, maimed and killed by the King’s Troops”. On the direction of Mr Justice Best that the letter was a poisonous libel, the defendant was found guilty, fined £2,000 and sentenced to three month’s imprisonment. It was upheld on appeal.

Collins v Godefroy
January 18, 1831

Collins, a London lawyer, agreed to testify in a civil trial on behalf of the defendant, Godefroy, in exchange for a fee of six guineas. A subpoena was issued. After the trial, however, Godefroy said he did not need to pay as Collins was legally obliged to attend once the subpoena was issued. The court agreed, finding that Collins would have given no value (known in legal terms as “consideration”) in return for the promised fee.

Vaughan v Menlove
August 2, 1836

In this case, heard on the Oxford circuit, a man sued his neighbour after two cottages burnt down because of a fire that started on the neighbour’s property. The neighbour had been told that a hayrick was a fire risk but ignored the advice. The court held that the claimant was entitled to compensation for his two cottages because the neighbour had been negligent. The case was notable for the test of negligence it used, which was to later become very influential. Mr Justice Patteson told the jury that they must decide whether the defendant, the hayrick owner, had acted as a man of “ordinary skill and judgment” would have acted under the circumstances.

Priestly v Fowler
January 17, 1837

In this case, a butcher was sued by an employee who broke his thigh and collarbone after he was thrown off a van loaded with meat. The court ruled that the employer was not liable under common law for an injury done to an employee because of the negligence of a fellow employee. The injured worker was presumed to have entered into his contract of employment with the full knowledge of the risks involved. This doctrine of “common employment” set the legal scene for the entire Industrial Revolution and prevented millions of negligently injured workers from suing. It was not abolished until 1948.

Attwood v Small
March 27, 1838

This case established an important point on the principle of misrepresentation in contract law. Mr Small purchased a mine and ironworks in Staffordshire from Mr Attwood. The sale went through after the property had been inspected by Small’s own experts. Six months later, he discovered that he had been misled. He sought to rescind the contract on the ground of misrepresentation. The House of Lords held that the action must fail because Small had not just relied on the statements of the defendant but on the reassurance of independent reports he had commissioned.

M’Kinnell v Robinson
May 1, 1838

The defendant borrowed £30 from the claimant. In lending it, the claimant knew that the money was to be used in playing Hazard, an illegal game of chance. It was held that the claimant could not recover this sum as it was lent for the express purpose of a violation of the law. The decision consolidated the principle that the law will not enforce a contract for an illegal purpose.

Stockdale v Hansard
April 26, 1839

This case was important for the way it clarified the powers of Parliament. Stockdale, who published an explicit medical book, sued Hansard, the publisher of Parliamentary proceedings, for defamation. He claimed he had been libelled in a prison inspector’s report published by Hansard that said his medical text was “disgusting and obscene”. Hansard said it was entitled to publish the inspector’s report as it was protected by parliamentary privilege. The court held that such a protective privilege did not exist. Publication of the report in question was not authorised by an Act of Parliament but merely by a vote of the House of Commons. In other words: an Act is supreme and can create law, but a simple resolution from the House of Commons, such as in this case, does not bind the courts.

Inquest into death of Bridget Groke
January 4, 1840

This coroner’s case is a vivid example of the sort of deprivation common to the era. Headed “Horrid case of destitution”, this harrowing inquest looked at the death of a three-year-old girl who had died in Sandgate, London. The verdict of the jury was one of “death by natural causes”, although a number of factors were cited in the case including the general and social conditions at the time and the behaviour of an “inhuman mother”. Something of the flavour of the story can be gathered from the opening paragraph: “It is almost impossible to convey the slightest idea of the retched hovel in which the decreased child was found . . . The room was low and naturally dark; and the light of a fire sent an unearthly glare around the place where the author of the recently published Fortunes of Godolphin [Nicholas Michell] might have gained many an idea, which might have enabled him to make the Sepulchre more descriptive where the gypsy was entombed alive.”

R v St George
August 10, 1840

At a trial for attempting to fire a loaded firearm, the court considered whether, by pointing an unloaded pistol at someone, a common law assault had been committed. George Hanbury St George had been indicted for pointing the pistol at Bruce Ernest Darant and attempting to pull the trigger with intent to murder him. The court decided that it was an assault if the weapon had the appearance of being loaded (thus causing “fear and alarm”) and the range was such that it would have endangered life if it had been fired.

Merry v Green
February 13, 1841

Finder’s keepers? Not in this case. The claimant purchased a bureau at a public auction sale and afterwards discovered a secret drawer that, unknown to anyone at the time of the sale, contained a considerable sum of money. The Court held that lawful possession of the money had not passed to the claimant.

Quarrier v Coulson
January 28, 1842

This case arose from the gambling of an army captain who was alleged to be “of intemperate habits” and addicted to gambling “when in a state of intoxication”. Money was lent to him for the purposes of gaming at public tables in Germany, where it was lawful. The court held that his debts could be recovered in the English courts as such an action could have been maintained successfully in Germany.

Foss v Harbottle
March 27, 1843

This was a ruling of major significance in company law. The law has since been revised but this case is necessary to understand many company cases as it is always referred to. Two shareholders in the Victoria Park Company brought an action against the company’s directors for fraudulently acquiring, at inflated prices, property in which the directors had a personal interest. They were also sued for making false statements at company meetings. What this case decided was that when a director of a company acted in breach of his duty, only the company — and not individuals — could be the claimant in an action to secure a remedy. A similar rule applies today, although there are now, under the Companies Act 2006, circumstances in which individual shareholders can pursue actions against directors for some breaches of duty.

R v Millis
February 24, April 4, 1844

In this dispute over whether a marriage was valid, the House of Lords ruled that a marriage must be contracted per verba de praesenti. That means by words exchanged as an agreement in the present tense as opposed to in the future tense. The betrothal words had to be in phrases such as “I take thee to be my wife” and “I take thee to be my husband” — not “I will take thee”. That had been recognised before but in this case the Lords decided that for a valid marriage such betrothals also had to be done in front of a priest.

R v Hall (alias Rollins)
April 3, 1845

Thomas Hall, alias Rollins, “a poor man not possessed of a farthing, or a farthing’s worth in the world”, was indicted for bigamy. His first wife, Mary Ann, had robbed him then “sallied forth” with their child and set up another family with another man. Hall went to try to have her apprehended but was beaten up by Mary Ann’s new lover. Hall gave up trying to get her back and eventually remarried, but without divorcing Mary Ann first. In an unusually sardonic judgment, Mr Justice Maule, sitting at Warwick, said his later marriage was understandable but that Hall should have procured a divorce in the way a rich man would — by going to the House of Lords and ecclesiastic courts and spending up to £600. Being poor was not an excuse, the judge said. He hoped the four months hard labour he gave Hall would be a warning about the dangers of trifling with matrimony.

Hartley v Ponsonby
June 5, 1857

If you want to sue over a contract, you must prove you have given the other party something of value, as this ruling demonstrates. The facts were these: 19 out of 36 of a ship’s crew deserted, leaving it short of hands to complete its voyage safely. In order to persuade the rest of the crew to keep going, the master promised to pay each an additional £40. When the ship was safely back in port, the master refused to pay, saying the seamen had merely done their jobs. But a court held that the men were entitled to the money. Their original agreement didn’t require them to sail the ship if it became unseaworthy, therefore the master’s promise constituted a new contract.

Pearce v Brooks
April 18, 1866

Another landmark case demonstrating that the courts will not enforce contracts that have been made for an unlawful purpose. A firm of coachbuilders supplied a prostitute, Miss Brooks, with a brougham, a closed carriage. She did not pay the hire charge, so they sued her. But the court decided that the claimant’s action must fail: the contract was void because, in supplying the brougham in the knowledge that it was to be used for prostitution, the firm had contributed to an immoral act.

Foster v Mackinnon
December 15, 1868

This was a key decision in illustrating the idea that someone can’t be held to an agreement if he was tricked into entering it. To be held to a contract you must have made it freely and voluntarily. In this case, an old and feeble man was induced into signing his name on the back of a bill of exchange, believing that he was signing a guarantee. The court decided that because he signed without knowing it was a bill of exchange and hadn’t been negligent in signing, he should be released from liability.


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