In 1825, a row broke out in the Court of King’s Bench in London regarding a Gloucestershire magistrate, Colonel William Fitzhardinge Berkeley (1786-1857), who, it had been alleged, had committed an assault.
The assault trial had been due to be carried out in Gloucestershire, until an individual had pointed out that Berkeley was unlikely to gain a fair trial in his home county. As one lawyer pointed out,
“he is a member of the Berkeley Hunt, he is the founder and president of a club called the Gloucestershire Whip Club, and he possesses very large property in that county…” (The Morning Post, 23 June 1825)
- so it might be assumed that he would know members of the jury, and possibly the judge in the case as well.
It was proposed by one individual that the case be moved to Middlesex, but Berkeley’s counsel retorted, that “it is the undoubted right of the plaintiff to lay his venue in any county he pleases.”
The court tried to negotiate for a trial in the neighbouring counties of Worcestershire or Herefordshire, and affidavits were received that as Berkeley’s interests and contacts were primarily in the neighbourhood of Berkeley, that a trial held elsewhere in Gloucestershire should be acceptable.
It then emerged that the assault case had been brought by a newspaper editor, who, it was argued, “possessed considerable influence, and might be more capable of enforcing it than Col. Berkeley” – an allegation that brought a smile to the judges in court.
Only at this point did someone point out that the colonel was not only a local hunt big-wig, but also a magistrate for Gloucestershire – and that “it will not be very discreet for him to be tried for an assault in a country where he acts in such a capacity.”
This argument swayed the court, and the case was duly transferred to Herefordshire.
As an aside, the court would, no doubt, have been aware of Colonel Berkeley’s form as a defendant. Four years earlier, he had been tried at the Gloucester Assizes for criminal conversation – adultery with the wife of one Mr Waterhouse. The trial report is now held by Harvard University Library. And in 1824, he was involved in a scandal involving the seduction of one Miss Foote, whom he promised marriage to, reneged on that promise, but then continued to stalk her after she began a relationship with another man. He had also fought, unsuccessfully, to inherit his father’s title after doubt was cast on his legitimacy. Just the kind of upright pillar of society you’d expect to find as local magistrate in Regency Gloucestershire… but, surprisingly, he died a bachelor.