Alston's First World War "War Crimes" Prosecutions at Alston Magistrates’ Court
ABSENTEES FROM THE ARMY
On 16th August 1915 Thomas Baines was charged and found guilty of being a deserter from the army and handed to a military escort. Next month, on 23rd September, Walter Ralph, who had enlisted in the Northumberland Fusiliers in October 1914, was charged with being an absentee from the army. He also was remanded to be handed over to the escort. Sadly he was killed a year later, in September 1916.
The penalties for absenteeism were increased for a short time in 1916. On 9th September John Watson was found guilty of being absent from the army and, as well as being handed to the escort, he was ordered to pay a heavy fine of £2, which was a good two weeks’ wages in those days. The same punishment was dealt out the very next week, on 15th September, to Thomas Cannon, who was also an absentee from the army. Yet four months later, on 10th January 1917, Thomas Ferguson was only remanded for the escort, without the fine.
A week after this, on 19th January 1917, another case came to court. Seven miners had been waiting at Alston railway station to board the 6.35am train to work at Plenmeller Colliery, further down the line near Haltwhistle, when they were arrested by the local police with the assistance of some special constables.
John Cousin, Thomas E. Edgar, Charles Hymers, Edwin Rutherford, Hugh Short, Joseph R. Stout and Thomas W. Stout were detained in the cells at Alston police station to be brought before the magistrates court the following Saturday, where they were prosecuted for being absentees. Until the previous October they had been lead miners at Nenthead, and as such they had been granted certificates of exemption from military service by Alston Tribunal on condition that they remained lead miners. Their fault was that they had become coal miners but had failed to report their change of occupation. All seven were charged with being absentees from the army under the Military Services Act and the court handed them to the military authorities. This case was reported in the Haltwhistle Echo on the 26th January, followed next day by the Hexham Courant and the Hexham Herald.
Charles Hymers of Nentbury enlisted and was wounded in the summer of 1918. Thomas Stout of Low Galligill joined the 1st Battalion of the Border Regiment that same month, January 1917. He was wounded in August and brought back to England to recover. He returned to France in March 1918 but was killed in April 1918 at the age of 27. We don’t know about the others.
THE DEFENCE OF THE REALM ACT
On 6th July 1917, Ralph Gowland, Joseph Henry Henderson, Clarence Lowe and James W. Robinson and were charged under the Defence of the Realm Act for illicit dealings in ‘Motor Spirit’. Their offence could not have been serious because they were let off with only the court costs to pay.
On the same day, William Salkeld, a fruiterer on Front Street, was also charged with an offence under the Defence of the Realm Act, this time for contravening food control regulations. He too was ordered only to pay costs.
A few months later, on 7th December 1917, John J. Bright, William Richardson and George A. Dickinson were charged under the Defence of the Realm Act, this time over the sale of horses. George Dickinson had two charges listed against him, presumably for separate offences. Again the faults cannot have been serious and the three men were ordered to pay costs.
Alston Moor was quick off the mark in 1914 to offer sanctuary to Belgian refugees, who proved to be law-abiding citizens, eager to contribute to their host community wherever they could. But on 3rd December 1915 Eliza Oudermans, age 25, a Belgian living at Hillcrest (now Alston House), was brought before Alston magistrates where she was charged with failing to notify a change of address, to which she pleaded not guilty. Eliza’s offence was having stayed with Belgian friends in Newcastle for a weekend. As an alien she could have been fined £100 or given six months in prison, two heavy penalties, but instead she was discharged with a caution on her promise not to re-offend.
Three months later, on 3rd March 1916, Margaret Halkier, of Wellgill near Nenthead, was charged with being an alien who had failed to register. Margaret, although she was English, was classed as an alien because she was the wife of a German. She had failed to register as such and so she was liable to prosecution. She pleaded that she had two sons in the British army and that since her German husband had died she had married an Englishman, John Gull, on 27th February 1916. Margaret was not prosecuted but she was ordered to pay costs. This was reported in the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald the next day, 4th March 1916.
Finally, on 3rd November 1916, Mary Denwood was charged with the contravention of the ‘Aliens Restriction Order’ and fined 10 shillings, but what her offence was we don’t know.
On 1st March 1918, a consortium of coiners was brought to justice. Arthur W. Coulthard, Thomas Foster Potts, Joseph S. Herdman, Wilfred Herdman, A. E. Renwick and Arthur R. Renwick were severely cautioned for coining, and only a month later, on 5th April, William Renwick and Vernon Renwick were also severely cautioned for the same offence.
The crime of coining relates to the manufacture of fake money, paper or metal, or to the alteration of legal tender to make it appear to be of a different value. Quite how the gang did it we don’t know but their offence can’t have been too serious. But if they had committed their crime in the 18th century they could have been put to death because coining was an act of treason.
Thankfully the residents of Alston and their ‘alien’ guests did not get up to anything more serious than these petty crimes.