Back in the Victorian Belfast courtroom
Joe Baker dons the wig and sits in judgment

In last Monday’s Andersonstown News I read an interesting feature on a local publication and its editor’s comment that local historians should not carry out research in places such as libraries.

Where else are you meant to do it? The point being made was that local history should be taken from listening to people’s stories but leaving aside the hurdle of Chinese whispers this can have its serious problems. For example a long established local history magazine had informed its readers over the years that tragic incidents such as the McMahon family murders, the Arnon Street Massacre and Halfpenny Killings had been the work of the B-Specials and this was said to be based on people’s yarns. It was not until I carried out in-depth research in Dublin that I uncovered that it was in fact high ranking members of the RIC who were behind these atrocities and even named them.

Would this have occurred if I were not to visit the National Archives, National Library and Trinity College? I don’t think so, and I believe that the same magazine would have continued with the established lie that it was the work of the B-Specials.

Anyone who wants to carry out local historical research must use the local libraries as a starting point. I have demonstrated in previous features that old newspaper articles make fascinating reading and I have often reproduced them as their old style is absolutely brilliant. But one question I would like answered is would we ever have heard of the unique Owen Christie if I did not consult old records!

Tuesday, 20th April, 1858.
THE 136th TIME
The notorious Owen Christie was charged with being “drunk and disorderly and cursing the Pope.” He was fined in 5s, and costs, or a weeks imprisonment. He paid the fine.

Tuesday, 20th April, 1858.
Two very little boys, named John Macartney and Edward Kennedy, were charged with burglariously entering the store of Mr. Mc Laughlin, in West Street, and stealing there from some bolts and screws. The Judge discharged the boys on condition that their fathers would give them a good whipping.

Saturday, 1st May, 1858.
Letitia Loughran, a little girl, aged fourteen, was brought up, for the eleventh time, charged, on this occasion, with stealing a web of cotton from a large drapery establishment in town.
Constable McFarlan arrested the prisoner in Smithfield, on suspicion, when she was offering the article sale, and a young man proved the ownership of it, stating that it was the property of his employer. The prisoner, it appeared, from the ‘black book,’ had been in jail on ten previous occasions, having commenced her career of crime when only seven years of age.
She had been altogether seventeen months in jail, and, for the benefit of the public, this figure was increased to eighteen.

Thursday, 13th May, 1858.
THE 139th TIME
Owen Christie was brought up for the 139th time, this morning. A woman, named Catherine Seymour, charged him with “shouting and bawling” before her door, and, when she told him to desist, he used expressions towards her which she “would not say in court.”
Judge – Did he assault you?
Mrs. Seymour – He did, your worship. I hit him with a twig on the back, but it didn’t hurt him, and he then struck me with his fist.
Judge – Well, as you assaulted him first, he may be discharged.
Owen Christie thus escaped the chastisement he deserved – the first escape in his long law breaking career.

Thursday, 13th May, 1858.
Eliza Mullan, a character who is hardly ever out of jail, except when she is being carried to and from that institution, was charged, by the Barrack Street constable, with being “drunk and disorderly, and clodding stones,” in that street.
She had gathered a mob around her, and was very unruly while being conducted to the Police Office. She was sent to jail for another week, as she could not pay the fine imposed.

Wednesday, 19th May, 1858.
A poor silly looking creature, hailing from Gilford, was brought up, for the first time today. She was charged, by Constable Bell, with lying “crying in North Street, and knocking her head against the wall, threatening to take away her life." When the constable asked her to go with him, she shouted to him to get her “a place to drown herself," wishing as poor Tom Hood expresses it, in his mournful ditty, to be “anywhere, anywhere out of the world.” The Judge cautioned her as to her future conduct, and allowed her to be discharged.

Thursday, 20th May, 1858
THE 141st TIME
Owen Christie was brought up for the 141st time, charged with being “drunk and disorderly, and using obscene language in High Street.”
The prisoner, on being asked the usual questions said “Well, your worship I lost four ducks and a feather bed, and I was out looking for them, when this fellow ‘catched a hoult’ of me. I had only took one glass of whiskey, your worship. I’m an ill used, unfortunate man. Indeed, I am. I think there is not a brokenhearted man in Belfast.”
Judge - Well, you’ve to pay a fine of 5s, and costs.
Owen Christie – It’s a hard thing a man can’t get earning an honest livelihood.

Thursday, 20th May, 1858
John Craig was charged with playing at “pitch and toss,” in North Street, for which breach of propriety he was fined in 2s 6d.

Saturday, 24th July, 1858.
Thomas Morrow, a second edition of Owen Christie, was charged by Constable McMillan with “shouting and cursing, and making a great noise,” in Waring Street, on Friday night.
Prisoner – I am an unfortunate man, your honour. May God be good to you!
He was fined 2s, and costs.

Saturday, 31st July, 1858.
Agnes Hughes was charged with using obscene language towards one of her sisters in sin and wretchedness, and attempting to bite a constable who took her into custody.
She was imprisoned for two months.

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