Worst Village – 1. Mr Buckingham Pope in Witness Box

May 1900

The article by the “Christian Budget” which referred to Denaby Main as the “worst village in England ” in 1899 was the background to the Court Case as the Eastern Morning and Hull News sought to link Mr Buckingham Pope, the Chairman of the Collieries to the conditions described in the article in the village

South Yorkshire Times May 11, 1900

A Libel on Denaby village.

Mr Buckingham Pope in the Witness Box

Before Mr Justice Grantham and a special jury, in the Queen’s bench on Monday, the case of Pope v Eastern Morning and Hull news came on for trial.

It was the action by Mr John Buckingham Pope, chairman of the Denaby Main and Cadeby colliery company, to recover £3000 damages for alleged libel published in the defendants newspapers on November 24 last.

Defendant admitted publication, and that the matter was libel, they said it was published without malice or gross negligence, and they had already apologised, and they paid £10 10s into Court as sufficient to satisfy damages.

Mr Tindal Atkinson, in opening the case, said the main question was that of damages. Defendant having admitted publication of the libel, but under Lord Campbell’s Act they defended the action on the ground that having inserted the libel without malice and negligence, and having apologised, the small damages their paid into court were sufficient.

Mr Pope, the plaintiff was chairman not only of the Denaby Main Colliery company, but also of the South Yorkshire railway, an undertaking which ran between the colliery and the Hull and Barnsley railway system. Issues have arisen between the management of the two railway, litigation was still going on, and in these matters. Mr Pope had taken a strong line. Nine months ago the “Eastern morning News” had to pay damages to Mr Pope in a libel action brought against them, and their subsequent comments sure that normal was lost between the litigants.

Last November and opportunity occurred to again hit at Mr Pope. In the “Christian budget” there appeared an article “Roads to Ruin: Betting and Gambling: The Worst Vuillage in England,” and that article purported to be a  a description of Denaby village, which if true , would fully have justify the title attached to it, for it fully represented the place as a veritable hell on earth.

On November 23 the Westminster Gazette contained reference to the article, and made quotations from it. Next day the defendant seized the opportunity to republish this  libellous Matter, which was in the following terms:

Mr Buckingham Pope might develop some of the leisure time which he can spare for the task of instructing the Hull and Barnsley railway company into the way it should go to the more pressing work of promoting reforms nearer home. Last night the Westminster Gazette contained some scathing comments on the picture of the village of Denaby Main, the colliery community which Mr Pope’s enterprise has called into existence. Denaby has been described, it seems, by a religious journal as the “worst village in England,” and if the statements are not overdrawn the unenviable title is fairly justified. The miners who inhabited make excellent money – where father and sons are employed sometimes as much as £6 or £8 per family per week  – but it all goes in drink and gambling. We read:

“The regular method of living in Denaby is to pay debts on Saturday and get things out of pawn, spend all the remainder of the wages on Saturday night and Sunday and start pawning on Monday morning again. On Saturday afternoon and evening, in particular, the place is like a pandemonium. When the men get their wages, many of them start playing pitch and toss with it. I know one case where the man lost all his money in this way – several pounds – before he could even reach the public house. Then he drew out his watch. “Coom on,” he cried, “I beant done yet. Who will toss me thirty bob on this? ”

The first rush on Saturday is to the public house. The colliery company, with a philanthropy worthy of all praise, has resolved that the poor fellows shall not have far to go. It has built a great public house of its own, and a manager in charge. The profits of this place must be enormous; rumour places them as at 50% of the money invested. The house is full continually, and on Saturdays and Sundays, in particular, the scenes that go on around it are amazing in their grotesque horror. Not long since, the already extensive premises were increased by the addition of a great tap-room or “boozey” as it is locally called. At five o’clock on Saturday the house is by old custom, closed for an hour, to make the men go home and give their wives some of the money. Many of the best inhabitants of the place defend the colliery company for building and managing this public house. They say that if it did not, other people would start public houses, which would be under less control than it is. And if profits are to be made through the drink, why should not the company have the profits as well as any others? No doubt the company, in all its relations with the people, does what appears to it to be right and fair.

An old Irishman who lives in the neighbourhood once well summed up the situation. He was so troublesome on Saturday night that the policeman had to take charge of him. Then going along with the constable, he turned reflective “This is a funny place, he said “first we go to the office to get the money, then the company gives a place where we can pay the money back to them, and then, when the money is gone, it provides you to take care of us.” There is no need here to describe the scenes in the village on Saturday and Sunday, the drinking and tossing everywhere, the foul language from children and adults of both sexes, the attacks on policeman when they tried to arrest a specially indecent or dangerous wretch. “Don’t let him take you, Bill,” they cry. “Kick him. Knock his `ead in!” that may be imagined. On Monday morning the village wakes up. The drinkers, of course, do not go to work on that day. Work on Monday when they can earn all they want in four or five days a week? Not they. Saint Monday is sacred, and often Saint Tuesday too. But on Monday morning the wives start their work. They begin the weekly the procession to the pawn shop that continues till Saturday morning. They want money not so much for food as for drink and bets.

There is no secret at all about the gambling at Denaby or in the neighbouring township of Mexborough. The bookmakers stand openly at certain well-known spots, and they are the best-known characters in the village. They were, most of them, once miners themselves, and still wear the rough pitmen’s dress.”

We forbear from quoting the lurid details of family and social life village unless the Dantesque gloom of the picture should suggest possible exaggeration. The “Westminster Gazette” however, which is not given to sensationalism, concludes that despite its prosperity and it is eight hours day, a place which ought to be a paradise seems, if the account given only be correct, to come very near being a hell.

In justice to the Denaby Main Company it should be added that a church was recently erected from its funds and we can only remark that the ministrations of the clergyman appear to be not at all superfluous.

The sting of the libel said the learned counsel, was not only the gross misdescription of the village, not even the suggestion that Denaby and Cadeby Main, the company was responsible for, but that Mr Buckingham Pope, whose name had been unnecessarily dragged in, was the person responsible for the condition of things described in the article.

As soon as the attention of the Westminster Gazette was directed to the character of this matter they immediately published an ample apology. Plaintiff did not demand an apology from defendants. He had bad dealings with them before, and once issued a writ. After that the defendant did publish a retraction and expressions of regret, stowed away in the back pages of the newspaper and this was wholly insufficient. He would not again give the defendants the opportunity of saying that Mr Pope would not go into the witness box , for he would at once put him there to tell his case to the jury.

Mr John Buckingham Pope, the plaintiff, examined, by Mr Bankes, said that about a year ago. He had had to bring an action against and jury gave him £100 damages. They said that one of his circulars was a lie. After that they published an article describing him as a person in whom the litegous propensity was enormously developed, but nevertheless he would not go into the witness box. This article, which purported to describe life in Denaby village, in no way converted a true picture. The Denaby and Cadeby Colliery Companyy had built a church, schools, Institutes and had given almost every advantage that it was possible to give to a mining village.

Cross examined by Mr Roskill, Denaby and Cadeby Main had been in litigation with the Hull and Barnsley Railway Co. Mr Forbes, chairman of the latter, had alluded at a shareholders meeting to a circular emanating from the Denaby and Cadeby Main Company and was signed by the secretary.

Commenting upon that circular, Mr Forbes had said that with regard to its statement. “There was only a monosyllable in the language which was often preceded by a sanguinary word, that would directly describe them, and perhaps he had better say something more polite, and say they were mere inventions.” He saw the circular and settled its terms with the other direction before he went out.

Did you write it – I assisted in writing it with the other directors.

Mr Justice Grantham: I cannot have this. You are getting back to the last action

Mr Roskill said the other side had made a point of it. (To witness) Your action was brought because instead of calling that circular a Denaby Main and Denaby Colliery company circular the newspapers called it “Mr Pope’s circular.” That was your grievance.?

That was calling me a sanguinary, etc, and so the jury thought.

Mr Roskill (hotly) You have no right to say that. At the last trial you did not go into the witness box ?

Because there was no necessity.

Mr Justice Graham: I am not to try that again. Are you endeavouring to show that there was no malice on your part?

Mr Roskill said that was his object. (To witness): Mr Pope, you are barrister, I believe, and know the rules of evidence? – Yes or am supposed to. (Laughter.)

Questioned further the witness said that the libel appeared on November, 29th and he issued the writ in this action on December 1st. On November 30 defendant published an apology, and on January 16 following they again published an apology under the title “Denaby Main Vindicated,” saying that they could not attempt to justify the language the article they had reproduced from the “Christian Budget.” He had not taken action against the last mentioned journal.

At this stage the learned judge, it being 3:30 o’clock, liberated the jury in order that they might go down to the Thames embankment enjoying in the welcome of the Powerful´s sailors, giving them a ticket of admission to the Temple gardens for the purpose, and the court rose until Tuesday.

Tuesday’s proceedings

Mr Buckingham Pope, the plaintiff, again went into the witness box for further cross examination.

On the question whether Mr Peto and Mr Chambers with two of his co-directors, Mr Justice Grantham asked what has that to do with the case?

Mr Roscoe explained that inaction had previously been brought by this gentleman against the defendant, in which he recovered damages.

Mr Justice Grantham: but I am not going to allow you to retry that other action. It is a waste of time.

Mr Roskill (to witness): do you  hold 3000 out of 5000 ordinary shares in – Mr Justice Grantham (interrupted): the only question in this case is whether 10 guineas damages is enough. You accuse plaintiff of having brought into existence a perfect devil of a colliery village, a hell upon Earth, and you say, 10 guineas is enough for that. I should have thought it was heaping coals of fire or your own head to ask him these questions.

Mr Roskill observed that if defendant had known on the previous occasion. What they knew now Mr Pope’s admission in the witness box, he would not have got a farthing.

Mr Justice Grantham: that is the very point. That shows I am right in stopping you. We are not retrying the other action.

Witness was re-examined by Mr Tindal Atkinson – you have been asked why you did not accept the apology put in the defendant’s paper.

One of my reasons was that I had been persistently libelled by the “Eastern Morning. News” for a very considerable number of years.

Do you believe that this was a bone fide error or a mistake?

Not in the least.

This closed the plaintiff’s case.

Mr Robson intimated that the defendant would call no witnesses.