Thomas Grant QC is a practising barrister and author non-fiction books about the world of criminal law. His first book, Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories was a Sunday Times bestseller. The Crime Hub has reviewed his latest book, Court Number One.
Court Number One – Thomas Grant
Heroes and villains, wretches and schemers, reversals of fortune and life or death decisions: courtroom dramas have all the elements of a perfect narrative. No wonder they have such enduring appeal. Especially when, as in Thomas Grant QC’s latest book, the dramas in question arise out of the public examination of very real frailties and some of the darkest deeds our country has had the misfortune to witness.
All the dramas here take place in Court Number One at the Central Criminal Court – better known as the Old Bailey – in London between 1907 and 2003.
Grant, himself a practising barrister, has chosen 11 trials heard in Court Number One – more or less one per decade – which he considers significant in what they reveal about our society as it was at the time the trial took place, its morals and sensitivities, preoccupations and prejudices.
It is a riveting read.
Of the 11 trials he has chosen to explore, 7 involved allegations of murder, actual or planned. Some will be familiar – they have passed into modern folklore and been the subject of on-screen dramas: the by now very well-known trial of Jeremy Thorpe, for example, recently so superbly dramatised on television in A Very British Scandal, with Hugh Grant pitch perfect as Thorpe and that of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, glitteringly portrayed on screen by Miranda Richardson the 1985 film Dance with a Stranger.
Others are less well-known: the trial for murder of Marguerite Fahmy, the French wife of an Egyptian aristocrat who shot her husband dead in 1923 and the trial of Robert Wood for the “Camden Town Murder” in 1907.
Whether familiar or not, however, each chapter gives us a mini drama, complete with social and historical context, dramatis personae, extracts from courtroom exchanges and photographs.
There are notable omissions, inevitable when the list of those tried in this courtroom would form a rogues’ gallery a mile long: the Kray twins, poor Stephen Ward of Profumo-scandal fame, George “Brides in the Bath” Smith, Dr Crippen, the Rev (as he is these days) Jonathan Aitken, Dennis Nilsen and the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe are but some of those whose trials are not included.
The absence of ghoulish prurience in Grant’s choices serve the book well. No hammer house of horror, this.
Instead, a narrative where historic and dramatic detail marry to pull us into the courtroom and cause us to hold our breath as the events unfold, just as the jury and the public must have done at the time. Even when we know the end of the story.
The scene for each of the dramas, Court Number One itself, has become symbolic of the justice system in this country to the extent that not only did Jeffrey Archer, no stranger to the Central Court building himself, set The Accused in Court Number One but the film director Billy Wilder had an exact replica of Court Number One constructed in Hollywood, at great cost, when he filmed Witness for the Prosecution in 1957.
Grant gives us a glimpse of how it must have been seen by those who have enjoyed – or rather endured -its welcome. Some were overwhelmed by its intimidating atmosphere: John Vassall, the Soviet spy, facing trial in 1962 described himself feeling “absolutely insignificant” within the confines of the courtroom. Some, it seems, were rather less so: Jonathan Aitken recalled thinking “it looked and felt like a rather run-down municipal swimming-baths”.
There is a brief history of the building at the end of the book for those who want more factual detail, but the interesting question for Grant is how the courtroom itself may affect the course of a trial as much as the prevailing mores of the outside world. Would juries react differently to some witnesses if they could see them face-on, rather than – owing to Court Number One’s peculiar lay-out – in profile only? Are witnesses’ testimonies affected by the witness box being so uncomfortable?
There are, as always, in courtroom dramas, real or imagined, barristers and judges of varying ability and levels of charisma. Grant brings them to life deftly, letting their own words speak for them. Titans of the Bar such as Marshall Hall and Carmen rise up off the page, thrilling in their brilliance, though neither comes out completely unscathed from Grant’s descriptions of their methods and/ or personal foibles. The frankly racist defence of Marguerite Fahmy by Marshall Hall is perhaps the clearest illustration of an advocate playing to the public prejudices of the time.
It was 1923 and the defendant had shot dead her Egyptian husband, “Prince” Ali Fahmy Bey, while they stayed at the Savoy. Eye-witnesses had seen the fatal act. The trial attracted the prurient: it had all the hallmarks of a bodice-ripper, particularly as Marshall Hall asserted that Ali went in for “unnatural practices” and that Mrs Fahmy was nothing more than an innocent white woman seduced and abused by her sodomite Middle-Eastern husband. Grant calls the defence’s case “an amalgam of the Marquis de Sade and the Bluebeard story”. Mrs Fahmy’s acquittal was inevitable, despite the evidence against her, the case having provided titillation and scandal aplenty for the public gallery, which was full to bursting with those enjoying the soap-opera unfolding before them. Such were the mores of the 1920s in Britain.
Similarly Jeremey Thorpe’s acquittal was to some extent down to Carmen painting him as a victim of the homophobia of his era. Grant describes him as a man who, “whatever his persona failings, was a victim of his times”. But it was perhaps as much if not more down to what was then and remains to this day deference to authority figures and an unwillingness on the part of the public – of whom juries were and are (in theory at least) a representative selection- to condemn someone who has been a public figure of repute, no matter what the evidence against them.
The scandalously prejudicial – and now notorious – summing up in that case by Mr Justice Cantley, which was unforgettably parodied by Peter Cook at The Secret Policeman’s Ball, just days after the verdict, whilst hilarious in hindsight, illustrated just how deep that reverence for authority ran. For a High Court judge to describe a prosecution witness as “a hysterical, warped personality, accomplished sponger…a crook…a fraud…a sponger… a whiner…a parasite” was jaw-dropping then as it would be now.
Grant is clear that the morals of the times were reflected in the verdicts of these selected trials in Court No 1. There were those who escaped the noose on that basis but those same morals saw others wrongly sent to their deaths. Timothy Evans, perhaps the most tragic of the figures in these pages, was hanged in 1950 for the murder of his wife. John Christie, his neighbour and so-called friend, was the real culprit, as the authorities were later to find out, although not until he had killed other women. The convenience of Evans’ confession, his changes in account and his inability to withstand cross-examination allowed the jury to reach their dreadful conclusion. Evans kept insisting “Christie done it” but his inept or uncaring barrister failed properly to present his defence and the judge, in the worst tradition of vicious old beaks, showed equal disdain for the truth and described Evans’s evidence as a “ performance”.
Convenience won out over justice on that occasion, as it had before and doubtless has done since. But for Evans, that victory meant execution. The death penalty had been vigorously debated in the House of Commons only 2 years before his death, and a motion to suspend it for a period of 5 years had been carried, only to be reversed almost immediately by the House of Lords.
Ruth Ellis suffered the same fate in 1955, having shot her lover, David Blakely in the street. She had been the victim of repeated violence at his hands – efforts were made as recently as the 1990s by family members to overturn the conviction on the basis that she was a victim of “battered woman syndrome” and should have had the defence of provocation left open to her at her trial.
Those efforts fell on deaf ears but the debate over the death penalty raged on until its abolition just over a decade later
Grant treats these subjects respectfully, regretfully even. Politics are never far away and we are given just enough context for these verdicts in particular to make their impact all the more dreadful.
By contrast the account of what seems, on the face of it, the least exciting case in the book, that of William Joyce or “Lord Haw-Haw” shows the law working quietly and unsensationally inside the courtroom. His 1945 trial was concerned with whether he could be found guilty of treason but turned on his nationality rather than what he had actually done. In the face of huge public feeling the court carried out its role perfectly, fairness rather than playing to the public gallery being demonstrated at each turn.
The final chapter of the book deals with the so-called “Soham murders”, the only trial in this book of which I have any clear recollection. It makes for chilling reading. That police information sharing and more stringent checks of those seeking employment were put into place as a result of this case still seems like too little, too late.
Grant’s skill is balancing the meditative with the dramatic, the poignant with the hilarious. There is, despite the subject matter, plenty of humour throughout, not least from judges bewildered by “that Greek chap, clitoris”, but this is ultimately a study of how the law, operating within the microcosm of Court Number One, reflects the society within which it operates, for better and for worse.