Judge Bacon And The Doctor

Walking through the streets of London you often notice round metal plates that are dotted along the pavements outside the older houses.

These are, in fact, coal holes.

It was through these that the coal was delivered to each house in a street and many of them are extremely ornate – almost works of art in their own right.

A photograph of a coal hole.
A coal hole In Doughty Street.


However, coal holes could be something of a hazard to pedestrians if, for example, they were left open without any warning that there happened to be a drop through the pavement.

The South Wales Daily News, on Saturday, 10th December 1898, reported on just such a case that ended up in court:-

“At the Whitechapel County Court (before Judge Bacon), a widow named Elizabeth Murgatroyd brought an action against Mr Chas. Brown, a baker, of 36, Cable street, E., for damages sustained on the night of September 15th last by falling through the defendant’s coal-hole, the plate of which had been left unfastened.

The Plaintiff stated that she was a dressmaker, and that in consequence of the injuries received she had been unable to work and had sustained damage to the amount of £50.


The chief witness was the plaintiff’s little daughter, a pretty, fair-headed child, whose head barely reached above the ledge of the witness box.

Judge Bacon (to the child):- “Come on to the bench near me. Now, don’t be frightened. Do you go to school and have you any religious education?”

The Child:- “Yes, sir, I go to Sunday school, and to the Board school.”

Judge Bacon:- “Do you know the Ten Commandments?”

The Child:- “Yes, sir.”

Judge Bacon:- “Then you know the ninth, which says, “Though shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” What does that mean?”

The Child:- “Not to tell stories, sir.”

Judge Bacon:- “You may be sworn, for you know if you say anything against Mr. Brown to help your mother to get a verdict you will be committing a sin against your neighbour.”


The plaintiff, having been corroborated by her child and other witnesses, Dr. Frederick James Oxley said that in addition to her other injuries the plaintiff had suffered from an attack of bronchitis, induced by the shock. The lung was really a continuation of the bronchial tubes, and nothing more.

Judge Bacon (sarcastically):- “Oh is it? Well, as a member of the College of Physicians, you ought to know better than I do. (Laughter.)”

In cross-examination, the witness admitted that he had said the plaintiff was suffering from partial paralysis of the deltoid muscle.

Judge Bacon:- “Isn’t that rather a high-flown way to describe a sprain – “paralysis of the deltoid muscles?” (Laughter.)

Witness:- “I am thinking of paralysis in its slightest form.”

Judge Bacon:- “Yes, so slight that it does not exist.” (Laughter.)

Dr. Oxley went on to say that he had prescribed gentian, chloroform, and other narcotic drugs.

Judge Bacon:- “Isn’t it a wonder she has survived?” (Laughter.)

Witness (joining in the laughter):- “Perhaps, your Honour, but she is here.”


It having been admitted that the plate had been left unfastened, Judge Bacon gave judgment for the plaintiff for £5. 5s and costs, saying that he could not accept without further evidence the statement of the doctor that bronchitis – which was something outside the system – could be induced by shock, as gout might be. Gout was undoubtedly something within the system.”

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