Newspaper in hot water over description of row involving Preston rector’s wife

Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at a robust newspaper stroy that caused a ruckus in the community

In the ‘Preston Chronicle’ in early December 1873 an article appeared titled ‘Great Commotion About A Drop Of Water’ it concerned an incident at Leyland.

A few days earlier whilst an open carriage was passing along Water Street a woman who had been busy cleaning her dishes, and was blissfully unaware of the approaching carriage, threw the remains of her washing-up slops into the street from her front door that was several stone steps above street level. The water startled the horse, but it did not bolt, and the lady in the carriage ordered her coachman to halt and immediately stepped from the carriage and proceeded to verbally castigate the woman, attracting the attention of the entire neighbourhood.

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Not content with having given the woman a dressing down the lady made the matter known to the police, suggesting that she had been within a hair’s breadth of being maimed for life had it not been for her brave coachman who reigned the horse masterfully. For the act of blessing the street with a little dirty water the woman was escorted from her work at the mill the next day to attend the lady’s home and beg her pardon.

Although the article in the newspaper did not name the people involved there was no disguising that the lady was Mrs. Sparling the wife of the Rev. John Sparling, the rector of Eccleston.

The article including the following ‘the other day a lady whose tongue and temper are of the most masculine type, and whose contours remind some people of what may be considered a cross between a condensed Queen Elizabeth and a fish wife was driving in an open carriage through Water Street, Leyland. Her Ladyship is the wife of a rural magistrate, and he is also a parson, who gets paid for teaching that religion which tells people, to love their enemies; but her Ladyship can’t swallow that idea.’

The article also included the following - ‘On arriving at the place where she had to beg pardon, her Ladyship gave the woman an awful scorching with her tongue – such as she had never experienced in her life before and she was only forgiven on the solemn understanding that during her residence in Water Street she would in future only throw her slops out the back door.’

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The Rev. Sparling made his displeasure known about the article, written by the editor Anthony Hewitson. Even though the newspaper printed what they called a correction a couple of weeks later he proceeded with a libel action. This despite the Chronicle having offered in mid-January to print a further apology drawn up by the Sparling’s lawyer and pay their costs to that date of £80.

In early March 1874 the libel case of Sparling and Wife versus Hewitson was held at Lancaster Assizes, before His Lordship Baron Amphlett. The plaintiffs claimed £1,000 damages - £500 each and the prosecution suggested that the article had brought Mrs. Sparling into ridicule and made her a figure of scorn.

According to the plaintiffs the so called correction fell well short of an apology. Mr. Pope representing Hewitson, told the hearing that his client had always been willing to print an apology in the frankest and amplest manner, compiled by a barrister if necessary, and that he was also willing to pay reasonable costs that were agreed between the parties.

His Lordship then told the plaintiffs that they would get an apology in the case report, and Mr. Pope insisted the newspaper would insert an apology in the paper, expressing regret that the article had been published. Regarding the question of costs it was agreed that the issue would be resolved by the Manchester county court judiciary although no damages as such would be rewarded.

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Within a couple of weeks it was reported that the newspaper would pay the plaintiff’s costs up to mid-January only, along with the cost of the judiciary review, but not the expenses the plaintiffs had incurred in taking the case to the Assizes. The Sparlings being left to foot the bill for the expensive barristers they had hired.

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