Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at a prickly court case that left a nettle beer vendor triumphant...
In early May 1858 the Lancashire county police and Preston magistrates became embroiled in a prickly dispute when Peter Kay was accused of Sabbath breaking relative to an act from the reign of Charles II.
The court heard that Kay, described as a decrepit old man in the press, was charged with selling nettle beer on two Sunday’s in April from his cottage not far from the Withy Trees in Fulwood.
The prosecution stated that it was an offence for Kay to sell the herbal brew on a Sunday in contravention of the law that did not permit any individual to carry out his normal everyday trade on the Sabbath.
Supt. Derham, the county constable who charged Kay, told the court that he and another policeman had been in the vicinity of the cottage where a large number of wayfarers and poorer members of society had begun to gather daily, loitering around with their dogs and playing games often in a rowdy manner. Derham stated he and another off duty officer had purchased bottles of the herbal brew to identify what was being sold.
Sticking to the letter of the law the Mayor John Humber and the magistrates found Kay guilty and he was fined with costs 10 shillings, failure to pay being punished by two hours in the public stocks. Fortunately, for Kay his pals rallied round and collected the money necessary.
The following week it was the turn of Supt. Derham to stand in the dock when summoned under the same ancient law for aiding, abetting and procuring the offence that Kay had been convicted over. Derham admitted buying the nettle beer, but claimed he was purely gathering evidence relative to the beverage.
The prosecution and the magistrates then exchanged heated words and Mr. Watson, on behalf of Kay, stated that if the statute is not to be a dead letter, this policeman has no more right to be exempt from its operation than anybody else.
Following submissions from the accused and a county constable the magistrates after a brief consultation declared that the case was dismissed.
Once again in mid-July 1858 Peter Kay was arraigned on two charges of exercising his daily calling of selling nettle beer on two recent Sundays.
On this occasion he was undefended and admitted selling nettle beer on the Sabbath in line with the prosecution brought by Supt. Green of the county police. Green told the court that over 30 people had gathered at the cottage which displayed a sign proclaiming it was a Kay’s Temperance Tavern.
Kay told the court he was a weaver by trade and Joseph Ribchester, shoemaker, of Lancaster Road spoke of the good character of those who were gathered at Kay’s cottage. He then testified that he had seen Kay working on his looms on many a recent day.
The magistrates then consulted the law books before announcing that as Kay was following the trade of a weaver the rest of the week he was not in breach of the law relative to Sabbath trading. Before the case was dismissed Kay was told he could continue selling his nettle beer on a Sunday, but to avoid future problems he should like the Withy Trees keep his premises closed during Sunday service hours in the nearby churches.
Also due to face the magistrates that day on a similar charge was James Towers of Windy Harbour, Woodplumpton.
When called he was told the charges were withdrawn on the understand that during divine services in the village his premises would remain closed. In the weeks that followed there was considerable criticism of the county constabulary as the prickly subject left the nettle beer vendors triumphant.