Imbalance in the scales of justice?

Could soldiers expect undue leniency when they appeared at Luton Borough Court? While a civilian found guilty of being drunk might expected seven days hard labour, a soldier accused of improperly assaulting a ten-year-old girl seemed to make little more than token appearances in court.

A corporal in the 4th Lincoln Regiment stationed in Luton was remanded on bail at a preliminary hearing at which Town Clerk William Smith said the Mayor and other members of the Council had received a good many complaints with regard to immorality in the town.

But even though he was the prosecutor in the case, Mr Smith seemed to turn the tables in the blame game in the case to mothers and daughters. "If parents realised their responsibilities and saw that their daughters were in early in the evenings there would not be the same amount of temptations to the soldiers themselves," he said. "It was a matter of serious importance to all women and they should use every endeavour to get their daughters, the younger ones especially, in at an early hour in the evenings."

And presiding magistrate Alderman Staddon said that the Mayor and Council generally considered that it was "a matter for mothers rather than the soldiers billeted in the town". And all this before any specific evidence in the trial had been heard.

At the trial proper on September 2nd, 1914, the court was told that the soldier, described as a married man of the "best of characters," was well known to the children. He called the girl and her eight-year-old playmate across to him in Cromwell road and he sat one girl on each knee. He had his arms around their waists when the alleged offence occurred.

Perhaps not really wanting to risk a conviction, the pro-military Town Clerk decided not to call witnesses, and even the defence solicitor expressed surprise that only the girl had been called to give evidence. There had been no opportunity to question the younger girl, or the police officer who arrested the corporal. As a result there was no corroboration of the child's statements or any opportunity for the soldier to defend his reputation.

The Chairman said the magistrates had decided to dismiss the case as there was insufficient evident to convict. But then he rebuked the girl's mother for the "very slight control over the children in this case". The magistrates hoped it would be a warning to other parents to take greater care of their children.