The curious case of Edward Smith


When a case of libel/defamation crossed with ancient church rules…and let to a riot.

I stumbled across this case in Josiah Chater’s diaries edited by Enid Porter – Enid being one of the very high calibre civic historians in Cambridge and the backbone of the Museum of Cambridge / Folk Museum for a number of years. See more on Enid here.

The case of Edward Smith happened in the mid-1800s, at a time of huge change in Cambridge. As Enid Porter notes, the times of Chater’s diaries cover the times where Cambridge saw huge social changes as well as legal ones. You’ve seen the case of Daisy Hopkins earlier. Inside this century Cambridge saw the last public execution (as described by local historian Fonz Chamberlain here), the coming of the railways and the evolution of Cambridge as a retail centre – along with the Prince-Albert-inspired drive to change Cambridge University’s focus away from religion and towards science, something that we still feel the impact of today.

Social activities in the days before TV, radio and cinemas

If I wanted to stereotype life in the mid-1850s, outside of the daily grind to survive, there was little more than the church and the pub to keep the masses occupied – and masses they were becoming given the huge population growth the area was experiencing. Despite huge levels of emigration, Cambridge’s population grew four-fold in the 1800s. Running a public institution in the face of such growth must have been a huge challenge for those in charge of civic authorities. On other blogposts I’ve commented on the rapid membership rises of smaller political parties, and how they struggled with similar growths in memberships. How do you deal with all these people?

Gardener defames wife of local vicar

This was essentially the case – as outlined in the Cambridge Independent Press from the British Newspaper Archives below.


Edward Smith (the gardener) having had a few drinks in the pub had said that Martha James, the wife of the Rector of Fen Ditton Church, Rev William James, had committed the crime (as it was legally back then) of adultery. Mrs James was having none of it and promptly took legal action…which took a good 2 years to reach the courts.

Adultery as a crime, and being tried in a church court

It’s worth noting that this case took place only a few years before the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 which moved such legal proceedings away from the churches and into the civil courts. Hence the historical context is important because on reading the newspaper articles from the time, why would such a case be tried by ecclesiastical courts?

The decision of the court – not surprisingly – was to rule against Edward Smith, and he was thus ordered to pay a hefty fine and ‘perform the usual penance’. The reaction in Cambridge by the sounds of things was complete uproar. The penance involved standing in a white sheet and reciting a series of words saying how sorry a penitent person was. It was more theatre than anything else – as the newspapers of the time show.


Again from the Cambridge Independent Press via the British Newspaper Archives, the fears about a sacred space being turned into something of a circus ended up being realised – with over 3,000 people rocking up to see what was going on. And it was quite a crowd – as the Cambridge Independent Press again via the British Newspaper Archives below reveals.

190512 CambIndyPress.jpg

“We did expect to see a great many people at Ditton; we were prepared to see something uncommon; but we never supposed that so vast a concourse would assemble on the occasion, or that so disgusting and brutal an exhibition awaited us. From nine o’clock till eleven, the road from Cambridge by the Paper Mills, was thronged with as motley groups as can well be imagined. Carriages, flies, four wheels, dog carts, gigs, and more humble vehicles were dashing along for Ditton at a gallant pace; the pedestrians comprised students of the University, reputable tradesmen, artisans, bargees, navvies, coal-heavers, shoeless vagabonds and limping beggars. There was a fine display of the fair sex, the most of whom we hope and believe were the denizens of Barnwell; and never, we opine was that the same place so free of rogues and the frail sisterhood.”

When it came to Smith being due to read out his penance, it was all but impossible for the Cambridge Independent’s correspondent to hear.


“The house of the living God, that structure raised to His honour and glory, was now converted into a place for blasphemy, and a display of vindictive feeling and unhallowed exultation that would have cast a slur upon the savages of New Zealand in their wildest state”

Striking to read that above line in print even though it was from over 150 years ago, of the raw colonialism and racism being expressed.

“The mob pressed madly on to get near Smith who, by the by had no white sheet on; pews were broken down, women screamed, and men shouted, inebriate with rage; wood crashed, hassocks [cushions for kneeling] were whirled high in the air, and then fell, crushing a bonnet, or falling on a head. Mr Small now made anxious gesticulations to Mr Smith to proceed.”

It was Rev Small of Emmanuel College who was directed by the ecclesiastical authorities to carry out the service & oversee Smith’s act of penitence.

As the article goes on to state, it was difficult for anyone to hear what was being said. At the back of the church, the report states that dog fights too place, as did fights between various drunken men too.

In the end, many people retired to The Plough pub – which still stands today – but not before the Cambridge Independent Press reporter left a sting in the tail for villagers.


He insults the villagers, slams Edward Smith and also slams Martha James for bringing the case – despite the protestations from her husband and others around him to let the case drop.

Reading between the lines

At a time of huge social change, the one thing that strikes me is the split between an institution trying to hold onto its privileges – and perhaps ignorant of how the growing population really viewed the church authorities. For all of the outrage in print from the reporter – outrage that today reads as ‘false outrage’ (though harder to tell if this was really the case back then), it makes me wonder what the feedback loops inside the church authorities was given the social changes that were happening, and given what subsequently happened in the decades that followed.


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