Sunstroke – a novel defence

Sunstroke is an unpleasant experience. But strangely, the NHS website makes no mention of it leading to sudden bouts of ‘periodic excitement’ years after exposure.Which means the case of George Sedgwick Atkinson may (or may not!) be unique in medical history.

“I couldn’t help it, your honour”

Any journalist who has ever sat on the press bench at their local magistrates or crown court has heard all the excuses and then some. 

They think. 

A few I saved from recent times include:

  • “My trousers fell down”. A man charged with exposing himself.
  •  “We are disappointed this offence has occurred,” said the solicitor of a man who somehow found the time and energy to smash shop windows. “He has reduced his drinking from 400 units a week to 150 units a week.”
  •  He claimed he had meant to just throw a drink over her and had not thought it was in a glass.

Sunstroke – the ‘lasting effects’

The case of George Sedgwick Atkinson, in July 1881, was one that ‘jumps out’ for its ‘nice try, mate’.

Atkinson, otherwise known (not explained) as The Tolerator, was a labourer from Temple Sowerby. He was charged with being drunk and disorderly in the Westmorland village – but blamed it on having suffered from sunstroke while serving in the Royal Navy in India some years before.

It was, he said, that historic sunstroke which left him prone to ‘periodical excitement’ and he was ‘so affected on this occasion’.

His behaviour thus had nothing to do with the four bitter beers he admitted to having drunk.

(Any court reporter will also tell you that defendants do seem to have a very low tolerance for alcohol, based on their account of how little they have drunk on any given occasion!).

 George Sedgwick Atkinson was fined 10 shillings plus costs.

George Sedgwick Atkinson – ‘the Tolerator’

George S Atkinson is listed on the 1881 census in Temple Sowerby, aged 42, with a wife Annie, nine years his senior, and children Mary, Eliza and George P aged 16, 12, and 8.

George Sedgwick Atkinson (baptised May 1839 to John and Ann) had married Annie Pugmire in 1862.

An 1885 directory lists him as a slater and builder, of Low Green, Temple Sowerby.

So why was he known as The Tolerator?

It certainly wasn’t for his tolerance of either drink or other people, unless the nickname was ironic.

‘Not a peaceable man’

A year before, in May 1880, he had been the victim of a violent assault on the turnpike road by a labourer called Aaron Thompson, who had knocked him down and kicked him in the face and ribs.

However, the story was not one-sided and Aaron Thompson alleged Atkinson had assaulted him. By the time of the incident, George Sedgwick Atkinson had (starting in the morning) drunk a four or five glasses of ale and four glasses of spirits. Atkinson and another man had been ‘chaffing’ about their political allegiances and Thompson had joined in.

Thompson’s case was that he’d punched Atkinson (but not kicked him) after Atkinson set his dog on him. The court heard Atkinson was ‘not a peaceable man’ and had been before the bench for drunkenness once or twice. 

The case against both was dismissed.

The wife-beater

In 1883, George Sedgwick Atkinson was in court again: accused by his wife Annie of beating her with a stick while drunk. Not for the first time.

George Sedgwick Atkinson showed up in court wearing medals. And said there was some ‘inwardly digesting’ among the Pugmires (his wife’s family). 

Annie Atkinson told the court she had been ‘too good’ to her husband, and handed over a bill showing he had advertised the furniture for sale. 

She feared for her safety, even if she stayed elsewhere.

Their daughter Mary Atkinson, 18, said her father had often hit her mother. 

Mary Elizabeth Pugmire, of Penrith, gave evidence of Annie Atkinson hiding under a bed to avoid her husband. And of him saying he would ‘do to her as would to the dog’.

The case was adjourned. But another seven years later mentions ‘my wife’ in passing.

Sunstroke again

In June 1890, George Sedgwick Atkinson seems to have suffered another bout of the strange sunstroke that so affected his behaviour.

He was alleging assault against innkeeper Christopher Beck, and said he’d been on his way home from the Black Swan, after a pint of beer for his supper, intending to go to be as he suffering from the effects of sunstroke.

Christopher Beck’s case was that he and his family been subjected annoyance by Atkinson when 

he was under the influence of drink, and he’d finally snapped. He had struck him after Atkinson had used disgusting and untrue language about him.

In the same year, George Sedgwick Atkinson sued a Robert Wharton for payment of damages for an assault. 

Living apart

The 1891 census shows George Sedgwick Atkinson living ‘on own means’ – and alone – on The Green. Annie was living on Main Road, with daughter Eliza and grandson Tom Atkinson, two: ‘landowner’s wife’.

In August 1892, George Sedgwick Atkinson was up for being drunk and disorderly again – this time saying he’d had just one glass of whisky.

Atkinson then accused his son-in-law, marine engineer Stuart McCurrie, of assaulting him. It was recorded that his wife Annie Atkinson had been living with her daughter Eliza and son-in-law ‘for some months’.

George Sedgwick Atkinson died in 1896, aged 57. Whether it was the drink, illness, or the sunstroke that caused his death, one can (without paying for the death certificate) only wonder.

On the 1901 census, widowed Annie Atkinson, free from fear of the stick, is living with Eliza and Stewart McCurry (note alternative spellings), in ‘house at Temperance Institute’, Harrington.

  • To end on a happier note: Stewart McCurry, born 1867 Maryport, was issued with the Mercantile Marine Ribbon at Whitehaven in 1919; the British Medal Ribbon (no date); the Mercantile Marine Medal in 1921, and; the British Medal, also in 1921.