John Scott Brown thin-skinned thug!

John Scott Brown was a ‘low-bred’ man with a chip on his shoulder. The violent assault he committed gives an idea of life in 1878.

Cumbrian Characters usually tries to be impartial, not to judge people. After all, ‘we weren’t there,’ and didn’t know them. However, in the following case, I think it is forgivable. And besides, the defendant ‘started it’ and seemed intent from the start on provoking trouble…

John Scott Brown in the dock

July 1878. Penrith County Court. Damages for Assault. Pears v Scott Brown — Case was brought by Robert Graham Pears against John Scott Brown for £50 damages for assault.

A solicitor called Thompson, for Robert Graham Pears (hereafter RGP), outlined how he had been a prominent coachbuilder in Penrith for a quarter of a century, and had been commissioned to build a coach for Mr Siddle, the landlord of The Crown Hotel. (This would be William E Siddle, then 35).

He’d agreed to do it for £80 – which Mr Thompson says was a bargain.

The trouble started on the evening May 30, when the coach was delivered, RGP – as a good businessman – accompanying two of his men to The Crown, to ensure Mr Siddle was happy with it.

The event attracted interest from ‘several gentlemen,’ including John Scott Brown.

Sticking his nose in

For some reason, John Scott Brown took it upon himself to interfere in what was none of his business.

First, he started claiming that the coach wasn’t properly painted, then he criticised the lining and the trimming.

What no one seems to have picked up on at the time was that he told everyone he’d sold stuff like that at 4d a yard when he was a commercial traveller.

Instead, RGP said it cost more than three times that, and concentrated his attention on the person who mattered – his customer. He told William Siddle he’d take the coach away if he wasn’t happy with it (and sell it elsewhere for £100).

William Siddle was evidently pleased with it as, after John Scott Brown continued to criticise the coach, RGP told him he was the only person finding any fault with it.


I think at this point anyone would have done what RGP did: tell John Scott Brown (politely) to mind his own business. 

However, Scott Brown took offence at this, retorting: “What do you know about coach-building? You are a low-bred man.” 

Having had both his professional competence and background insulted, on top of all the insults about the coach, it’s a wonder RGP kept his temper.

However, he is reported only as replying: 

“We have no control over our breeding, but I think I am as well bred as you.”

It was at this point things started to get ugly, as Scott Brown became visibly angry and started pushing RGP, trying to goad him into a fist fight.

For RGP had touched a very raw nerve, which we’ll come back to later.

Scott Brown demanded: “What do you know about me?”

RGP declined to say publicly what he knew – he seems to have been behaving pretty patiently and reasonably so far. But Scott Brown kept pushing him, until finally, for some reason we can never know, RGP said: “I have got many sins to answer for but I never flirted with another man’s wife.” 

…and injuries

This caused laughter in the court, but the reaction outside The Crown was anything but funny. Scott Brown hit RGP so hard he fell to the ground. And when RGP got up and went to pick up his hat, Scott Brown felled him a second time. RGP was by now ‘getting senseless,’ but that didn’t stop John Scott Brown hitting him a third time.

Who or what stopped this one-sided battering isn’t recorded, but we are told RGP’s injuries were severe, and that a Dr Taylor attended him for three weeks, charging £5 5s.

Dr Taylor said RGP’s injuries were serious and he couldn’t attend to business for three weeks: he couldn’t present to customers with a black eye and with a slipper on, and the shock to his system was very severe. He never slept for five nights, his teeth were loosened, he couldn’t chew his food and suffered a lot of pain.

So, what was the defence?

Well, Scott Brown had paid a penny into court – an admission he had committed assault. But his lawyer, a Mr Scott, sought to blame the whole affair on RGP’s remark about flirting.

He referred to ‘persons’ who ‘wantonly provoked assaults by slanderous conduct’, and said any damages paid should be nominal as a result.

This led to cheers in court, with His Honour threatening to fine anyone who cheered again.

The verdict

His Honour the judge said it had been a disgraceful proceeding. It was a great pity Mr Brown had interfered at all with the coach. The ‘4d a yard’ remark was uncalled for by Mr Brown.

Then, supposing Mr Pears HAD said what was alleged – and no one had been able to give the exact words – did that justify a violent assault?

There was an aggravated assault committed and Dr Taylor had spoken the the result.

It was up to a jury to decide the outcome, and they returned a verdict for £15, and the full costs. 

Life in 1878

John Scott Brown, who was about 34, picked a quarrel with a man 16 years older, for absolutely no reason, and then laid into him repeatedly, continuing when he was barely conscious and badly injured.

Today, he’d be facing a charge of causing grievous bodily harm with intent. Yet here, he was only contesting how much he should pay in damages to his victim.

And there were those on the public benches in the court who sided with the defendant. To the point of cheering  – suggesting a savage assault was seen as an acceptable response to an insult.

The case includes some interesting details – how much a ‘cheap’ coach cost in 1878, how much fabric cost, and how much it cost to get medical attention.

It also, perhaps, tells us something social status – and insecurity.

Low-bred yourself, mate

Scott Brown accused RGP of being “a low-bred man,” and took serious umbrage when RGP replies: “…I think I am as well bred as you.”

In fact, RGP was the son of Christopher Pears (1788-1867), who farmed 300 acres at High Gate, on the Hutton estate. RGP was a businessman and employer. That one, bargain coach he sold  for £80 would be a £6,650 bargain today.

John Scott Brown was born in Hexham, Northumberland, the son of a warehouseman. In 1851, the family are living in Bamber Street, West Derby, Liverpool – 1960s photos online show a long row of ‘two-up, two-down’ terraced houses.

At 16, he was a warehouseman, By 1871, he was a commercial traveller, boarding in large hotel in London.

So what made him think he was superior to RGP?

Well, in 1874, he married widowed Mary Ann Hutton (née Ousby). In 1871, she lived with first husband John Hutton, a yeoman, at Melbourne House, a substantial property at Penrith. They had two servants. When he died in 1873, his personal effects were ‘under £800’ – about £61,000 today.

In 1881, Scott Brown, Mary Ann, her children by John Hutton and three from the second marriage are living at Laurel Bank, another substantial property, in Fell Lane, Penrith, with both Scott Brown and Mary Ann described as annuitants. Again, there are domestic servants. 

This was all a far cry from Bamber Street, and selling material at 4d a yard. Perhaps it was insecurity about his origins that led him to accuse RGP of being ‘low-bred’. 

And for sure, RGP’s reply about being equals touched a very sensitive nerve. As well as pushing him, Scott Brown inquires: “What do you know about me?”

If only RGP had said: “You’re a former commercial traveller who married a well-off widow,” maybe the jury would have awarded him the full £50.