Debauchery in Penrith

Debauchery in Penrith is part 1 of a series on a local Victorian solicitor, but also the story of a young woman shabbily treated by her boyfriend.

Thomas Gibson Cant

Thomas Gibson Cant, a Penrith solicitor with strong convictions about Justice, took on variously the police, a local newspaper, and wasn’t adverse to arguing with judges. In court, he was prone to dragging up irrelevancies and complaining when told to stick to the matter in hand. This did not help him or his clients!

He was admitted solicitor in 1852. By 1872, he had practised in Penrith 21 years, and had been clerk to Lord Lonsdale (the Lieutenancy of the two counties) for 16 years.

A volunteer with the Inglewood Rifles, he was promoted from Ensign to Lieutenant in 1862.

In 1866, he married Barbara, ‘youngest daughter of the late William Lindsay, Esq’. They went on to have three daughters, living in Croft House, Graham Street.

The John Westmorland / Sarah Jane Robertshaw case

It was in July 1866 that he appeared in court on behalf of John Westmorland, a 23-year-old journeyman tanner and skin merchant of Penrith and Temple Sowerby.

Debauchery in Penrith

John Westmorland was in court for seducing Sarah Jane Robertshaw, daughter of Robert Robertshaw, landlord of the Castle Inn, Penrith, and a manufacturer of soda water. 

Her father was suing him for £500. 

His case was presented by a Mr MacOubrey. Thomas Gibson Cant appeared for John Westmorland.

John Westmorland’s father had ‘a business of great respectability and influence ‘at Penrith and Temple Sowerby and was ‘a man with his £30,000 or £40,000’ and his son was managing his business.

John Westmorland had ‘debauched’ Sarah when she was only 19 and ‘made her the mother of a bastard child’. 

She’d thought he intended marriage, but he’d ‘cast her off’. 

She’d been in delicate health for months after the birth. The bastardy agreement was £5 a year. 

Sarah said she’d known John since August 1864, and had ‘yielded to him’ first in December 1864, and a few times after. She thought he wanted to marry her, though he hadn’t promised to. 

An emotional appeal

It has to be said that Mr MacOubrey did lay it on thick in his opening address. Appealing to any fathers on the jury ‘with an Englishman’s heart in him’ as to how they’d feel if a daughter of theirs has been so used.

“If ever there was a cruelty…. the man who perpetuated the villainous and vicious wrong of debauching a poor virtuous young woman was the most wicked, the most traitorous, and the most wretched man that ever lived.”

Of John Westmorland specifically:

“He found this girl the fairest flower and he cast her as a faded flower.”

The ‘paltry compensation’ the jury could award her father would be a lesson ‘not only to Mr Robertshaw but to all other young scoundrels who inflicted such wrongs in the locality’.

The defence

Mr Cant said the whole case was just a way to ‘squeeze money’ out of John Westmorland’s father. 

Was the father 

‘to pay for the delinquencies of this son and rob his other seven children?’

If a reasonable verdict were given, John Westmorland ‘might be able to pay out of his two or three shillings a week pocket money’. 

The jury set damages at £200. 

The Carlisle Journal reported the story. The Whitehaven News reported it pretty much word for word. As did the Carlisle Patriot. But it was the Journal’s report only that Thomas Gibson Cant took exception to.

The first libel case

In July 1868, the Carlisle Patriot reported that the Carlisle Journal was to be sued for libel on the grounds that Mr MacOubrey’s case was reported in full, while Mr Cant’s was reported ‘very briefly and very imperfectly’. 

The defence would be that it was a fair and accurate report of the court case. 

These are phrases I learned as a defence against libel when I was training to be a journalist! And even if the law on Privilege (fair and accurate reports of court cases are immune from libel prosecutions) didn’t come in until 1888, you’d think that if a newspaper had opined that John Westmorland was a scoundrel, it might have been considered ‘fair comment’!

It turned out later that Mr Cant’s complaint included that one phrase was put in inverted commas. 

The aftermath

In August 1868. John Westmorland, of 38 Old London Road, Penrith, journeyman tanner, was adjudged bankrupt. The libel case was dropped.

Sarah Jane Robertshaw went on to marry furniture salesman Thomas Lowther and have more children. John Westmorland’s son, Robert Henry Robertshaw, was part of their family.

But Thomas Gibson Cant did not forgive the Carlisle Journal for the perceived slight against him.

He was to drag it all up, and a lot more, in 1873.

But first, he was to take up the cause for Justice against Penrith police

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