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A magistrate with a heart of gold

The reporting of court cases has been a feature of newspapers from the time the first paper rolled off the printing press. From a historian’s perspective such documenting of court cases from bygone years can give an unparalleled insight into the social conditions of the time with evidence arising in court which is not available through other historical sources. The court reports in the files of the local newspapers afford us a glimpse into the hardships faced by people in past generations.
And, contrary to popular belief, the court reports also show that while many judges were not notably sympathetic to the people who came before them there was an occasional ‘heart of gold’ among the ranks of the judiciary.
A review of a report from Naas Petty Sessions in a February 1912 edition of the Kildare Observer gives a thought provoking insight into the relationship between the courts, the school system, and parents and their children. Twelve parents were before Major Thackeray, Resident Magistrate, for failing to send their children to school. The school inspector for the district, Miss Hayde, gave evidence of their non-attendance.
Most of the parents pleaded sickness as the reason for their children not being at school. The list of illnesses put forward gives a vivid insight into the kinds of illness prevalent in the child population of a century ago: rheumatic fever, scarlatina, blood poisoning, whooping cough, chilblains, sore eyes, deafness and rash.
One of the parents, a Mrs. C. took a different tack by questioning the value of having her child educated in the first place. She told Major Thackeray that she already had one son who had been “educated” and “he did not make much out of it.” Major Thackeray responded by declaring: “I suppose she thinks that people are over-educated nowadays.”
Another parent tried to get out of the attendance requirement by stating that his child was fourteen years of age but enquiry by the attendance officer revealed that the child was just eleven. The attempt to inflate the child’s age led Major Thackeray (clearly something of a wit on the bench) to observe: “He wants to get to the old age pension quickly!”
While such judicial levity was all very well with offenders facing the first step in the anti-truancy process – that of being served with school attendance orders -- matters took a more serious turn when the court moved on to a case where a young lad was before the court for not complying with such an attendance order handed down at a previous court sitting. And it was here that the judge, for all his witticisms from the bench, showed an admirably humane disposition.
Mr. Boyle, Secretary to the School Attendance Committee, told the court he wanted the boy to be committed to an industrial school. He said that the boy “had no mother and his father was unwilling to control him.” Major Thackeray said he would like to see “this desperate case”.  The boy was brought forward and began to cry – an understandable reaction for a young lad faced with the grim unknown of being sent to an industrial school. Major Thackeray spoke to the boy and asked him would be promise to attend school. When the young lad replied in the affirmative the magistrate made a promise of his own, namely that he would give him five shillings if he stayed in school until June. There was an immediate change in the demeanour of the frightened youngster who, according to the report, “immediately ceased crying and tried to look his best.”  When Mr. Boyle, of the School Attendance Committee, attempted to contest the magistrate’s compassionate handling of the case Major Thackeray declared to the court: “But what chance has he, except that somebody shows him a bit of sympathy, Is he to be branded a villain for life because he doesn’t go to school.?” 
And the judge had precedent to show that his compassionate approach had worked in the past. He told the court that two boys had come before him at the Kildare town court, their parents charged with allowing them breach attendance orders. He recalled his handling of the case: “I told the boys that if they attended school I would give them a present.’ The two young lads never missed a day, and the magistrate was as good as his word and duly gave them Christmas presents at the end of term.
Truly a heart of gold amongst the otherwise forbidding ranks of the judiciary.

Liam Kenny reveals a heart of gold amongst the judiciary in an article from his Looking Back series from the Leinster Leader of 7 February 2012. Our thanks to Liam

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