Peter Seddon revisits a notorious trial in Victorian Derby

Great British Life: The modest memorial in Derby's Lock Up Yard harbours a dramatic and tragic storyThe modest memorial in Derby's Lock Up Yard harbours a dramatic and tragic story (Image: as submitted)

A monument need not be ‘monumental’ to convey a big story. One of the smallest in Derby is a modest plaque set into the flagstones in Lock Up Yard – the secluded courtyard now generally dubbed the ‘Fish Market’ giving access to the Market Hall from Cornmarket. Yet what a story it encapsulates – the reckless murder of a policeman in 1879 which created national interest to the highest level.

Thousands tread by it each day scarcely realising that the plaque’s open-air location was formerly covered by buildings – the old Derby Police Station and Lock Up where alleged wrongdoers were charged and detained prior to trial. The plaque is positioned where once stood the charge room of the Police Station – marking the very spot where a young constable received a fatal bullet.

The wording records the bare facts – yet how much remains unsaid: ‘In memory of PC 35 Joseph Moss aged 26 years of Derby Borough Police Force formerly of the Grenadier Guards who was murdered here on 12th July 1879 in the execution of his duty.’ Moss was the first and so far the only member of the Derby Constabulary to be murdered whilst at work.

The drama began on the afternoon of Saturday 12th July 1879. Shortly after four o’clock Constable John Shirley saw a pony and trap being driven erratically towards him at great speed down The Wardwick. The reins were wielded by a well-dressed young man in the company of a female passenger. Constable Shirley judged the pair to be recklessly drunk.

Great British Life: 'The Cornmarket today, where over a century ago crowds gathered after a Derby policeman was fatally shot by 'a gentleman''The Cornmarket today, where over a century ago crowds gathered after a Derby policeman was fatally shot by 'a gentleman' (Image: as submitted)

Ignoring his command to stop, the trap careered on towards Friar Gate. Shirley requisitioned a cab and took pursuit followed on foot by Constables Joseph Moss and John Clamp. The chase ended in the yard of the Traveller’s Rest on Ashbourne Road where the wild-eyed driver and his lurching companion were detained and taken to the Lock Up for charging.

There the woman became violent and abusive, commanding the attention of several officers. The man remained initially much calmer – significantly diverting attention away from himself. And crucially he was not handcuffed.

As a group of officers struggled to contain the female the male prisoner suddenly changed his demeanour. Shouting ‘I will have no more of that’ he produced a revolver and fired a shot which hit Constable Moss in the lower chest. A struggle ensued in which three further bullets were expelled – one hitting a Constable Price in the arm. Price recovered from his injury but young Moss died the next day in Derbyshire Royal Infirmary.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting the prisoners had remained unidentified. In the event, the initial assumption that they had been ‘a pair of low repute’ proved only half correct. The woman was identified as local prostitute Annie Green, but the young man yielded a surprise.

Great British Life: How the Illustrated Police News depicted the shooting - Constable Moss already floored and Price hit in the armHow the Illustrated Police News depicted the shooting - Constable Moss already floored and Price hit in the arm (Image: as submitted)

After initially adopting a contrary stance – declaring himself in the charge room ‘Jeremiah Smith from Jerusalem’ – he emerged as 23-year-old Gerald Mainwaring, seventh of ten children of the late Reverend Charles Henry Mainwaring of Whitmore Hall, Staffordshire, a respected magistrate whose wife Jane Broughton descended from Broughton Hall, Staffordshire.

That a figure of ‘aristocratic connections’ should have killed a policeman created a great stir in the press. It transpired that Gerald Mainwaring had enjoyed a privileged education intent on entering the church, but a youthful descent into a hedonistic lifestyle had dashed his family’s best hopes. Instead Mainwaring was dispatched at the age of nineteen to the North American frontier lands where he enjoyed modest success farming in Manitoba – and there in hindsight he should have remained.

His notorious Derby rampage resulted from a visit back to England soon after his father’s death to attend to family affairs. He stayed at the home of his two sisters in Clifton near Ashbourne. Finding himself stifled by the narrow confines of their provincial company, Gerald embarked on ‘one last fling’ in the ‘big town’ in the dubious company of Annie Green.

The pair spent several wild days together and on the day of their arrest consumed a great deal of alcohol at Derby’s Royal Hotel in Victoria Street before the fateful trap ride and shameful killing of PC Moss.

Great British Life: The funeral card of Constable MossThe funeral card of Constable Moss (Image: as submitted)

Mainwaring was tried at Derby Assizes for wilful murder knowing that a guilty verdict carried a death sentence. He pleaded not guilty and his defence and family made great play of his drunken state, powerfully asserting he would never ‘as a gentleman’ have knowingly taken the life of a Police Constable.

The rhetoric bore limited fruit, for the jury found Mainwaring guilty of murder but added a strong recommendation for mercy on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Although Mr Justice Lindley imposed the death sentence the matter went to the Home Secretary for a final decision – but even so there was no strong expectation of a reprieve. The likelihood remained that Mainwaring would face the noose at Derby Gaol.

But before the Home Secretary could deliver his decision some disquieting news emerged – it called into question the very legality of the process by which the jury had declared Mainwaring guilty of murder. Some jury members let slip to the Derby Daily Telegraph that they had been split six votes to six between a verdict of manslaughter and murder, and furthermore that the jury chairman had refused to deliver a decision, and consequently lots were drawn to elect a new chairman who would effectively enact a ‘casting vote’, in the event ‘murder with a recommendation for mercy.’

The national press quickly embellished the story and were soon boldly proclaiming that the guilty verdict had ‘been decided on the toss of a coin’ – in the blink of an eye convicted police killer Gerald Mainwaring was presented as a deeply-wronged ‘victim’ of a corrupt system.

Some of the more excitable elements of both the public and the legal profession unquestioningly bought into this ‘fake news’ narrative seeming entirely to forget the seriousness of Mainwaring’s crime. A petition was got up in Derby demanding the sentence of death be remitted – 5,720 signed it... the Victorian equivalent of today’s ‘social media’ crusades.

With Mainwaring perversely cast as ‘popular hero’ the case was debated in the corridors of Parliament. Faced with a difficult moral dilemma the Home Secretary caved in to ‘public pressure’ – notwithstanding the reality that only a mere fraction of the country had objected to Mainwaring’s conviction.

In this bizarre fashion police murderer Gerald Mainwaring was spared the scaffold at Derby Gaol and sentenced instead to ‘penal servitude for life’. In the event, he served fifteen years in prison and was released on licence in May 1894.

What happened to Mainwaring thereafter isn’t precisely known – he is believed to have returned to America or Canada and died there. What remains unequivocal is that he killed an officer of the Derby Borough Police Force and lived to tell the tale.

The strange case dubbed ‘The Great Jury Scandal’ caused legal luminaries to seriously examine what changes might be made to tighten up the jury system – and for some time thereafter the derogatory term a ‘Derbyshire Jury’ became a term of opprobrium wherever justice was dispensed.

Perhaps PC 35 Joseph Moss and his colleagues are the only characters to emerge entirely unblemished from this unsavoury affair. PC Moss was buried at Nottingham Road Cemetery with Military Honours, the streets of Derby lined by several thousand mourners as the cortège slowly progressed.

In the passing years the story became submerged but not entirely forgotten – after it was latterly revived in the heritage pages of the Derby Telegraph the memorial to Joseph Moss was put in place in 2002. No monumental statue is required to the memory of PC35 – the simple plaque on the spot where he fell is a fitting lasting tribute.

Peter Seddon is the author of Law’s Strangest Cases which contains many more ‘extraordinary but true stories from over five centuries of legal history’. It is published by Portico at £7.99 available online and via all bookshops.