Goose Thievery and the Threat of Australia: Insights into Local Community Life Provided by 18th and 19th Century Criminal Trials at the Old Bailey.

[GS: I am very pleased to include this blog post from Matthew Parish, one of our former legal history students. Matthew is currently completing his LL.M. at the University of Bristol, having graduated from the LL.B. last year. His interest in legal history was sparked by the legal history unit, and, in his own words, he was ‘hooked by tales of goose thievery, witch trials, and clandestine marriages, and became increasingly aware of the historical contingency of contemporary law and the importance of understanding the social, cultural, and intellectual forces that shaped it’. After the LL.M., he is off to work at the Law Commission as a Research Assistant for 2023/24 – and then hopes to return to academia and undertake a PhD, pursuing his passion for all things legal history. Many thanks for this, Matthew, and now, on with those geese …]


Awaking early on the morning of the 8th of September 1866, Thomas Clark, a farmer of Lewisham Village, opened his stable doors and witnessed a scene that horrified him. The stable, which had just the night before been alive with much squawking, clucking, and avian merriment, now lay silent. His 14 geese had vanished! Later that same day, in the Earl Grey pub of Lewisham Village, 3 men happened to be selling geese. “Six for a sovereign”, they cried. Evidently hungrier than James Ware – the other bystander present to the tantalising offer (who had decided to reject the bargain) – Fredrick Haynes accepted and paid 3s for a goose. Fortunately, this is not the opening to Sherlock Holmes’s shortest and dullest adventure. Instead, it is a criminal case, held at the Old Bailey on the 22nd of October 1866.  Indeed, the mind of a great detective was not required. Local policeman John Moore possessed facilities enough to link the disappearance of geese from a local farm in the morning, to the sale of geese in the local pub in the evening. Guilty verdicts for animal theft were secured for 2 of the 3 men.

What to 21st-century readers may seem to be the least cunning criminal plot imaginable may provide historical insight into 19th-century England. If nothing else, the case of the 14 missing geese highlights the centrality of the local village community to 19th-century life. John Hibbert, one of the convicted goose thieves, was well known within the community, and, according to a local villager, regularly demonstrated his hard-working character in the neighbourhood. Thus, the entire scope of the crime was within the boundaries of a small community; the geese were stolen by local men from a local farm and sold at the local pub. One explanation for such a locally situated and blatant crime may be the weak intellectual prowess of the thieves. Alternatively, and perhaps cumulatively with the former explanation, the locality of the crime may indicate the centrality of the local community to the lives of those living within it, with individuals unable to conceptualise, and unwilling to pursue, a broader world of criminal and non-criminal enterprise beyond the narrow boundaries of their community.