Allegations of sexual cover-ups seem to be the current hot topic but, of course, they are nothing new. The legal profession had one of its own 130 years ago when 56-year-old judge Sir Charles James Watkin Williams, out on circuit with his brother judge Mr Justice Lopes, was found dead in his Nottingham lodgings.
Until then, the assizes had gone well, with Lopes requiring the then almost obsolete custom of having the declaration against vice and immorality read in court.
Williams had died when out taking what The Times called ‘post-prandial exercise’ but the naughty Fortnightly Review identified as ‘Corinthian pursuits’. Naturally, the lord chancellor was notified and gave instructions to the coroner that he need only inquire into identification and the cause of death and not the circumstances which led to it.
Unfortunately, coroner Arthur Brown was not about to kowtow to his London superiors. Everyone in his court – from a chimney sweep upwards – was going to be treated in the same way, he told the jury when it convened at the judges’ lodgings.
Curiously, the jury members did not at first agree and were quite content to go along with the establishment and hear only cause of death and identification evidence.
Touching their collective forelock, they did not think they should enquire how his lordship had died. Brown would have none of that either and half an hour later the jury agreed it would hear the circumstances.
Which were indeed shameful. Sir Charles, who had had a heart condition for which, said his doctor, any excitement, mental or physical could prove fatal, had arrived at a brothel in the high street about 10.15 pm. He stayed around a quarter of an hour and then, according to the Corinthian Nelly Banks, ‘made a noise in his breathing’ and died within minutes.
The madam called the police and Sir Charles’ body was hurried back to his lodgings but, as with many cover-ups, too many knew about it for it to be kept quiet.
Accidental death was the only possible verdict.
Did Lopes know where his colleague was going? Indeed, had he gone with him? He cannot have been ignorant of the cover-up. Perhaps it was because of his discretion that Lopes, who was not regarded as the brightest spark in the judiciary, eventually became a law lord.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor