It is fun to rank bad judges. Was Goddard worse than Stevenson? Was Darling worse than Montagu? Was Jeffries the worst of all? And then there was the infamous 19th-century judge Henry Hawkins.

Regarded as a hanging judge, Hawkins had been at the commercial and divorce bar, and prosecuted in the Tichborne inheritance case. But after his appointment to the bench he was best known for the murder trials over which he presided. They included Lamson, the doctor who poisoned his nephew for his inheritance; and Neill Cream, who may have been a doctor. Cream certainly murdered prostitutes and is an outside candidate for Jack the Ripper. But the case which brought Hawkins the most opprobrium was ‘The Penge Mystery’, when he ignored medical evidence for the defence and was more than usually hostile to the accused.

Morton landscape

Morton landscape USE

In 1877 Louis Staunton, his brother Patrick, Patrick’s wife Elizabeth, and Louis’ mistress Alice Hughes stood trial for the murder of Louis’ wife Harriet. She was a woman 10 years his senior, with limited intelligence and a considerable fortune.

The prosecution’s case was that the quartet had starved Harriet to death for her money. The defence, led by Edward Clarke QC, called an impressive collection of senior medical specialists to say she had actually died from a form of tuberculosis of the brain.

All four were found guilty, with recommendations of mercy for the women and a strong recommendation in the case of Hughes. Hawkins ignored them. There was a campaign led by novelist Charles Reade, with 700 doctors signing an open letter calling for a review of the case. Two days before their execution all four were reprieved, with Hughes being pardoned.

Hawkins was denied a valediction on his last day in court, when barristers traditionally queued up to sycophantically praise the retiring judge. Clarke, who never forgave Hawkins, threatened to turn up to denounce him and no one was prepared to say he should not.

James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor