Save Garrow’s Pegwell Villa

A Revolutionary for Criminal Justice

High on chalk cliffs with a stunning panorama across the natural beauty of Pegwell Bay in Kent, lies an old marine villa. Like its vista across the Bay it was once striking but is now in a state of rapid dilapidation. Its owner is Mrs Alma Beaty, a feisty lady in her eighties, who claims the local council offered her a grant towards the restoration of the house some five years ago. However, this is denied by the council. Nonetheless, the house has historical associations which fully justify a grant and needs to be more widely known.

The story starts with Sir William Garrow who, according to The Times, July 6, 1790, purchased the house in what it called a “delightful situation”. But who was Sir William Garrow? Why is he little known today despite having, almost single-handedly, effected a revolution in our criminal justice system which cries out for recognition? The reason is that his achievements have only recently been brought to light after years of neglect.

Prior to the 1730s, prisoners charged with felony were not permitted to have counsel act for them even thought hey faced the gallows if found guilty. One reason why this was outrageous was that, in the absence of a police force, the Government paid large sums of blood money to bounty hunters where their allegations against a person secured a conviction and this led to widespread perjury. Another reason was that criminal rules of evidence, such as the presumption of innocence, were unknown. In 1791, Garrow was the first counsel to use the expression in an English court. So prevalent were the miscarriages of justice against non-criminals that very slowly the Judges began to allow barristers to cross-examine prosecution witnesses. This remained rare, however, until Sir William Garrow appeared on the scene at the Old Bailey in 1783 and transformed the situation. In some 10 years Garrow appeared, generally for the defence, in more than 961 trials and in the year 1786 alone he acted in 117 of the 192 trials in which counsel were named in the Old Bailey Proceedings Reports. It was a remarkable record. In exposing the lies of bounty hunters and other dodgy characters, Garrow brought aggressive cross-examination to an art form which came to an end only when he became an MP and was appointed in turn Solicitor-General, Attorney General and subsequently a Judge. Criminals knew him well and feared what he knew about them.

On one occasion his wife, Sarah, was travelling with her granddaughter by coach from Ramsgate to London. Highwaymen stopped the coach and robbed everyone in it of all their valuables. The coach then proceeded along the road and the same highwaymen stopped the coach again. This time they gave back to Sarah Garrow all the things they had stolen from her, and the little necklace taken from the granddaughter, keeping all the had stolen from others in the coach.

Garrow was a consummate advocate, unrivalled in the art of cross-examination. But he was much more than that. He helped bring about important rules of criminal evidence such as those against hearsay and involuntary confessions and, above all, although, like everyone else,he was unaware of the significance of what he was doing, he gave birth to adversary trial. As a consequence, the Judges began to take a less pro-active part in trials and began to act as umpires above the fray, as they do today. Following Garrow’s example the lawyers captured the courtroom. In doing so they created a working culture of human rights which later was given constitutional recognition in the United States Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Indeed, the English model of criminal justice was adopted in the French Revolution until reversed by Napoleon in 1808 when he reintroduced the secret, authoritarian inquisitorial system which for nearly two centuries has straddled across those parts of the world that were not influenced by the common law. Torture and oppression have formed part of the history and structure of inquisitorial trial. Hence, Stalin’s Russia could boast in 1936 of its “democratic” constitution which in the absence of due process and adversary trial was drowned in the Great Terror of the same year in which millions of people lost their lives or were sent to the gulag. Today the picture is changing. In the last decade a number of Latin American states have drawn up new codes based on the adversary system of trial. Russia enacted an adversarial procedure code in 2001 and China is proceeding to a similar goal as are Georgia and the Ukraine. Similarly, there are moves towards adversary trial in France, Spain, Italy and Germany. The impact of such developments is to create a global shift in criminal procedure and due process that makes universal human rights meaningful.

We should always remember the value that is inherent in a method that allows the individual directly to challenge any allegation made by or on behalf of the State. Both trial by jury and adversary trial are crucial in helping to preserve human rights and no dilution of them should be permitted.

Garrow purchased Pegwell Cottage as a retreat from the hurly burly of life in London. Curiously, he called it a “cottage” despite its land including a pavilion, salt and fresh water baths, adjacent ornamental cottages, good stabling, walled gardens as well as the full south aspect of the Bay. When he died on September 24, 1840, aged 80, it was sold as a “singularly beautiful marine villa, unrivalled on the coast.” So large was the estate that 23 acres of it were sold for building construction in 1890. During World War II, it was used for an RAF searchlight battery on the vulnerable Kent coast. After the War, the house and grounds were bequeathed to the then Ramsgate town council who leased out the land as a caravan park. They were sold into private ownership in 1974 and bought by Mrs Beaty in 1996.

The house is in dire need of repair and restoration and, unless something is done, in time it will cease to exist. Surely, for the memory of Sir William Garrow, Thanet district council could either purchase the house (if Mrs Beaty is agreeable) and provide a public cliff top walk across the cliffs, or make a grant to assist in its restoration. Either way, they could help restore it to something like its earlier glory with perhaps a plaque to commemorate one of England’s finest advocates.

A Revolutionary for Criminal Justice – Sir William Garrow

Reproduced by kind permission Justice of the Peace. Copyright 2008 John Hostettler and Justice of the Peace/Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Weekly

3 Replies to “Save Garrow’s Pegwell Villa”

  1. I guess that the placing of a blue plaque on Garrow’s Pegwell Villa (also known as Pegwell Lodge) must be seen as the first move in a greater campaign to have the premises preserved as being of historical and social history. Thank you to the Ramsgate Society for this first step. Bryan Gibson

  2. If everyone who has benefitted from this great mans work were to pay a penny this property could be bought and restored a million times over.

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