George Archer-Shee (6 May 1895 – 31 October 1914) was a young Royal Navy cadet whose case of whether he stole a five shilling postal order ended up being decided in London's High Court in 1910. The trial, which became a British cause célèbre, was the inspiration for the play The Winslow Boy by Terence Rattigan. Archer-Shee was successfully defended against the charges by the notable barrister, judge and politician from Ireland, Sir Edward Carson. Following the acquittal, the boy's family were paid compensation in July 1911.
Archer-Shee became a cadet at Osborne Naval College on the Isle of Wight in January 1908. The college, which was part of the estate of the late Queen Victoria, educated and trained 14 to 16 year olds in their first two years in the Royal Navy. Further studies then continued at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth in Devon. It eventually closed in April 1921.
The theft occurred on 7 October 1908, shortly after the start of the autumn term, when a cadet called Terence Back received a postal order from a relative for five shillings. On the same afternoon, Archer-Shee had been given permission to go to a post office outside the college grounds to buy a postal order and a stamp because he wanted to buy a model train costing fifteen shillings and sixpence (15s 6d). On returning to the college, he discovered that Back had reported that his postal order had been stolen.
Miss Tucker, the elderly clerk at Osborne Post Office, was contacted. She produced Back's cashed postal order and stated that only two cadets had visited her that afternoon. However she claimed the same cadet who had bought a postal order for 15s 6d was also the one who cashed the 5s order.
When the Admiralty wrote to Archer-Shee's father, Martin, telling him that his son was being expelled for theft, the official at The Bank of England instantly responded that "Nothing will make me believe the boy guilty of this charge, which shall be sifted by independent experts". The father's reaction reflected the family's values. They were devout Roman Catholics and the background in bank management meant all the sons had been brought up to regard misuse of money as sinful.
Martin Archer-Shee contacted several lawyers to help clear his son's name. He also contacted his son Major Martin Archer-Shee, the half brother of George, who was active in politics (in 1910 he became Member of Parliament for Finsbury Central in North London). Major Archer-Shee obtained the services of Sir Edward Carson. Carson, who was regarded as one of Great Britain's best barristers of the age, also had a son who attended Osborne.
Before he took the case, Carson subjected the boy to questioning to test his story; only accepting once he had satisfied himself of the boy's innocence.
Trial and acquittal
Several problems prevented Carson from taking the case straight to court. Firstly as Archer-Shee was a naval cadet at the time, this excluded him from the jurisdiction of a civil court. Secondly as he was not enlisted in the Royal Navy, he was not entitled to a court-martial. In order to help his client, Carson used an archaic legal device called a petition of right against the Crown to bring the matter before the courts.
The case eventually came to the High Court of Justice on 26 July 1910. Carson's opening remarks set the tone of the case:
A boy 13 years old has been labelled and ticketed for all his future life as a thief and a forger. Gentlemen, I protest against the injustice to a child, without communication with his parents, without his case ever being put, or an opportunity of its ever being put forward by those on his behalf. That little boy from the day that he was first charged, up to this moment, whether in the ordeal of being called in before his Commander and his Captain, or whether under the softer influences of the persuasion of his own loving parents, has never faltered in the statement that he is innocent.
Carson soon proved that the grounds on which the Admiralty had dismissed Archer-Shee were unsubstantiated. The barrister successfully proved that the elderly postmistress, Miss Tucker, could easily have been mistaken. She admitted in court that all of the cadets looked alike. Conceding that in the course of dealing with one cadet and her various other tasks and duties, another boy could have entered without her noticing. The court also heard Miss Tucker was unable to identify Archer-Shee among the other cadets when given the opportunity to do so.
On the fourth day of the trial, the Solicitor-General accepted the statement that George Archer-Shee did not cash the postal order "and consequently that he is innocent of the charge. I say further, in order that there may be no misapprehension about it, that I make that statement without any reserve of any description, intending that it shall be a complete justification of the statement of the boy and the evidence he has given before the court."
Following the emphatic verdict, the Archer-Shee family began to press the Admiralty to pay restitution. On 16 March 1911 the First Lord of the Admiralty said that he thought the House of Commons would think it inappropriate. Nevertheless the family continued to press their claim, circulating a booklet within the Establishment presenting their side of the case.
On 6 April, the Archer-Shee case was raised in the Houses of Parliament during a Naval Estimates debate. As most MPs supported compensation, the Admiralty was forced to concede to a judicial hearing to decide the matter, otherwise the business would be 'lost' (a Parliamentary term meaning postponed, not dismissed, to a future day).
Following the hearing, Viscount Mersey agreed the family should be paid £4,120 to cover their costs, and £3,000 compensation "in full settlement of all demands" (Approx. £566,000.00 in 2011 ). All monies were paid in July 1911.
After his expulsion as a naval cadet in 1908, George Archer-Shee returned to the Roman Catholic Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, where he had been educated before going to Osborne Naval College. After completing his studies, he went to work at the Wall Street firm of Fisk & Robinson in New York City.
With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Archer-Shee returned to Britain and was commissioned in the British Army as a second lieutenant in the 1st Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment. It is believed Archer-Shee joined the South Staffs at the suggestion of Sir Edward Carson, whose own nephew F.E. Robinson had recently joined the regiment. Archer-Shee was killed, aged 19, at the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914. His name is inscribed on the war memorial in the village of North Woodchester in Gloucestershire, where his parents lived. His name also appears on the roll of honour of "the men of St Mary’s school and congregation" displayed on the wall at the front of the RC church of St Mary on the Quay, Bristol. Robinson was killed three days before Archer-Shee. Both their names are recorded on tablet 35 of the Menin Gate in Ypres, as neither has a known grave.
Remaining in the Royal Navy, Terence Back, the naval cadet who had received a postal order from a relative for five shillings, was promoted to captain in 1938 and served on the Arctic Convoys during World War II. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1944 and died in 1968.
- Sir Martin Archer Shee (1769–1850), President of the Royal Academy - Archer-Shee's great-great-grandfather
References and sources
- The Archer-Shees against the Admiralty: the Story behind The Winslow Boy by Rodney M. Bennett (Robert Hale, London, 1973)
- The Archer-Shee Case by Ewen Montagu (David and Charles, Newton Abbot, 1974) ISBN 0-7153-6774-9
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