1916 court: Lady fined for handling secret correspondence

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The first case taken at Scarborough against a person for carrying on a letter call-office, which was unregistered under the Defence of the Realm Regulations came before the Scarborough magistrates.

Defendant was Annie Hickson, shopkeeper, 5, Museum Terrace, and she was summoned for having carried on the business of receiving for reward, letters, telegrams or other postal packets for delivery at 5, Museum Terrace, and failing to send to the chief constable, for registration by him, notice of the fact, between July 1st and December 6th, 1916.

Defendant, a respectable looking woman, admitted the offence, but said she was quite innocent of doing wrong because she had not been notified object of the regulations.

The chief constable said it was probably well known that in pre-war days different shops, in various localities, were used for the purpose of letter call-offices, a small charge being made by the persons who used them. Such offices might be used by persons who had no fixed address, or persons with secret correspondence, which they did not want friends and relatives to know about. When war broke out it was realised that such offices might be a source of danger to the realm, and the Defence of the Realm Regulations stated that persons conducting such call-offices had to notify the chief police officer of the district. They had, too, to keep a correct register giving full particulars of communications received, the postmark, and each letter had to be signed for by the person to whom it was addressed. All these things were done with the object of checking any secret correspondence which might be going on.

In this particular case, Miss Hickson had a picture postcard and fancy goods shop, and she had carried on a letter call-office, which she had not notified to the police. One letter was addressed to “Gladys” c/o Miss Hickson, another to Miss Clarke, another to Mr Croft. There was a Miss Davies, but Miss Hickson could not say where Miss Davies lived, or anything about her. She knew nothing about these people who were receiving the letters. One addressed to Mr HB and marked “urgent”, might be a hoax, or it might not. It was purporting to be something of great importance, but Miss Hickson did not know who HB was. No one had been to call for the letter, it was handed to the magistrates. Probably there was no cause for any anxiety about that, but at the same time those call-offices might be used by undesirable persons, and unless the regulations were carried out they might be a danger to the realm. He had brought that case, not for the purpose of punishing Miss Hickson - he did not know that any harm had been carried on without registration. Such offences were regarded as serious - it was not a summary offence, but one which had to be submitted to the competent military authority for him to decide whether defendant should be tried by court martial. Lord Basing had decided that it could be adequately dealt with by summary jurisdiction. Miss Hickson had said she did not read the newspapers, and did not know the regulations, and he believed her; but regulations had been posted on boardings, and if she did not make herself acquainted with them she might be a serious danger to the community. A few months ago he had seized at her shop hundreds of postcards with pictures of ships of the British Navy, and so on. She did not know - what other dealers knew - that the sale of such had been forbidden. The competent military authority decided not to take steps in the case, and he (the chief) took possession of the cards, and would keep them until after the war when she could have them back.

The ignorance was danger. She said to Detective Nalton that she got a penny for each letter, and had carried on the business ten years. She had never been warned that it was wrong. She thought it was shame for him (the officer) to go into the matter. Miss Carr, a neighbour, had told her last Wednesday that it was wrong, and the (defendant) was going to see the chief constable on the next half-holiday (that day). No one (the police) she said, had warned her.

The chief, continuing, said the police could not warn everybody. Defendant pleaded ignorance and put in testimonials as to character, but there was nothing against her character.

Defendant said she had been engaged for some time at the Army Pay Office at York, and on returning she had not the slightest idea that she was doing wrong in continuing the business. She had heard that several had been officially warned, but she was not told, she was away. She had had to sell up her home since the war started, because she had a horror of debt, and she was now doing knitting to try to eke out a living. She had not time to read the newspapers now.

The mayor said the magistrates had taken into consideration what defendant had said, and they were satisfied there was no intent to do wrong in that matter. It was very important, however that regulations at times like these especially, should be carried out.

The magistrates would inflict only a nominal penalty of 5s.