Lapford farmer, Thomas Leach, was very proud of his new racehorse: Maid of Honour. At 30 guineas the mare was a costly purchase but when she won a stake at Barnstaple Races in the autumn of 1870, Thomas felt sure he had made a good investment. But, the following night, tragedy struck.
The racehorse was being ridden home to Pennycotts, Lapford when she apparently shied away from a man standing on the roadside causing her to stumble on a pile of stones left by a road contractor. It was reported that her legs were lacerated and two knees broken. Thomas’ prize horse would have become almost worthless in an instant.
Keen for compensation, Thomas blamed William Dunn, farmer and keeper of the Union Inn, Down St Mary. William was also overseer of local repairs to the ‘metal’ turnpike road. He arranged for labourers to crack, grade and store stone in roadside ‘depôts’ for use in repairing the metal.
In those days as it was commonplace for differences to be quickly settled using an agreed person as a referee. Thomas failed turn up for an arranged meeting with William Dunn soon after the event, but the referee took the opportunity to examine the stones. He found them to be neatly stored in a small roadside pocket with no sign of any disturbance. William therefore refuted the accusations that had been made.
In January 1871, the matter went to the Crediton Court Court. The key witness was the only person who knew truly knew cause of the racehorse’s injury: Thomas’ son, Thomas jr. He had jockeyed the mare at the Barnstaple Races and ridden her home.
In his evidence for the prosecution Thomas jr was strangely absorbed in protesting his own innocence: I took the safest way home via the Chenson toll gate; the night was dark; it was wet; I lost control as the horse was blind in one eye and hadn’t initially seen the man; I couldn’t avoid the stones as they were protruding towards the centre of the road.
As the case proceeded, more witnesses testified that the stones had been undisturbed and numerous other inconsistencies emerged: the Chenson toll gate keeper was certain that Thomas jr had not passed through as she had been keen to hear the race result from him; the identity of the mysterious man on the roadside remained unknown; the night in question was shown to have been dry and lit by a full moon; and, there was no evidence presented of injury to the horse! There was also suspicion as to why Thomas jr had not told his father of the damage to his prize horse until the following morning.
As Thomas jr’s story fell apart he panicked and changed some key facts. The unknown man who had startled the horse became a bullock and the time of the incident was changed to an entirely different date. Was the court being taken for a ride? The Western Morning News thought so and confidently carried a headline of “perjury”.
How could Thomas have possible past the pile of stones if he hadn’t past the toll-house! How had the mare returned to the farm after breaking her knees? It was a lie without legs!
Local gossip was rife. Had young Thomas spent the day celebrating his win in the inns of Barnstable? With no money left to pay for a toll had he taken an alternative cross country route over hedges and so damaged his father’s horse? Knowing how angry his father would be, had he covered-up his drunken misdemeanour by waiting until the sober light of day to tell a fabricated version of events? The court room became heated with the judge consistently warning against the use of bad language. The judge finally dismissed the case ruling in that he distrusted Thomas jr’s version of events. Weeks later, Maid of Honour was out winning races, seemingly none the worse for her two broken knees! Thomas jr was no longer her jockey.