10th Jul 1915. Belgians Charged with Theft – The Trial


Two Belgian workmen, Petros John Van Wezer, 15 Rowland Street, Rugby, and Gabriel Joseph Peeters, 65 Pinfold Street, New Bilton, were charged on remand by John Ward, on behalf of Messrs Willans & Robinson, Ltd, with stealing 21lbs weight of metal, of the value of 17s 6d, on July 1st.

Mr H Lupton Reddish, solicitor, Rugby, prosecuted, and Mr Harold Eaden, solicitor, Rugby, defended.

Mr Reddish, in opening the case, said where stolen goods were found in the possession of a person the presumption was that person had stolen them, but in this case (if it was decided to have it dealt with by the Bench) their Worships would be dealing with the case as both judge and jury, and a jury in a charge of stealing was always told if the evidence was not sufficient for them to justify a conviction on that charge could bring in a conviction of receiving stolen goods ; and it would be for their Worships to decide in this case which of the two courses would be the more applicable. They were aware of the unfortunate plight in which Belgian refugees came to England. Most of them were destitute and homeless, and whatever they possessed certainly would not include pieces of metal such as would be produced in this case. Both the defendants had worked for a short time at Messrs Willans & Robinson’s (one for a day only). These petty pilferings were always going on at these large works, and the Company had felt compelled to bring the case forward.

John Ward, foreman millwright at Willans & Robinson’s Works, living at Lawford Fields,, identified the metal as the property of the Company.—By Mr Eaden : He did not think it possible for a man to carry a parcel of metal (like that produced) unobserved from the works, and he thought the pilfering had probably been going on for weeks. He had no reason to suspect Van Wezer. They had a man in their employ named De Herdt. who lived in one of the houses erected by the Company. De Herdt would have equal access to the brass as the other men, if not better access.

P.S Brown deposed that on Thursday last week he received certain information, in consequence of which he made enquiries, and saw the two defendants in the Market Place. He told them he was making enquiries about some metal which they had offered for sale, and asked them to show him where it was. Wester said, “ De Herdt gave us the metal,” and conducted witness to certain licensed premises, where he produced a parcel from a shelf under the counter in the bar. Witness found the parcel contained the articles of brass produced. In the presence of the defendants the landlord said Wezer left the parcel. The officer said he was present when Mr Ward identified the metal as the property of Messrs Willans & Robinson, Ltd. Its weight was 21lbs, and its value was stated to be 17s 6d. When charged with the theft Peeters said, through an interpreter, “ He has told the truth this morning ” ; and Van Wezer replied, “ I am not guilty.”

The evidence of the witnesses was interpreted to defendants by Mr Delvaulx.

Mr Eaden asked Sergt Brown if he had been able to find out who stole the metal. The officer replied that he knew no more than he had stated, but he reckoned the two defendants stole it. He heard the men had been offering the metal for sale, and had taken it to a public-house. The landlord did not tell him whether Peeters was with Van Wezer when he took the metal into the house.

The licensee of the public-house in which the metal was found, said Van Wezer went into the bar on Thursday, July 1st, and, speaking in broken English, asked if he could leave the parcel in question. He had known defendant as a customer for about six weeks, and, acting on witness’s advice, the man left the parcel under the counter. Witness did not examine the parcel nor handle it in any way. Van Wezer called for a glass of ale, and asked if his friend—whom he took to be Peeters—had been in, and he replied that he had not.—By Mr Eaden : He had other Belgian customers, but did not know De Herdt by name, though he might know him by sight. He did not remember another Belgian with his wife and daughter coming in on the Tuesday. Van Wezer’s act was perfectly open, and the story the men told to the police was perfectly truthful, there being no attempt to deceive.

Victor Delvaulx, civil engineer, said he was at present acting as interpreter between the Belgian workmen employed at Messrs Willans & Robinson’s and the Works Management. He was present when the two defendants started work, and also when they were charged with stealing the metal by Sergt Brown, the police evidence on the point being correct.

Defendants elected to be dealt with by the Bench, and on their behalf Mr Eaden pleaded not guilty.

Mr Eaden, addressing the Bench in defence, said his submission was that the two defendants were entirely the innocent tool of De Herdt, and that their act right through was the act of innocent men. There was no suggestion that they endeavoured to secrete the parcel or to deal with it as one would expect a criminal to deal with it. The men knew De Herdt, who had a wife and daughter, and last Tuesday was removing from Worcester Street to a new house, and defendants offered to give him a hand. In the course of the morning one of them picked up a rather heavy parcel, which was ostensibly a parcel of clothing. One of the men remarked that the parcel seemed very heavy, at which the De Herdts smiled, but nothing was then said, because other people were present. In the evening of the same day they went to a public-house, and when outside De Herdt said : ” I have a job for you. I will tell you what we were smiling about. That heavy parcel inside the clothing contained a lot of scrap copper, which I have been collecting from the Works.” De Herdt invited Van Wezer to sell it for him as his agent. He did not say definitely he would not do this, but replied : ” I don’t like the job ; I am afraid of it.” De Herdt pressed him still further, and then he absolutely declined to touch it. Next day the men had occasion to go to De Herdt’s house, because Peeters was rather skilled as a bootmaker, and he had some repairs to do for the De Herdt family. Van Wezer was again asked to sell the metal, but he refused. On the following day he was again asked by Mrs De Herdt to sell the metal. She seemed to have over-persuaded him. He took it away, and on her instructions went to a shop and endeavoured to sell it. The deal did not come off, and Van Wezer took the parcel to the public-house, and left it there for De Herdt to take it away. De Herdt did not tell him that the property was stolen and he would be guilty of no offence in taking it. His submission was that the proper person was not before the Bench that day. There was no evidence on the part of the prosecution that these two men took the metal from the Works, and, so far as Peeters was concerned there was no evidence that he ever handled the metal. At most the offence alleged against him was that he was at certain times in the company of Van Wezer, who, it was admitted, took the metal to the public-house. There was not even the suspicion of a case against Peeters of having stolen or received this metal, and he submitted that defendant was entitled to be acquitted as an innocent man, and so far as Van Wezer was concerned, he submitted there was no, case against him, for the reason that he was over-persuaded.

The Chairman announced that the Bench had decided to dismiss the case against Peeters.

Mr Reddish submitted that the two men were acting together at the time, but the Chairman said there was no evidence of that, and that was the feeling of the Magistrates on the matter.

On the decision of the Bench being communicated to Peeters, he fainted away.

The Court then adjourned for an hour.

When the Court resumed, Mary Anderson, the landlady of De Herdt’s in Worcester Street, gave evidence of the removal of the goods, and said only one man, who usually wore blue overalls, assisted. The goods consisted of two very large boxes, which contained all the family’s belongings, and these were removed in two journeys. She did not see a bundle taken away, and she did not remember having seen Van Wezer before.

Madame Christine De Herdt said their goods were removed in two boxes and one parcel. The latter contained soiled linen, and was not a heavy bundle. The wife of Van Wezer helped her, and whilst they were moving Van Wezer and Peeters were at the house in Worcester Street, also at the huts, where they were now living. Van Wezer had been to the huts about three times since they had removed there.—By Mr Eaden : The large parcel was tied up in bedclothes. Mrs Van Wezer took up the parcel alone, but witness offered to help her, as she had a free hand. After the removal, her husband, Van Wezer, and witness went together to a public-house, and there conversed on the war. On the following day Peeters and Van Wezer went to their house about some boots he was repairing. Van Wezer and Peeters also went on the next day, but neither of them took anything away from the house.

Germaine De Herdt, daughter of the last Witness, said when they removed from Worcester Street, there was a parcel containing washing clothes, wrapped up with cloth. On the following Thursday morning Peeters and Van Wezer went to the huts, but neither of them took anything away.—By Mr Eaden : She could have easily carried the parcel alone. Peeters and Van Wezer helped to carry the big boxes.

Defendant, giving evidence on oath, said he helped the De Herdts to move, Peeters being with him. The bundle was wrapped up in a counterpane, and when they got to the fence in front of the huts, he threw it over. De Herdt protested, and said it was dangerous. He added : “ My wife knows what is in it, and if she does stupid things she must take the consequences.” Later in the day, De Herdt spoke to him privately. He said I have a job for you ; will you do it ? ” We asked what it was, and De Herdt said he had at home a parcel containing little pieces of copper, which he had been collecting. Defendant replied: “ I have nothing to do with this. Why do you come to me for this job ? ” De Herdt told him the copper was in the bundle of dirty clothes. Next day De Herdt asked why he refused to take the copper away, because it was not stolen. He still declined to have anything to do with it. On Thursday morning Mrs De Herdt called him inside the house and asked him to sell the contents of the parcel for her husband. She asked him not to be afraid, as the copper was not stolen, and he could use the name of her husband. Peeters then went into the house and saw De Herdt’s daughter give him the parcel. He took the copper to a shop-keeper, but he refused to take it, and, fearing to keep the parcel any longer, as it might get him into trouble, he took it to the public-house, asking the landlord to keep it until another man (meaning De Herdt) came to fetch it away.—By Mr Reddish : De Herdt did not tell him the copper came from the Works, but he said he could get some more. When De Herdt told him he had a job for him, he explained that it was to sell the copper. He had got the idea there was something wrong about it, and so he refused to have anything to do with it, knowing that bits of copper were not picked up in the street. When, on the Thursday, Mde De Herdt asked him to take the copper away and sell it, she told him not to be afraid, as he should have some of the money. He never had any conversation with De Herdt about sharing the money if he sold the copper.

Mr Reddish enquired what defendant said to the shopkeeper when he offered him the copper ? —Defendant said he asked : “ Do you want this?” and the shopkeeper said : “ No; not enough.” Thereupon he left the shop.

Peeters was called to corroborate the statement of Van Wezer as to receiving the metal from Miss De Herdt, but his evidence was not taken, and the Chairman intimated that the Bench thought there might be a charge of receiving the metal knowing the same to have been stolen, and Mr Eaden was invited to address the Magistrates

Mr Eaden said his client was over-persuaded on the third day to take the metal away. It was perfectly clear there was no bargain struck. Van Wezer tested the matter by taking it to a shop. He might have had some slight guilty knowledge when he did this ; but taking the metal to the shop opened his eyes, and he left the metal at a public-house, telling the landlord another man would call for it. Therefore he submitted there was not the guilty knowledge which was essential to the charge of receiving this property. He was not satisfied at the time he took the metal to the shop that it had been stolen. Afterwards, when he was satisfied, he parted company with it. That, he submitted, was evidence of the man’s innocence—it was burning his fingers and he wanted to get rid of it at once.

The Chairman said the Bench were not satisfied that defendant had guilty knowledge that the metal was stolen. Therefore, the case against him was dismissed.

Addressing the interpreter, the Chairman said the Magistrates wished to thank him for his great kindness and ability. He had a very difficult task, and had been a great assistance to the Bench and the advocates.

Mr Reddish said both Mr Eaden and himself concurred in what the Chairman had said, as without an interpreter they could not have got along.


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