Cakes in the Dock: a cake provokes a murder in 1743!

This is an occasional series  highlighting the strange and unexpected ways that cake featured at the Old Bailey court in London (later the Central Criminal Court). They all come from the excellent Old Bailey online which is a fully searchable database of the proceedings of the court from 1674.

Today’s case is a good deal more sensational than the last one which was a burglary. This time, a cake – a Simnel cake, to be precise – was the prime motivation for a murder.

It was September 1743, around one o’clock in the afternoon, and two young men, William Chetwynd  and Thomas Ricketts, of Mr Clare’s Academy in London, were together in their rooms. William had a cake, and had already given a piece to Thomas, which he had eaten. Now, William decided he wanted another, and proceeded to cut it with a knife. Thomas asked for another piece too, and William refused, but tauntingly laid his own piece on a bureau by the window. Thomas, who was much the taller – 19 years to William’s 15 –  jokingly leant over and picked it up. William, maddened either by the taunt or by the prospect of the loss of his treat, stabbed him in the stomach with the knife. Unfortunately his action had tragic consequences for his friend: the knife penetrated deep into his stomach and he died a few days later, leaving the presumably distraught William to face the full course of the law.

We should, perhaps, assume that cake was not often the cause of a row leading to an accidental killing (the court debated for some time on whether there was malice involved, as this changed the terms of reference as far as the definition of the crime was involved. They decided that it was not, as the two were friends, and Thomas even forgave William  his act in his dying hour). It was certainly an extremely sorry end to a sociable gathering; as the Council said in the summing up,

All the Provocation given was taking up a Piece of  Cake, which is not such an Offence, as can justify the Prisoner’s attacking the Person.

But by the by, the case does have some interesting details about the cake involved. The court was keen to know what type it was, for example, and how hard to cut – this presumably had an impact on the involvement of the knife. The Council for the Prosecution asked of one of the other scholars who had been present, on learning it was a Simnel Cake:

I think they are very hard, with a Crust on the outside, and difficult to be cut?

The Form of Shrewsbury Simnel Cakes
Image: Chamber’s Book of Days, 1869, taken from here

He confirmed that it was.Today, a Simnel Cake is a Fruit Cake traditionally made at Easter, and so could quite well be covered with hard icing; certainly an iced Fruit Cake needs a bit more force to cut it than a Sponge Cake. However, in the past, Simnel Cakes had greater variety, and one of these variants, the Shrewsbury Simnel, had a saffron-yellow crust, as can be seen in the image above. Perhaps it was one of these which William had bought and guarded so closely. It’s interesting that he had one in September; clearly it wasn’t confined to Easter time, especially since it’s extremely unlikely that a boarding scholar would have made one himself; it must have been bought, or made for him by someone else.

The case was complex because of the question of malice, prior intention and passion, and eventually no verdict was brought in. Instead, the case was referred to a higher court for judgement.

You can find out more about Shrewsbury Simnel Cakes here


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