Wellinton, Shropshire, surgeon J. F. Steedman was famed and highly regarded throughout the area of Wellington, Shropshire, for his skills as a surgeon. However in 1854 Mr Steedman caused a sensation in Wellington when he was on trial for attacking and severely beating a Mormon missionary.
The trial of Thomas Williams v J. F. Steedman took place in the County Court, under “that indefatigable” member of the judiciary, Uvedale Corbett, Esq., as the Welllintton Journal described him.
The case was brought against Mr Steedman by Thomas Williams, a “Mormonite” –as they were then often described- from Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire, some twelve or so miles from Wellington.
Due to the high feelings of people against the Mormons in Wellington and the popularity of Mr Steedman, the case had to be removed from the Wellington County Court to the picturesque medieval town hall of Newport, Shropshire.
On the day of the trial the courtroom was packed out with a large crowd of interested parties.
Mr Craig was the advocate for the plaintiff, T. S. Smallwood for the defence. The damages claimed were fixed at the then princely sum of £50.
After the jury was sworn in Mr Craig stated the case of his client, claiming that he had been the subject of an unprovoked attack by Mr Steedman. (In Britain surgeons are always addresses as Mr., never doctor, by tradition.)
He concluded his opening speech by questioning Williams as to his belief in the New Testament, which he professed to believe in.
Williams gave the following deposition to the court: “I am a thread-finisher in the employ of Marshalls of Shrewsbury, where I have been employed for 15 years.
On Sunday 1 January this year (1854) I was in Park Street, Wellington, in the company of a young man named Henry Shaw, going from house to house, distributing tracts belonging to my sect.
“I called at the house of Mr Steedman who is a surgeon, alone. Mr Steedman answered the door himself. (many employers in Victorian times gave their servants Sunday off) I presented a tract, and asked him if he would have the kindness to read it, and I would call on him on the next Sunday, and renew it if agreeable. He glanced over the outside of the tract and asked if I would walk in.
“I said I had no objection, and he shewed me into a room on the left side, There was no one in the room. He went to the window, opened it, looked up and down the street for a moment or so. And then shut the window.
He opened the tract, turned it leaf after leaf and said; “What does this tract contain?” I said; “It contains the initiatory principles into the sect of which I am a member of.” He said: “What is that?” I answered: “”Faith, repentance, baptism, and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.”
He said: “You believe in miracles, don’t you?” I said I did. He said: “You believe in the gift of tongues?” I answered that we did. He said: “What reason have you for believing that?” I replied, “because I had received them myself.” He said: “You believe in the gift of healing, don’t you?” I said: “Yes, we do.”
He then rushed at me, gave me a blow with his clenched fist over my left eye and said, with an oath, “Get that healed!” The blow nearly stunned me, and caused me to kneel, but before I fell, he again struck me. That floored me.
He then commenced kicking me; the first kick was on the calf of my leg, the second was in the ribs. The room appeared to spin round, and I seemed to be losing my senses. His kicks took the breath out of me. When my senses returned he was standing over me, and again commenced kicking me.
With the assistance of a chair, I got into a half-standing position, and he then began striking me, about the head, face and shoulders with his fist. I called “murder,” and made for the door, which I got open about an inch. He rushed at me, put his foot against the door and shut it, and recommenced kicking and striking me. I shouted: “Oh, dear sir, have mercy upon me; or do you intend to kill me?”
He took no notice, but gave me a blow on the left temple that sent me bouncing against the wall. I felt myself going again. He then stepped back a yard or so, and I got the door open.
He rushed at me, and with a kick on my posteriors, sent me from the door to the causeway, and said: “There, _______, you devil, take that!” I went over the intermediate steps, clear. I saw no one but the defendant while in his house. I did not strike him, the first blow put me past striking. He is a much larger man than I am. While I was against the palisading (in front of the defendant’s house) Shaw came up. I saw also a man and a boy.
Shaw assisted me. We walked a few yards, and then I vomited three mouthfuls of blood. We went to Mrs Butler’s in New Street. Mrs Butler fomented my face with hot water for about half-an-hour, and gave me a glass of spirits.
“I lay on the sofa till about a quarter past seven. Mr Shaw assisted me upstairs and looked at my ribs. I had much difficulty in getting home that night by rail. My mother got me to bed and sent for Mr Pidduck, the surgeon. He could not come, but sent directions for my treatment. “On the next day, I went with my father to Wellington, and saw Mr Jones, the surgeon, there. On our return I fell fainting into my father’s arms.
“Mr Gill first saw me on Wednesday the 4. In the meantime I was fomented and poulticed, as Mr Pidduck directed, by my mother. Mr Gill attended me till the 28 or 29 of January, the day before I resumed my employment.
“During that time I was constantly attended by my mother. I could not dress or undress myself for a fortnight. I am now wearing a strengthening plaster on my side, by Mr Gill’s orders.
“I cannot work overtime as I formerly did, and now follow my employment with difficulty. Before the injuries I earned 15s a week, including overtime.”
He informed the court that he had been made overseer (“of the saints”) in the district and claimed that no tracts were delivered without his knowledge. “I never saw Mr Steedman before.”
In his cross-examination, he admitted that the dissemination of the doctrine of “plural marriage” had caused many disturbances in Wellington. He denied that he had offered religious instruction to Mr Steedman, or that he had claimed that the “gift of tongues” was “exclusive to Mormons.”
Henry Shaw, who was also employed as a thread-finisher at Messrs. Marshal’s, PC Smith of Wellington; Mary Butler of Wellington, formerly a Mormonite, but who was, she told the court, now a Roman Catholic (“I have not been a saint since last October”) and Mary Williams, the mother of the plaintiff; all gave evidence that corroborated some of the parts of the statement by Williams.
The controversial Mormon doctrine of polygamy, where one man could take as many wives as he wanted, did seem to influence the development of the case.
George P. Gill, who had examined Williams said; “I examined the plaintiff. The principal injury was merely a bruise, extending from the fourth to the seventh ribs. It was a good deal swollen and very tender. It might have been produced by a blow or a kick, most probably the latter.
He had complained of some difficulty in breathing. I did not see him spit blood. If the vomiting took place, it most likely proceeded from the rupture of a small blood vessel. I saw no reason to apprehend any bleeding had taken place.
There was a contusion on the left eye, not of any very serious extent. The plaintiff appeared to have had a good beating. A small enlargement of the gland took place about a fortnight after I was called in. During the first part of his illness, he appeared to suffer a great deal of pain. I saw him twice at his own house. He came to me about three weeks. During that time I think he was not able to work.
“He seems a poor, feeble, sickly person. From the nature of his constitution, the injuries may be felt for some time, but it is not very probable. The enlargement of the gland has almost subsided.
“The distance between my house and the plaintiff’s is about a mile and a half; he came to me three or four times. My attentions were so slight that I only charged a guinea.”
Mr Craig, for Williams told the court that the sole reason for the attack was personal animosity towards his client by Mr Steedman.
However, the defence advocate, T. C. Smallwood painted a wholly different picture. He scoffed at the idea that there was any personal animosity by Mr Steedman for Williams.
He told the jury that Mr Steedman had been affronted by having someone of the beliefs of the plaintiff promoting his religion in the town in which he, Mr Steedman, lived.
The words T. C. Smallwood used were reported thus: “Mr Steedman felt indignation at having the privacy of his home invaded by disseminators of doctrines of the horrible nature that had been disclosed.”
According to the local press, the speech was skilful at playing on the passions of the jury. He asked them, as husbands and fathers, to put themselves in the place of Mr Steedman.
Consider, he asked, if his resentment at the “lewd and blasphemous creed, which this sect propagates, was not pardonable?”
The impression he made on the jury was strong and the calm and clear summing up by Judge Corbett was unable to remove the effects from the minds of the jury members. After only a few moments consultation the jury rose and returned a unanimous verdict. Although they found in favour of the plaintiff (Mr Steedman had not after all, denied that he had assaulted Williams) in the sum of £5.
Mr Steedman was also known for his great work for Christ Church, Wellington. Whilst one can understand his animosity towards the “Mormonites” it is arguably a pity that someone in his position had been unable to show some “Christian” restraint in his dealing with Williams. Who, perhaps, should not have brought the case in the first place, on similar grounds.