The consequences of a routine case

On 2 July 1866 William Onion appeared at the Middlesex Sessions charged with trying to throw a police officer in the Thames. He could not afford a lawyer and the inspector informed the court of his previous convictions. He was sent to jail for nine months, with hard labour. On his release he went on to earn the title of Britain’s most convicted man due to an alcohol addiction and a sense of injustice.

Onion reflected that the charge was absurd because the officer was much heavier than him. At the original hearing in the magistrate’s court, he was charged with violent assault. At the sessions, where the evidence was scrutinised more, this was reduced to assault. The testimony of the officer changed too. Originally, he used his truncheon to escape but now was rescued by passers-by.

None of Onion’s convictions were for dishonesty and he later alleged with some justification that the police were ill-treating him. Perhaps his life would have been different if his respect for authority had not been lost.

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