August 11 2011 at 10:35

Reference in a judgment delivered by Judge Jeremy Pickering this week sent me to the Rhodes law library to read up about what must surely be one of the most sensational stories in South African legal history.

It’s the 1884 case of Williams v Shaw, in which “the Very Rev Frederick Henry Williams, DD, clerk in Holy Orders and the colonial chaplain, rector and dean of St George’s, Grahamstown”, brought a defamation action against William Bunting Shaw, an “enrolled agent of the Grahamstown magistrate’s court”.

Williams claimed £1 000 from Shaw, saying he had falsely said that he, Williams, had been guilty of infidelity to his wife, was a liar, a thief – and an atheist.

The case, spread over six months and involving 72 witnesses called by Shaw and 20 by Williams, ended badly for the dean.

The court found so much of what Shaw had claimed was proved true that the untrue defamatory matter left over warranted only nominal damages. They ordered the parties to pay their own costs and awarded Williams just a shilling. This was not a case involving high matters of theology – the claim that Williams was an atheist was based on one throw-away remark. Faced with layabout members of his flock no doubt, he was supposed to have said: “It is idle to trust in Providence; we must be up and doing.” A very sensible view, and the three judges who heard the case made it clear there was nothing in the remark to justify calling him an atheist. But there is little else in the case that shows Williams to have been sensible. Human, no doubt, but not sensible.

One of Shaw’s grounds for calling him a liar was that Williams had allegedly doctored a testimonial sent to him “by various gentlemen in England” about a new schoolteacher come to the Cape. Shaw claimed that Williams had changed the testimonial, making it more glowing than the original, then sent the new version to the Eastern Star newspaper for publication. Williams, a leader writer for that paper, denied every aspect of this claim, but came unstuck when Shaw produced another telegram with some notes on the back in Williams’s own handwriting, saying, among other things: “I have sent the other telegram, cooked, to the Star.” Shaw also used the case to publicise the fact that Williams was often drunk. “He lied when he said, on a number of occasions, that he had never been drunk in his life,” Shaw told the court. 

Faced with the evidence of a witness who found Williams drunk one night in Grahamstown’s High Street, Williams responded that he “was suffering from the effects of dyspepsia”. In his judgment, Judge President Barry concluded: “The evidence of a number of witnesses affirms that the dyspepsia about which we heard so much was the result of a too free indulgence in intoxicating liquor.”

But there was worse, including the fact that he had paid the legal fees for a different court case in which he was involved with money “borrowed” from a fund intended for something completely different. No doubt the combination of sexual misbehaviour and drink must have enthralled the public most of all, like the evidence from a witness who said there was a fire in the town late one night.

While he was watching the flames, he saw the dean come to look with a woman (not his wife) on his arm. He took a flask from his pocket and gave her a drink from it. Another witness commented: “I don’t think the dean was steady; both his manner and the way he was walking made me think he was not sober.”

Most scandalous, however, was his relationship with his wife, his first cousin, and an accomplished woman rather younger than he. In 1882, at a time when such a thing was almost unheard of, they divorced.

Then he urged her to go overseas under an assumed name: he wanted her out of town during the case so she could not be called to give evidence; she wanted the money he offered her to go.

The court found that Williams lied about persuading her to use a false name, just as he lied about his behaviour – detailed in the judgment – with other women before they were divorced. For all its quaint and pompous judicial language, the case of Williams v Shaw shook my view of Victorian stuffiness; this was pure News of the World.


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