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Edward Marshall Hall

Edward Marshall Hall was one of the most prominent legal figures of his day, and known as ‘The Great Defender’ because of his passionate defence of murder suspects in high profile cases.

Born in Brighton in 1858, he was a tempestuous youth; he was removed from Rugby School and was sent to become a tea merchant. However, his father decided to send him to St John’s College, Cambridge and his legal career began.

Called to the Inner Temple in 1883, and based in chambers at Fountain Court and 3 Temple Gardens, he had a bright start to his career but his reputation fell dramatically when he faced accusations of inappropriate tactics in a libel case against the Daily Mail. However, his career was re-launched following his successful defence of Robert Wood in the Camden Town murder case. Further high profile cases followed, including the Green Bicycle Case and his defence of Marguerite Fahmy, which served to increase his renown and gave him his nickname.

He was appointed King’s Counsel in 1898, and knighted in 1917. However, his secondary career as a politician, following his election to Parliament in 1901 as the Unionist MP for Southport, was not as successful, and his work in the law continued to be his primary focus and main achievement. He died in 1927, aged 69.

The Great Defender

Edward Marshall Hall’s reputation as one of the greatest criminal barristers of his time, encompassing the Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian periods, was earned through his participation in a number of fascinating and newsworthy cases. He belonged to a school of advocacy which fell out of favour even during his own lifetime; one newspaper noted, “When he lays aside his wig and gown, there will go the last representative of a school of barristers.” His emotive style, florid language and lengthy statements (he was known to speak for three hours without pause) would certainly not be accepted in today’s court but they were greatly enjoyed by the public and, more importantly, the juries of his time.

One of the best illustrations of this is in the first case that made his name and reputation, the Maria Hermann case. Hermann was an Austrian prostitute accused of murdering her clients, and had she been found guilty of this crime she could potentially have faced a death sentence. However, Marshall Hall’s tearful plea to the jury persuaded them to convict her on the lesser charge of manslaughter as opposed to murder. He pleaded, “Look at her, gentlemen of the jury, look at her. God never gave her a chance, won’t you?”

The Green Bicycle Case

What became known as The Green Bicycle Case centres on the murder of Bella Wright in Leicestershire in 1919. Wright, a factory worker, was found dead in a field with a gunshot wound to her head. The police enquiries centred around the hunt for the male rider of a green bicycle who was seen  accompanying Wright on the night of her disappearance. This man was revealed to be Ronald Light, an ex-army officer now working as a school teacher, who was only discovered when someone spotted him dismantling his green bike and throwing it into a river five months after the incident. When this river was dredged it yielded a gun holster and bullets which matched the single bullet found at the scene of the murder. During the trial Marshall Hall abandoned his usual emotional style in favour of a more technical and calculated approach. He persuaded Light to admit to being with Wright, to admit ownership of a revolver, and to admit that the holster found in the river was his. He then focused his line of inquiry on technical details of the case, giving particular attention to the evidence of the ballistics expert. Marshall Hall’s argument was that the shot was more likely fired from long range, because a closer range shot such as Light was alleged to have fired would have caused more impact damage to the body. This argument, plus Light’s well spoken evidence, was enough to convince the  jury of his innocence. This case is interesting as it highlights Marshall Hall’s technical proficiency as a barrister. He is often described as being more of an actor than an advocate, but in this case he called upon his experience of previous cases, and his comprehensive knowledge of firearms helped to present a credible alternative account to that put forward by the other side.

The Seddon Poisoning Case

Frederick Seddon was an insurer by trade, and had an obsession with  money which resulted in him choosing to take on Miss Eliza Mary Barrow as a lodger while already earning a generous income. In 1911, after rewriting her will with Mr. Seddon’s help and naming him her executor, Miss Barrow became ill and died shortly afterwards. Seddon arranged a very quick and cheap funeral, which aroused the suspicions of some of Miss Barrow’s family. Upon exhumation of her body it was found that she had died of arsenic poisoning, and Mr. Seddon and his wife became the prime suspects, accused of murdering her with arsenic acquired from fly-paper in order to profit from her will. At this point in his career Marshall Hall was familiar with the task of defending seemingly shocking    charges against individuals. However, he was uneasy with the Seddon case when presented with it, describing it as “the blackest case I’ve ever been in.” Although the same evidence was used against them both, Mrs. Seddon was acquitted whereas Mr. Seddon was found guilty and executed. He insisted on testifying, yet turned the jury against him by his cool and calculating manner. This stands in stark contrast to Marshall Hall’s Camden Town murder case, in which Robert Wood testified in his own favour but was perceived by the jury as being foolish rather than dangerous, and consequently acquitted. In both cases Marshall Hall recommended that the suspect should not testify, and the dramatically different outcomes demonstrate the unpredictability of the jury’s emotions that he tried to manipulate in his clients’ favour.