“GENTLEMAN GEORGE” was the nickname given by gipsies to a Bishop Auckland solicitor who defended two of them caught up in the “hedgerow champagne” assault in 1883.

George Maw spoke up for two gipsies who had invented a curious cordial which had, allegedly, aroused the wrath of local lemonade manufacturers, as Memories 440 told.

A lemonade cart belonging to the Thompson family was driven at speed at the gipsies’ cart near The Pollards Inn in Etherley Lane, but two gipsies who had been charged with assault. In court, Mr Maw said that “although they were gipsies, they were Englishmen who will, I know, receive at the hands of the magistrates the fullest justice”.

The magistrates let off one of the gipsies, John Lee, and the other, Christopher Smith, was fined only 6d – not a bad result for the defence solicitor.

The following year, Mr Maw was intimately involved in an even more sensational case: he was charged with defending the three miners accusing of stoning a policeman to death on Diamond Bank at Butterknowle.

The murder took place on February 23, 1884, a rainy night, at pub closing time – a carved stone in the roadside wall today still marks the spot where Acting Sergeant William Smith fell.

A doctor who soon arrived at the scene found the road strewn with missiles and one of the policeman’s eyes hanging from its socket. When he moved the barely breathing body, part of the skull came away in his hand, and then the doctor too was hit by missiles thrown from a nearby pitheap by three men he claimed to recognise in the dark.

South Durham was outraged – Sgt Smith was only the second Durham policeman ever to be killed in the line of duty.

“Butterknowle is not London; the means of escape from justice are few,” said the Darlington & Stockton Times. “Several arrests have been made but, unless the police are tolerably certain that they have caught the bastards, there ought to be no hesitation whatever in placing every house in the entire district under strict surveillance.”

Three pitmen – Joseph Lowson, 25, his brother-in-law William Siddle, 25, and Joseph Hodgson, 20 – were the arrested men. Their day-long drinking session had finished in a verbal altercation with the policeman outside the Diamond Inn, and Siddle had been fined the previous year for violently assaulting Sgt Smith at Woodlands Gala.

All south Durham turned out for Sgt Smith’s funeral, thousands watching the procession, which included 82 Durham policemen, as he was buried in St John’s Church, Lynesack, next to his young daughter who had died two years earlier.

But there was only very shaky evidence to prove the three pitmen’s guilt, and Mr Maw was able to show that the doctor who’d identified them had himself been drinking to such an extent he’d been seen boxing on a table at the Stag’s Head a few hundred metres away and a few minutes earlier in The Slack.

So young Hodgson was acquitted, but Lowson and Siddle were sentenced to hang.

As he was led away, Siddle shouted to his friends: “They have sworn away my life lads; the thundering bloody liars and bastards.”

Through letters from the condemned cells in Durham jail, Siddle protested his innocence, saying that he had been trying to protect his sister’s husband, Lowson, who had become a father for the third time while in custody. Lowson accepted some guilt, but said that young Hodgson had cast the first stone.

Such was the profound excitement in the Durham coalfield that, just one day before the scheduled execution, the Home Secretary, Sir William Vernon Harcourt, stayed the execution and sent a counsel, Mr Cliffe, to Darlington to review the case. He interviewed Hodgson and was then holed up with solicitor Maw for an hour.

The result was that Hodgson remained exonerated but then the Home Secretary also granted Siddle a free pardon. This was sensational. In the previous 70 years, of the 180 people sentenced to death in Durham, and only two had been given a free pardon. This was even more sensational as the only incontrovertible fact in the whole affair – the assault at Woodlands Gala – pointed to Siddle’s guilt.

In the condemned cell, Lowson, who’d worked at Copley Colliery for five years, said farewell to his wife, Jane, and their children – including the three-month-old who’d only ever known him as a prisoner.

From the cell at 7.55am on May 27, 1884, he was led to the gallows.

“On reaching the scaffold the culprit immediately placed himself in position and his cool, resolute bearing surprised all present,” said The Northern Echo. “The executioner quickly adjusted the leg straps.

“As the white cap was placed over his face he said, in a calm voice: ‘I wish to say that Hodgson struck the first blow and then I helped him. I hope that the country and the Crown will look after Siddle and see him safe home again.’

“The executioner immediately pulled the lever and the unhappy man was launched into eternity. The length of drop was eight feet, death being instantaneous.”

So a terrible result for Lowson, but not really a bad result for solicitor Maw, who got two of his clients cleared with Siddle receiving the first free pardon granted in Durham for more than 50 years.

THIS story comes to light thanks to Bishop Auckland historian Tom Hutchinson, who points out that Mr Maw comes from a family of tanners from Wear Chare, the extremely steep bank that drops off the Market Place down to the river.

The first George Maw, who was born in Ferryhill in 1792, established the tannery which in 1820 counted Jonathan Martin among its employees. Jonathan was the lunatic who set fire to York Minster in 1829.

His son, also George (1822-84), was a tanner, currier and leather-cutter, and by 1851, the tannery employed 27 men – a big concern.

His son was the solicitor George. Four years after defending the gipsies who had been hit by Thompsons’ lemonade cart, George was himself in collision with another of the Thompsons’ lemonade wagons. He was thrown off his horse opposite Bishop Auckland station, and died of his injuries, aged 37.

His funeral procession, on October 15, 1887, included his lame horse with an empty saddle hobbling behind the coffin to St Andrew’s Church.

Tom Hutchinson’s research shows that the day after the funeral, George’s widow, Anna, was back at the church for the baptism of their second child. It was a daughter who was named Georgie Anna Maw. It’s an unusual first name – could it have had anything to do with the premature death of her father?