The Curiosities of the Laws of the Land

Westminster Bridge with the Big Ben in the background

English Law is a curious mix of statute, common law and case law, some of which is centuries old and to say the least, obscure. In today’s blog we have a look at some of the myths and legends that have sprung up over time and debunk some of the more obscure ones.

Do you have a plank? Do you want to take it for a walk along the pavement? Well beware! Under section 54 of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 it was and remains a criminal offence. This section of the Act also prohibits the flying of kites from the pavement and sliding on snow and ice in the street.

This curious Act, which as of yet has not been repealed, also makes it illegal to fire a cannon within 300 yards of a dwelling house (section 55) and for those of you looking to beat your rug or carpet in the street, you’d better watch out. Section 60 makes that a criminal offence too (with the exception of shaking of doormats before 8am).

Had a few too many? Are you in a pub? Well in that case, you are committing a criminal offence under section 12 of the Licensing Act 1872 which states that “every person found drunk… on any licensed premises, shall be liable to a penalty”. The same piece of legislation also criminalises the act of being drunk in charge of a horse.

If you find yourself on a country road, stuck behind a herd of cows being transferred from one field to another, over the highway, you may want to point out to the farmer that under the The Metropolitan Streets Act 1867 it is illegal to drive cattle through the streets between 10am and 7pm, except with the permission of the Commissioner of Police. And as for sheep, it is a common misconception that Freemen of the City of London are at liberty to drive their sheep over London Bridge at their will. The City of London police would have something to say about it if they did as they do not permit sheep to be taken across the bridge (aside from the occasional publicity stunt). In 2008, for example, around 500 Freemen drove a flock of sheep across the bridge to raise money for charity.

In York it is said that it is legal to shoot a Scotsman with a longbow within the city walls on any day but a Sunday. Well, I’m pleased to say that our Scottish cousins are perfectly safe in this beautiful city. Unlawful killings are now covered by the criminal law so for those with a Scottish grudge, lower your weapons!

That being said until 1960, it was a requirement to keep a longbow and regularly practice archery under The Unlawful Games Act 1541. Sadly, for the longbow enthusiasts, this requirement was repealed in the Betting and Gaming Act 1960.

Whilst urinating in public does not have any specific statute governing it (most local authorities do have byelaws to cover the position), the common beliefs that it is legal for a man to urinate in public, as long it is against the rear offside wheel of his motor vehicle and his right hand is on the vehicle and for a pregnant woman being able to urinate in public anywhere (even in a policeman’s helmet) are nothing more than urban myths.

For those MP’s reading this, wearing a suit of armour to attend Parliament is a no-no under the The 1313 Statute Forbidding Bearing of Armour.
Whilst legislation dating back to 1313 can be expected to be odd in today’s day and age, you don’t have to look too far back to find peculiarities in the modern day law. Fisherman, for example, should be wary. Under the Salmon Act of 1986 it is a criminal offence to handle salmon in suspicious circumstances!

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