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‘Hang the Blandford Rioters!’

Sir Stephen Gaselee was an irascible judge who used to sit in judgment at the Dorchester Assizes in the 1820s & 1830s. He was well-known for his prosecution of radicals and reformers. This was evidenced in March 1832 when he sentenced Blandford’s George Long and Sturminster Newton’s Richard Bleathman to be hung in Dorchester Jail for their involvement in the 1831 North Dorset riots. Both were found guilty of having ‘in their minds wholly to destroy’ the house of local lawyer, George Moore. They believed Moore was using confidential client information to disqualify political opponents from voting in a Dorset by-election.

Sir Stephen had connections to author Charles Dickens which went a little further than their shared birthplace of the dockyard city of Portsmouth.

It is said that Justice Stareleigh, who featured in the Pickwick Papers famous legal case of Bardell v Pickwick, was based on Dickens’ knowledge of Sir Stephen Gaselee. Stareleigh is indeed something of a synonym of Gaselee. Charles Dickens wrote:

‘Mr Justice Stareleigh (who sat in the absence of the Chief Justice, occasioned by indisposition) was a most particularly short man, and so in fact, that he seemed all face and waistcoat.

He rolled in, upon two little turned legs, and having bobbed gravely to the Bar, who bobbed gravely to him, put his little legs underneath his table, and his little three-cornered hat upon it; and when Justice Stareleigh had done this, and all you could see of him was two queer little eyes, one broad pink face, and somewhere about half of a big and very comical-looking wig.’ 

‘Justice Stareleigh who immediately wrote down something with a pen without any ink in it, and looked unusually profound, to impress the jury with the belief that he always thought most deeply with his eyes shut.’

Gouty affections’ no doubt contributed to Stareleigh’s testy temperament as Charles Dickens wrote, ’Justice Stareleigh’s temper bordered on the irritable and brooked no contradiction.’ 

Fortunately, the Dorchester hangings of George Long and Richard Bleathman did not take place. Following the receipt of petitions for leniency from Blandford and Sturminster Newton, Gaselee altered his judgment to transportation for life in the Southern Hemisphere.

Charles Dickens’ account of the Bardell v Pickwick trial appeared a couple of months before Sir Stephen Gaselee retired. Maybe by then the hard of hearing, 75 year-old was embarrassed by the unflattering portrait that the popular 25 year-old author had painted? Back in 1828, Gaselee had sat in judgment on a legal case of Brooke v Pickwick. Maybe Charles Dickens was present that day, as a young reporter, and this was the source of the name of Samuel Pickwick in Pickwick Papers?


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