Woolmington v DPP

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
JudgeLord Chancellor,The Lord Chancellor,Lord Hewart,Lord Tomlin,Lord Wright
Judgment Date05 April 1935
Judgment citation (vLex)[1935] UKHL J0405-1
Date05 April 1935
CourtHouse of Lords
Director of Public Prosecutions (on Behalf of His Majesty).

[1935] UKHL J0405-1

Lord Chancellor.

Lord Hewart (L.C.J.).

Lord Atkin.

Lord Tomlin.

Lord Wright.

House of Lords

After hearing Counsel as well yesterday as this day, upon the Petition and Appeal of Reginald Woolmington, praying, That the matter of the Order set forth in the First Schedule thereto, namely, an Order of His Majesty's Court of Criminal Appeal, of the 18th of March 1935, might be reviewed before His Majesty the King, in His Court of Parliament, and that the said Order might be reversed, varied or altered or that the Petitioner might have such other relief in the premises as to His Majesty the King, in His Court of Parliament, might seem meet; and Counsel having been heard on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions (on behalf of His Majesty), the Respondent to the said Appeal; and due consideration being had of what was offered on either side in this Cause:

It is Ordered and Adjudged, by the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, in the Court of Parliament of His Majesty the King assembled. That the said Order of His Majesty's Court of Criminal Appeal, of the 18th day of March 1935, complained of in the said Appeal, be, and the same is hereby, Reversed, and that the conviction be quashed: And it is further Ordered, That the Cause be, and the same is hereby, remitted back to the Court of Criminal Appeal, to do therein as shall be just and consistent with this Judgment.

Lord Chancellor .

My Lords,


The Appellant, Reginald Woolmington, after a trial at the Somerset Assizes at Taunton on 23rd January, at which, after an absence of one hour and twenty-five minutes, the jury disagreed, was convicted at the Bristol Assizes on the 14th February of the wilful murder of his wife on 10th December, 1934, and was sentenced to death. He appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeal, substantially upon the ground that the learned Judge had misdirected the jury by telling them that in the circumstances of the case he was presumed in law to be guilty of the murder unless he could satisfy the jury that his wife's death was due to an accident.


The appeal came before the Court of Criminal Appeal upon the 18th March and was dismissed. The Court said "it may be that it would have been better" had the learned Judge who tried the case said to the jury that if they entertained reasonable doubt whether they could accept his explanation they should either acquit him altogether or convict him of manslaughter only; but, relying upon Section 4, subsection 1, of the Criminal Appeal Act, 1907, which provides "that the Court may, notwithstanding they are of opinion that the point raised in the appeal might be decided in favour of the Appellant, dismiss the appeal if they consider no substantial miscarriage of justice has actually occurred", they dismissed the appeal.


Thereupon the Attorney-General gave his fiat certifying that the appeal of Reginald Woolmington involved a point of law of exceptional public importance and that in his opinion it was desirable in the public interest that a further appeal should be brought. The matter now comes before your Lordships' House.


The facts are as follows. Reginald Woolmington is 21½ years old. His wife, who was killed, was 17½ years old last December. They had known each other for some time and upon the 25th August they were married. Upon the 14th October, she gave birth to a child. Shortly after that there appears to have been some quarrelling between them and she left him upon the 22nd November and went to live with her mother. Woolmington apparently was anxious to get her to come back, but she did not come. The prosecution proved that at about 9.15 in the morning of the 10th Mrs. Daisy Brine was hanging out her washing at the back of her house at 25, Newtown, Milborne Port. While she was engaged in that occupation, she heard voices from the next door house, No. 24. She knew that in that house her niece, Reginald Woolmington's wife, was living. She heard and could recognize the voice of Reginald Woolmington saying something to the effect "are you "going to come back home?" She could not hear the answer. Then the back door in No. 24 was slammed. She heard a voice in the kitchen but could not tell what it said. Then she heard the sound of a gun. Upon that she looked out of the front window and she saw Reginald Woolmington whose voice she had heard just before speaking in the kitchen, go out and get upon his bicycle which had been left or was standing against the wall of her house, No. 25. She called out to him but he gave no reply. He looked at her hard and then he rode away.


According to Reginald Woolmington's own story, having brooded over and deliberated upon the position all through the night of the 9th of December, he went on the morning of the 10th in the usual way to the milking at his employer's farm and while milking conceived this idea, that he would take the old gun which was in the barn and he would take it up that morning to his wife's mother's house where she was living and that he would show her that gun and tell her that he was going to commit suicide if she did not come back. He would take the gun up for the purpose of frightening her into coming back to him by causing her to think that he was going to commit suicide. He finished his milking, went back to his father's house, had breakfast and then left, taking with him a hack saw. He returned to the farm, went into the barn, got the gun which had been used for rook shooting, sawed off the barrels of it, then took the only two cartridges which were there and put them into the gun. He took the two pieces of the barrel which he had sawn off and the hack saw, crossed a field about 60 yards wide and dropped them into the brook. Having done that, he returned on his bicycle with the gun in his overcoat pocket, to his father's house and changed his clothes. Then he got a piece of wire flex which he attached to the gun so that he could suspend it from his shoulder underneath his coat and so went off to the house where his wife was living. He knocked at the door, went into the kitchen and asked her "Are you coming back?" She made no answer. She came into the parlour and on his asking her whether she would come back she replied she was going into service. He then, so he says, threatened he would shoot himself and went on to show her the gun and brought it across his waist, when it somehow went off and his wife fell down and he went out of the house. He told the jury that it was an accident, that it was a pure accident; that whilst he was getting the gun from under his shoulder and was drawing it across his breast it accidentally went off and he was dong nothing unlawful, nothing wrong, and this was a pure accident. There was considerable controversy as to whether a letter in which he set out his grievances was written before or after the above events. But when he was arrested at 7.30 on the evening of the 10th and charged with having committed murder he said:

"I want to say nothing, except I done it, and they can do what they like with me. It was jealousy I suppose. Her mother enticed her away from me. I done all I could to get her back. That's all."


The learned Judge in summing up the case to the jury said:—

"If you accept his evidence, you will have little doubt that she died in consequence of a gunshot wound which was inflicted by a gun which he had taken to this house, and which was in his hands, or in his possession, at the time that it exploded. If you come to the conclusion that she died in consequence of injuries from the gun which he was carrying, you are put by the law of this country into this position: 'The killing of a human being is homicide, however he may be killed, and all homicide is presumed to be malicious and murder, unless the contrary appears from circumstances of alleviation, excuse, or justification. In every charge of murder, the fact of the killing being first proved, all the circumstances of accident, necessity or infirmity, are to be satisfactorily proved by the prisoner, unless they arise out of the evidence produced against him; for the law will presume that the attack would be founded in malice unless the contrary be shown.' That has been the law of this country for all time since we had law. Once it is shown to a jury that somebody has died through the act of another, that is presumed to be murder, unless the person who has been guilty of the act which causes the death can satisfy a jury that what happened was something less, something which might be alleviated, something which might be reduced to a charge of manslaughter, or was something which was accidental, or was something which could be justified."


At the end of his summing up he added:—

"The Crown has got to satisfy you that this woman, Violet Woolmington, died at the prisoner's hands. They must satisfy you of that beyond any reasonable doubt. If they satisfy you of that, then he has to show that there are circumstances to be found in the evidence which has been given from the witness box in this case which alleviate the crime so that it is only manslaughter or which excuse the homicide altogether by showing that it was a pure accident."


In the argument before the Court of Criminal Appeal cases were cited by the learned Counsel on either side and text-books of authority were referred to, but the learned Judges contented themselves with saying "There can be no question to start with that the learned Judge laid down the law applicable to a case of murder in the way in which it is to be found in the old authorities." They repeated the learned Judge's words and said "No doubt there is ample authority for that statement of the law." They then relied, as I have already mentioned, upon the proviso to Section 4 of the Criminal Appeal Act, 1907, and dismissed the appeal.


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