Robin Longbottom examines how one case at the former Keighley County Court had an impact nationally

KEIGHLEY County Court closed in 2012 because of Government cuts and today the courthouse, in North Street, still remains unoccupied.

The main building dates back to 1831 and was originally built to house the Court of Requests, a small claims court that was replaced in 1848 when county courts were created by act of Parliament.

The courtroom stands a distance back from the road and is some seven or eight feet above pavement level. It was originally accessed by external stone steps leading up to a door on the left of the building. The chambers to the rear of the courtroom were accessed from a similar set of steps on the right. Below the courtroom are several rooms that open out into a lower yard at the back and were originally used for accommodation.

In the 1850s the building was enlarged when a single-storey structure was built in front of it to enclose the steps and create an entrance lobby. A cottage was also built on land at the rear to house staff.

During the county court’s 154 years it dealt with many small claims, the great majority of which were of little consequence to the public at large.  However, much of British civil law is dependent upon judicial precedent. That is to say, a judge may make a decision that courts at the same level, or below it, are bound by, unless it is subsequently overturned by a higher court. The lowest civil court is the county court, and it is perhaps unusual for a decision to be made by a judge at this level that led to nationwide consequences.

However, such a decision was made in 1858 after a Mr Johnson Atkinson Busfield instigated an action in Keighley County Court against the Midland Railway Company for the recovery of 2 shillings and 6 pence. He lived at Upwood House, Riddlesden, and was a solicitor and coincidentally the treasurer of Keighley County Court. On July 6 he had decided to take his family on a trip to the seaside and included in the party was a grandchild in a perambulator, or baby carriage, known more commonly today as a pram. On purchasing his tickets at Bingley Station he was surprised when the ticket clerk charged him 2 shillings and 6 pence extra to take the pram.

Believing that he had been unjustly charged he subsequently took the matter to Keighley County Court to recover the money. When the case was heard on August 11 before Judge Lonsdale, his solicitor contended that the pram formed part of the family’s luggage and that it fell within the permitted weight and dimensions allowed on trains by act of Parliament. However, the solicitor for the Midland Railway contended that as it was a “carriage” it did not fall within the description of ordinary luggage and that the company had the right to charge for it. His Honour deferred his decision to give himself time to study the law and the acts of Parliament. On September 3 he delivered his judgement and found that perambulators were not ordinary luggage and that the company had the right to make a reasonable charge for the one belonging to the plaintiff.

The judgement was reported nationwide and consequently railway companies, some of which had not previously charged, then made it a policy to charge for prams. The charge remained the subject of discontent among rail travellers well into the 20th century. However, following the nationalisation of the railways in 1948, the charges were finally dropped.

Today if residents of the Keighley district wish to make a claim in a county court they have the inconvenience of travelling to Skipton or Bradford.