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Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899

R v Needham [1833] NSWSupC 78

women defendants in crime - domestic violence - arson - Hunter River - confession 

Supreme Court of New South Wales

Burton J., 20 August 1833

Source: Sydney Gazette, 22 August 1833[1 ]

How to make a husband miserable !

Mary Needham was indicted for maliciously setting fire to a dwelling-house, the property of James Glennie Esq, at Hunter's River.

The prisoner pleaded not guilty to the information, and was defended by Mr. Therry.

It appeared from the evidence, that the prisoner and her husband were the permissive occupants of a small wooden habitation belonging to Mr. Glennie, the value of which was assumed by the learned Counsel for the prisoner in the course of his cross-examination of one of the witnesses, to be about thirty shillings !  It also appeared that the prisoner did not live on the best of terms with her husband; - he used to quarrel with her, and she resolved on making him miserable, by taking an opportunity of placing a somewhat large box, contaniing [sic] wearing apparel and other property, on the fire, with the deliberate design of consuming it.  The consequence was, that the house also caught fire, and was "burned to the ground."  The evidence against the prisoner was only such as could be collected from expressions used by her.  When the fire broke out, one of the witnesses was seen running, towards the house, and met the prisoner, who said, "It's no use running now; I've done it."  This witness also stated, that when the prisoner was apprehended, and asked what induced her to set fire to the house, she said, "that was an accident, as she only intended to make her husband miserable by burning some of his property and hers."

Mr. Therry cross-examined this witness: -

Q. When you first met the prisoner she said there was no use in running then, as she had done it ?

A. She did.

Q. And you understood by the words "I have done it," that she set the house on fire ?

A. I did.

Q. But she might have been thinking of one thing at the same time, and you of another ?

A. O, she might so.

Q. She said afterwards that burning the house was an accident, as she only intended to burn her husband's property and her own to make him miserable ?

A. She did.

Mr. Therry - Then it seems that, when you first spoke to her, she was thinking of one thing, and you of another.  I have no more questions to ask you.

The learned Counsel submitted that there was no case to go to the jury.  There had been no proofs whatever that the prisoner had maliciously set fire to the house.

The Solicitor General said that the intent might be deduced from the act, and that there was evidence, from the prisoner's own admission, sufficient to go to the jury.

Mr. Therry replied that, excluding what she had herself stated, there was no proof whatever that she had been the cause of the fire.  If, then her own admission was to be received as evidence at all in the case, it must be taken together: that part of it which make for her must not be rejected, while that which made against her was received.  Then what had she stated ?  Why, that burning the house was an accident, as her intention only was to burn the box and its contents.  Mr. Therry again submitted that there was no case against the prisoner.

The learned Judge decided that independently of the prisoner's own admissions, there was no evidence whatever against her; and that the extent of those admissions was that she had set the house on fire, but that it was by accident.

The Jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

Mr. Justice Burton - Mary Needham you have been acquitted of the offence with which you were charged; but I recommend you, in future, to be very careful with respect to the expedients to which you may have recourse, in order to make your husband miserable.  Had you been found guilty to day, you would, in all probability, be hanged; and that, no doubt, would have made him very miserable.[2 ]

The prisoner was then discharged by proclamation, and the Court adjourned to the following day.



[1 ] See also Sydney Herald, 22 August 1833; Australian, 23 August 1833.  The judge's trial notes are in Burton, Notes of Criminal Cases, State Records of New South Wales, 2/2407, vol. 4, p. 1.  Burton's notes often gave the civil condition of the defendant, whether bond (convict) or free.  This defendant was free.

In another case, two women were charged with burglary in dwelling house (no men being involved) and one convicted: Sydney Herald, 7 February 1833.

[2 ] For a death sentence for arson, see R. v. Crisp, Australian, 24 June 1831; Sydney Herald, 4 July 1831.

Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University