Before I moved to the Algarve nearly 20 years ago, I got to understand quite a lot about the intricacies and sometimes the out and out stupidity of English law. This was for the simple reason that, for many years, I was a Justice of the Peace, or what is more commonly known in the UK as a Magistrate.
I lived in Norfolk and ‘served’ as it is known in numerous Magistrate’s courts throughout the county, in places such as Thetford (my ‘home’ court), King’s Lynn, Swaffham, Norwich and Great Yarmouth.
However, since arriving in the Algarve, I’ve frequently heard English people talking about some of the crazy laws here in Portugal, such as having to keep all the legal documents relating to your car in the actual vehicle, thus ensuring that if your car is ever stolen, very conveniently for the thief they will also get all the legal paperwork.
Well, that may seem daft to a lot of the English, but I assure you it is not as crazy as some of the laws, several of which are still on the statute books, in the UK, which I now very firmly believe to be the international home of totally crazy laws.
The Law Commission in England invariably decides, every few years, which laws should be included in any new Repeal Bill to be passed through Parliament and, although most of these brilliant laws have now sadly been repealed, there are still plenty left to amaze and mystify.
I’m sure that, in time, all of these will eventually be removed and some of the following may have already been repealed since I last checked, but, just for fun, I have included them anyway.
“It is illegal to eat mince pies on Christmas Day”
One of the real historical ‘stars’ of creating crazy laws was an incredibly puritanical gentleman named Oliver Cromwell who, in December 1653, was proclaimed ‘Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland’. In case you’re wondering, at the time Wales was not recognised as a country, but it was simply regarded as a small part of England.
Oliver Cromwell was a very pious and puritanical leader, and he insisted on everybody he governed living by his example and his laws. Making it illegal to eat mince pies on Christmas Day was one of his numerous ‘Christmas laws’ instigated and passed by him because, in his opinion, the over-indulgent festivities of Christmas went against his beliefs of abstinence and hardship. However, when most of his silly laws were revoked in 1660, they failed to include the one that states you are not allowed to eat mince pies on Christmas Day.
“In York, you may kill any Scotsman with a bow and arrow – except on Sundays”
Due to the history of antipathy between the English and the Scots that seems to have existed forever, York City Council declared a by-law that allowed the killing of Scotsmen, provided it was done with a bow and arrow and did not take place on Sundays. However, in August 2006, instead of simply doing the simple thing and removing the crazy law from the statute books, the people of York were asked to sign a treaty that they would not kill Scotsmen or Scots women at any time – even Robin Hood style. Please remember, murder is under any and all circumstances illegal, despite what the city fathers of York might have said.
“In Chester, you may kill any Welshman with a bow and arrow, but it must be done inside the city walls – and only after midnight”
It would appear that the English weren’t that keen on the Welsh either, and this friendly little by-law from Chester City Council still exists to this day, although the Chester Police recommend you don’t put it to test. Apparently, this particular by-law originated from a City Ordinance of 1403, passed in response to the Glyndwr Rising, which imposed a strict curfew on all Welshmen in the city.
It is hotly disputed as to whether this city by-law still exists or if it has been repealed, but why take the chance? As I said regarding the previous ‘law’, please remember that murder is illegal everywhere in the UK, and that is a definite law that trumps any city by-law, but my recommendation is that if your surname is Jones or Evans – for your own sake and safety – avoid midnight strolls inside Chester’s city walls.
“It is illegal to beat or shake a carpet or rug in any public street before 8am”
Now that most people in the UK have fitted carpets in their homes and not a random selection of loose rugs, this little gem is not particularly relevant anymore. But for those of you that still like wooden floors with rugs or small carpets in your homes, you should put off your cleaning rituals until after 8am. For those of you with homes in London, failure to observe the timing of this cleaning procedure is, in fact, an offence under section 60 of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839, and for those of you living in the UK but outside of London, it is an offence under section 28 of the Town Police Clauses Act of 1847.
There are several other unusual offences listed under these acts. For example:
“It is illegal to slaughter a cow in a public street”
This is another little gem from section 60 of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839. Another illegal activity mentioned in the same act states that it is illegal to put up a washing line across the street.
Mind you, with the abundance of today’s filthy exhaust fumes everywhere, I wouldn’t recommend it anyway.
“It is illegal to sing ‘profane or obscene’ songs or ballads in a public street”
Budding vocalists, karaoke singers and certainly all London-based buskers should be very careful of not using certain song lyrics if they intend performing their vocal skills on a public street. In case you’re wondering, that also includes the buskers’ favourite location of London underground stations which add that unique quality of reverb to your performance, as the London underground system is also regarded as a public street. Any singing in these locations that includes ‘profane or obscene’ lyrics is regarded as a criminal act. This particular gem, and in fact all these various ‘public street’ illegalities, stem from the same section 60 of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839.
“It is illegal to get drunk in a public house or a bar”
I know, and I promise you, I really haven’t made this up. Talk about crazy! This one has got to rate as one of the most ludicrous laws ever to be put on the statute books as it’s the one place you can virtually guarantee that most people will get drunk. Not to be confused with being drunk and disorderly, which is an offence under the Criminal Justice Act of 1968, being drunk on a licensed premises – in other words, a pub – is illegal in its own right. This comes under section 12 of the 1872 Licensing Act which stipulates that ‘every person found drunk on any licensed premises shall be liable to a penalty’, which in the UK currently stands at a fine of £200. This particular gem of a law was, in fact, created to enable landlords to eject drunks from their premises, but, as the law stands at the moment, being drunk in a public house or a bar in the UK is still illegal.
“Playing ‘Knock Down Ginger’ is regarded in the UK a criminal act”
I’m sure that when you were a child, like me, you had great fun either knocking on someone’s front door or ringing their doorbell, and then running away. This particular pastime was affectionately known as playing ‘Knock Down Ginger’. Well, I’m afraid I have to inform you that ‘wilfully disturbing people by ringing their doorbells or knocking on their doors and running away’ is illegal in the UK. It is regarded under current British law as a criminal offence, and I’m afraid you could end up with a criminal record if the police wished to prosecute. So beware, being caught playing ‘Knock Down Ginger’ can get you a criminal record, which in turn can make it extremely difficult for you in later life. Lots of UK employment application forms simply require you to tick a box that states you don’t have a criminal record. If you cannot tick that box because you’ve got a criminal record for playing ‘Knock Down Ginger’, you probably won’t even get an interview.
“It is illegal to crack a boiled egg at the sharp end”
I love this one and, when this law was first introduced, the punishment was 24 hours in the village stocks, with this particular slice of English illegality being introduced and enacted by King Edward VI.
The stocks may well have gone and passed into history, but I cannot vouch whether this particular act of criminality has. However, just to be on the safe side, I should stick to cereal to start the day, or if you really must have eggs with your breakfast, forego the boiled variety and go for the full English.
“It is illegal to die in Parliament – except if you are the reigning Monarch”
There are numerous crazy laws in the UK that stem from the days when the English Monarch reigned supreme, and all sorts of rights and privileges were given to the Monarch, including this one. I’m not sure how this was to their advantage, but I’m sure it made them feel that little bit more superior.
“It is illegal to stand within two metres of the reigning monarch without socks on”
I would love to know how this one came about. I can only assume that at some event where the Monarch was present, they took great exception to the aroma wafting in their direction from the un-socked individual standing next to them.
We know many historical characters from history were executed for all manner of offences against the monarchy, but I’d love to know if anyone actually lost their head because they didn’t have their socks on.
“It is illegal for a boy under the age of 12 to see a naked mannequin”
We live in an ever more dangerous world with the availability of the internet and the numerous sites we would prefer our children not to see. As much as we need to be careful about what our children can and can’t see, I was until recently totally unaware of this particular gem of British law. I am all in favour of child protection in this day and age, but I’m really not too sure about this one. This particular law, or should I say city by-law, came from Liverpool City Council during the late Victorian era and, as far as I am aware, it is still on the statute books – so window dressers of Liverpool beware.
“It is illegal for a male driver to urinate in public, unless they do so on the rear wheel of their car and keeping their right hand on the car whilst doing so”
We should, of course, all know the rules of the road, but there are one or two laws that you may not be fully aware of. You won’t find this one in the Highway Code, but a little known and little used law states that any male driver who gets caught short is allowed to urinate in public, but it must be against the nearside rear wheel of his own car, and not on someone else’s vehicle. Furthermore, he must keep his right hand on the vehicle whilst doing so. Why his right hand? I leave it you to come up with a logical reason!
You may be interested to know why the law does not mention what female drivers are supposed to do if they are taken short. Well, there is a very good reason for this. When the original law was created, women weren’t considered capable of handling a motorised vehicle, and so women were simply not allowed to drive, and therefore it was decided that the problem would never occur.
“It is illegal to drive around a roundabout more than three times”
I bet you didn’t know that one and, for your own sake, can I suggest you make sure you know which exit is the one you need before you drive onto a British roundabout? So, please take care when navigating unfamiliar roundabouts; drive round more than three times and you will find yourself breaking the law.
“It is highly illegal for a woman to eat chocolate on a public conveyance”
This is without doubt my personal favourite. It is another glorious by-law from the wonderfully eccentric city fathers of Liverpool. What their problem was I have no idea, and why they constantly picked on the fairer sex, I also have no idea, but pick on the ladies they did. This particular Liverpool city by-law has to my knowledge never been repealed and, as far as I can check, to this day a woman found eating chocolate on a bus, a train, the ferry or a taxi within Liverpool’s city limits could, if the police so wished, be arrested, taken to court, tried, found guilty and end up with a criminal record. I am unaware of the police ever prosecuting anyone for committing such an awful, hideous and horrendous crime, but be very careful – it doesn’t mean they never will.
There was in fact a massive ‘clean up’ of archaic British laws in 2012, and there have probably been many more changes since then that my having lived in the Algarve for 20 years now means I am unaware of.
However, when all these crazy laws and by-laws were the actual law, it was so much fun being a JP or Magistrate, by just knowing that these crazy laws existed – even if we sadly never got the chance to use any of them.
By Trevor Holman
Trevor Holman has lived in the Algarve for 20 years. An ex-session musician, advertising director and Justice of the Peace, Trevor has written four stage musicals, over 100 songs and has had eight of his novels published to date, including the highly successful ‘Algarve Crime Thriller’ series.