“Mute by the visitation of God, and Guilty!” The trials of John Ferriday at Salford, 1825

By Cassie Watson; posted 27 September 2022.

At the end of October 1825 John Ferriday, a deaf collier, was tried at the Salford quarter sessions for assaulting a woman with vitriol, but acquitted because of his condition. Five days later he was tried again, with John Kershaw and Robert Buckley, for riot and “a most desperate assault on Robert Ashworth.” All three were convicted and sentenced to two years’ hard labour in Lancaster Castle.[1] Press reports of the two trials reveal the legal arguments hurriedly assembled in the intervening period, for it is clear that the magistrates believed Ferriday’s deafness might otherwise enable him to commit crime with impunity. As Ferriday did not have proper legal representation — there was no interpreter — how did the court justify convicting and imprisoning him just a few days after directing an automatic acquittal? His case offers a fascinating snapshot of courtroom practice at a particular time and place, yet provides crime historians with broader insights into how the legal system dealt with an atypical defendant.

The Crimes of John Ferriday

We know very little about the details of the crime for which John Ferriday was tried on Saturday 29 October, though we can make some educated guesses. He was charged with “throwing vitriol on the clothes and person of Ann Wright, on the 12th of October, by which she sustained very considerable personal injury, besides having her clothes much burnt and entirely spoiled.”[2] Press reports give no information about the relationship between Wright and Ferriday, who was married, but it seems unlikely to have been an attack carried out for personal reasons such as jealousy or revenge. Why not? The region was embroiled in industrial unrest, involving striking cotton spinners employed by Messrs. Cussons, Bradley and Wilde, at Oldham, and the blacklegs (knobsticks; strike-breakers) who had taken their jobs. Kershaw and Buckley were strike-breakers and seem to have used Ferriday as a form of ‘muscle’ when Robert Ashworth was assaulted:

It appeared that on the 29th of August the defendants Buckley and Kershaw were drinking at a public house in Oldham, when the prosecutor and other turn-out spinners came in. A quarrel arose between them …; and on leaving the house, the prosecutor was attacked by Buckley, Kershaw, and another man, who has absconded; one of them also made a signal to the deaf and dumb defendant, who immediately joined in the attack, though it did not appear that he could have known any thing of the origin of the quarrel.[3]

According to another report, “At a sign or signal made to the prisoner, Ferriday, he joined in the riot, and being a great, strong, muscular fellow, he dealt his thumps and kicks about without mercy.”[4] The conflict involving workers employed by Cussons, Bradley and Wilde was still ongoing a year later.[5]

Given the established propensity of striking cotton spinners and their opponents to use acid against both persons and property in Lancashire and Lanarkshire,[6] it seems possible that the attack on Ann Wright was commissioned as part of this wider labour dispute, particularly as Ferriday seems to have had a taste for violence.

Standing Mute Wilfully and of Malice?

At his first trial, Ferriday’s disability caught the court off guard. He was suspected to be utterly unable to understand the proceedings, and so the jury was sworn to enquire whether he stood mute “wilfully and obstinately” or was so “by the visitation of God.” They found in favour of the latter reason upon hearing evidence, from his mother, that Ferriday had been deaf and unable to speak since birth. Although he must have been able to communicate with others — his mother, wife, employer, colleagues, friends — his mother swore that she could only make him understand “the most simple ideas,”[7] and could not convey to him, “by signs or otherwise, the nature of such evidence as might be adduced against him.”[8] This left the court in a real bind: one of the newspaper reports paints a picture of lawyers and magistrates thrown completely out of their depth, unable to figure a way out of their dilemma.[9]

The answer was obvious: appoint an interpreter. Mr Coltman, a barrister, and Dr Brown, who was perhaps one of the magistrates, said they knew of other (local?) cases where an interpreter had been employed, and that it was common practice at the Old Bailey in London to employ a person for that purpose. The first record of a court interpreter in London dates from 1771, according to Stone and Woll, and by 1787 a precedent had been established: if the court was convinced that a deaf person could understand the proceedings, then the person could be tried in the normal way.[10] How well prisoners actually understood was another matter, as British sign language was not yet being taught in a systematic fashion, and some form of ‘home sign’ was probably used; but this was a moot point in the Ferriday case, as no interpreter could be found. There is no information about how widely or vigorously the search was conducted, but given the two weeks between arrest and trial, one would think that someone could have been hired.

Be that as it may, and with written evidence apparently not an option, the magistrates decided they had no choice but to direct a verdict of not guilty, on the grounds that a person “should not be punished for any offence that they had committed when they were incapable of knowing that they were undergoing a trial for such offence, and consequently were unable to make any defence.”[11] But this was followed up by an implicit threat: Ferriday’s mother was warned to keep him out of trouble, for, “otherwise, the probability was, that he would be wholly deprived of his liberty, as the public must be protected.”[12]

“Mute by the visitation of God, and Guilty!”

Five days later John Ferriday was indicted for the assault on Robert Ashworth, and this time the lawyers were ready for him. Mr Coltman put forward two arguments for why Ferriday ought to be tried. Firstly, Sir Matthew Hale had ruled that if people could, by means of signs, make themselves “generally intelligible” to a deaf person, then that person could be tried for any offence with which they were charged. Then, he cited the precedent set by the case of Elizabeth Steel, a 20-year-old deaf woman convicted at the Old Bailey in 1787 and sentenced to seven years’ transportation. She was deaf only, but the jury found she stood mute by the visitation of God.[13] However, the Twelve Judges had agreed that this was not sufficient to prevent her being tried, ruling that if she could not understand her arraignment, the clerk could enter a plea of not guilty.

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 8.0, March 2018), October 1787, trial of Elizabeth Steel (t17871024-15).

The factual basis for these legal arguments seems faulty. Firstly, assuming the court was to be tasked with determining whether a deaf person found the signing of others ‘generally intelligible,’ how was that to be assessed, and by whom? Secondly, unlike John Ferriday, Elizabeth Steel’s actual deafness was open to question: the judge at her second trial seems to have believed that she could hear, and some of the witnesses were uncertain.[14] As the original cause of her hearing loss was a fever, it is possible that she was shamming. But the Salford magistrates declared themselves perfectly satisfied by these arguments and asked the jury to ‘try’ whether Ferriday stood mute wilfully and maliciously or by the visitation of God. “Being called upon for their verdict, the Foreman replied “Mute by the visitation of God, and guilty!”, followed by “loud laughter.”[15] Although he was defended on a dock brief, Ferriday’s fate was sealed.


The jury determined Ferriday’s competence to stand trial not on medical but commonsense facts: he was married, could get his own living, and earned 4s.6d. per day.[16] While he was probably guilty as charged, one cannot escape the suspicion that he did not have a fair trial. Without an interpreter, there was no way to gauge quite what he understood of the trial proceedings, it was impossible for him to instruct his counsel or question witnesses, and he was unable to make any statement in his own defence. He was at the mercy of a court that was ready to convict him. David Turner found that in eighteenth-century London, a defendant’s disability might well not trump other factors such as character and reputation.[17] It looks very much as though similar sentiments prevailed in Salford in 1825: John Ferriday’s reputation for violence, and presumably eyewitness evidence against him, militated against any second chance at freedom on the grounds of his deafness.   


Main image: detail from wood engraving by J. Swain, 15 March 1884, after Horace Morehen, “Deaf and dumb people from the Hackney Mission to the Deaf and Dumb performing plays, sign language, and portraits of staff at the institution.” Wellcome Collection. Public domain.

Extracts from the trial of Elizabeth Steel, Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 8.0, March 2018), October 1787, t17871024-15).


[1] London Courier and Evening Gazette, 7 November 1825, 3; The Times, 8 November 1825, 3 (reprinted from The Manchester Volunteer); The British Press, 8 November 1825, 4. The record of their prosecution at the quarter sessions notes the charge of riot but not assault: Lancashire, Quarter Session Records and Petitions, 1648-1908, QSP 2855/1-336, accessed at Ancestry.co.uk.

[2] London Courier and Evening Gazette, 7 November 1825, 3.

[3] The British Press, 8 November 1825, 4.

[4] Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 12 November 1825, 1.

[5] Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 4 May 1826, 3. In November 1826 two mills owned by Cussons, Bradley and Wilde were damaged by fire, probably arson: Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 5 December 1826, 2.  

[6] A cluster of cases occurred in Manchester in June 1808, and the spate of assaults in Glasgow during the early 1820s led (July 1825) to a new capital statute against vitriol throwing in Scotland. In similar events at Stockport in 1829, some of the blacklegs came from Glasgow: see The Liverpool Mercury, 30 October 1829, 6.

[7] Johnson’s Sunday Monitor, 13 November 1825, 8.

[8] London Courier and Evening Gazette, 7 November 1825, 3.

[9] Johnson’s Sunday Monitor, 13 November 1825, 8.

[10] Christopher Stone and Bencie Woll, “Dumb O Jemmy and Others: Deaf People, Interpreters, and the London Courts in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” Sign Language Studies 8 (2008): 232.

[11] Johnson’s Sunday Monitor, 13 November 1825, 8.

[12] Ibid.; The Times, 8 November 1825, 3; The Morning Chronicle, 8 November 1825, 4.

[13] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 8.0, March 2018), May 1787, trial of Elizabeth Steel (o17870523-1).

[14] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 8.0, March 2018), October 1787, trial of Elizabeth Steel (t17871024-15).

[15] Bury and Norwich Post, 16 November 1825, 4.

[16] The British Press, 8 November 1825, 4.

[17] David M. Turner, “Disability and Crime in Eighteenth-Century England: Physical Impairment at the Old Bailey,” Cultural and Social History 9 (2012), 56-57.

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