SHE had been the wife of an officer and a gentleman but now she was being asked to strip in a Hampshire pub to prove her innocence.

And her accuser was no ordinary man - he was the local vicar who was adamant she had stolen his wife's brooch.

Hannah Podmore had fallen on hard times after the death of her husband who had served in the 89th Regiment of Infantry and to support herself and her family, she became an art teacher which required her to go from town to town, village to village, calling at the home of prosperous house owners.

It was in these circumstances on March 7, 1838, that she travelled with the letter carrier from Lymington to Milford in his mail cart, he pointing out several houses where she might find work.

They parted but less than an hour later, he saw her just outside Milford and escorted her to the Red Lion for refreshments.

It was there the Rev. Lawrence approached her and accused her of theft. His wife's brooch was missing and there could be only one explanation - she had taken it.

"I wish to have a few words with you," he demanded in front of the packed pub.

"My wife put a brooch on a table in the parlour, nobody has been there but my wife and you and the brooch is gone. You must have taken it."

Podmore protested her innocence: "I have neither seen it, nor taken it."

As the other customers murmured their disquiet, she challenged him: "For God's sake, come in and see what they are going to do with me."

And with that, she tipped out onto the table the contents of her portfolio as well as her pockets - there was no brooch.

"I suggest you look elsewhere," she told her crestfallen accuser. "You have workmen and servants about the place. Why not search them?"

Lawrence insisted: "They are honest."

The vicar still would not accept it her denial "That will not do for me. Let us proceed."

And with that, he demanded she should remove her gown and partly undo her underwear to prove she had not hidden about her body.

"I will do no such thing," she objected. "I will step into another room."

Lawrence would not even accept that.

The bar was emptied of the male customers, leaving Lawrence and Podmore in the presence of three women. He turned his back while she took off her dress.

Once more, there was no sign of the brooch.

"Satisfied now?" she snapped.

However Lawrence was not.

"You might have concealed it in a bank between my home and here. I have known ladies go into shops and take things."

Vindicated, she walked out but rejoining the letter carrier in his cart she broke down in a flood of tears.

Within minutes, the brooch was found to have been left by his wife at a dressmakers but that was not the end of the matter.

On July 16, she sued Lawrence for slander and defamation of character in the High Court, her lawyer Mr Crowder commenting: "The charge against the defendant is one of a very serious nature inasmuch he accused her of being guilty of a felony in stealing a brooch belonging to his wife."

A woman by the name of Cole told the court how Podmore had been traumatised at having to be searched by her.

"She appeared in a most miserable state, calling to God that she was innocent. She trembled and was almost ready to faint."

In the vicar's defence, barrister Mr Erle accepted that in the heat of the moment, a person might use "unguarded words" which might be thought actionable, though strictly not so.

"The defendant and his wife were visited by an entire stranger who came to the house and left without making any inquiry of the servants. His wife shortly informed him she had lost a brooch and she believed the stranger must have taken it away. It was natural therefore that the defendant, acting under this impression, should have taken steps for its recovery.

"The learned gentleman repudiates the idea there had been any indelicacy in the search, which he insists was voluntary and therefore the defendant had a right to be present."

Mr Erle told jurors it was an established principle in law that a jury, to be justified in finding for a plaintiff, must believe the slanderous words originated from a malicious motive on the part of a defendant.

"I maintain that in this case the words were not slanderous. I trust you are of the opinion that the words were spoken without any malice on earth and from a sincere desire to ascertain that if his wife's charge of robbery by the plaintiff was correctly founded."

In his summing up, the judge, Baron Parke, told jurors that though Lawrence had been informed the brooch had been found shortly after making his accusation, he did not appear to have made any attempt to trace the plaintiff and "soothe her mind."

He submitted: "The proper course would have been to write a letter to ascertain whether the plaintiff would have been satisfied with an apology or would accept compensation."

Having condemned Lawrence's "indelicacy" at not removing himself from the room while she was being searched, he pointed out: "But I think it would have been better that the plaintiff, after learning the brooch had been found, should have called on the defendant with a view to some arrangement rather than have brought this action."

He said the other issue they had to determine was whether Podmore was an art teacher and had called at the house in that capacity.

"On this slight matter there is some evidence, yet the manner in which she got into the house on which the defendant grounded his suspicions, is left unexplained."

Following a retirement, jurors found in favour of the plaintiff and awarded £50 in damages.