A DANGEROUS serial arsonist was at large in Hampshire.

For eight years there had been a spate of fires in a two mile radius which had destroyed or damaged more than 50 houses and farm buildings.

Cattle had been severely burnt on four occasions but miraculously there had been no loss of life, animal or human.

Police under the command of the Chief Constable Major St Andrew Maude set up a special operation to snare the culprit who principally wreaked his havoc between midnight and 2am.

Eventually their suspicions settled on an insignificant labourer called Joseph Hopgood who had never previously come to their notice.

They kept him under observation for 12 months but such was their incompetence the fires still raged.

But the 13th for once proved lucky.

On the night of October 2, 1903, Pc Telling, who had been fitted with special 'silent boots' to ensure his footsteps would not be heard, had been detailed as lookout. Concealing himself behind a hedge within yards of his cottage where the 40-year-old lived alone, he saw Hopgood slip out through the back door and move off down a side road.

The constable discretely followed him a short distance behind as Hopgood eased himself through a gap in the hedge and trudged across a meadow towards a farm. As he too closed on the main building, Telling made a slight detour in order to watch and intercept him.

Within minutes he saw flames leaping from the thatch of an adjacent cottage belonging to a carter called Simon Stokes. Hopgood stepped into a narrow passage as though to admire his work, inadvertently enabling Telling to clearly identify him in the glow.

"All right, Hopgood, stay where you are," he demanded.

The startled fire raiser did the opposite, rushing off in the direction whence he came with Telling in earnest pursuit, but then remembering his primary duty was to render assistance to those in trouble, he abruptly stopped and ran back to the blaze as fast as he could - and just in time.

Sound asleep, Stokes, his wife and brother plus their five children were only aroused from their slumber by Telling repeatedly banging on the front door. Moments after the last child had escaped, the roof fell in.

The fire had rapidly taken hold. Their cottage and woodhouse were wrecked as well as two barns. Much of their farming implements were rendered useless but Telling gallantly released several trapped horses.

Satisfied, he could do no more at the scene he went to Hopgood's house, receiving an almost immediate reply of "I'm coming down" when he knocked on the front door. Hopgood opened it fully dressed except for his feet.

Telling was swiftly joined by a colleague and they noticed the labourer's trousers were soaking wet from trudging through long grass refreshed by recent rain.

"You have made a mistake," he protested on being told he was under arrest.

But within seconds, he amended his story: "I was there but you did not see me do anything."

Subsequently Supt Bowles searched his property, noting there was only one bed which had been unoccupied and between the mattress and bedstead he recovered wadding saturated with paraffin. He also took possession of a pair of wet and dirty felt carpet slippers.

On the way to Andover police station, Hopgood mumbled: "I can't make this job out. I admit being round there but the constable did not see me set fire to the house."

Following questioning, he was remanded to Winchester Jail, asking his escort Pc James as he was about to enter: "What shall I get for this?"

James said he did not know, whereupon Hopgood philosophically remarked: "This is the first time I have done such a thing and I won't do it again, but I suppose they will blame me for the others, won't they?"

At Hampshire Assizes on December 1, he however denied setting fire to Stokes's home at Penton Grafton, near Andover, claiming in complete contradiction to his earlier confessions he had never gone to the farm, and concluded his evidence with an extraordinary declaration: "I knew the police constable had been engaged in watching the house before the night of the fire. I saw him through the bedroom window about four nights before the fire so I knew he was about."

After his brother and his brother-in-law had given testimony on his behalf, the defence barrister Mr St Gerrans urged jurors in his closing speech to consider the "improbabilities" in the case against the defendant and reminded them they had to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt the charge had been made out before convicting him.

There was no doubt in their minds - within seconds, they found otherwise and Supt Bowles then confirmed that since his arrest, there had no further fires.

But before passing sentence, the judge asked Dr Richards, the prison surgeon, for his opinion about Hopgood's state of mind.

"I have kept him under observation and though he is weak minded, he is not mentally unstable," he replied.

In turn, Mr Gerrans called Dr William Freeman who had known the defendant for several years to counter that assessment.

"He is morose, taciturn and miserly in his habits. He has relatives who have been in an asylum and one committed suicide. 10 or 12 years ago I was asked to certify him as insane but I was unable to do so."

The judge said he had come to the same conclusion.

"He is weak minded and the attraction of a blaze is more than such person can resist. The only thing I can do is to keep the prisoner from being a source of danger for a long time. The sentence I feel bound to pass for the protection of the public is that he is held in penal servitude for 12 years."