ONE moment he was protesting his innocence, the next he was earnestly trying to bribe a witness.

"What do you make of that?" a judge submitted to jurors.

Before Recorder Edmund Smike at Southampton Quarter Sessions stood Walter Hupton, 23, who was accused of pocketing a distinctive gold ring from a High Street jewellers, the prosecution alleging he had been acting with 25-year-old Charles Horner in a distraction theft.

It was a case with a unique postscript.

The drama began on December 12, 1857, when Hupton approached John Yon who was assisting in his father's shop and asked to examine earrings on display in the front window, telling him he wanted an expensive pair and was willing to pay up to £15.

Minutes later, Horner entered and said he wanted to look at pins with blue stones.

"I took out two trays and and showed Mr Horner one for 2s 6d, when he said he wanted one for about £5, Yon recalled. "When he came in, he said something to Mr Hupton. I then left Mr Hupton by himself with the tray of rings to tell Mr Horner all things were plainly marked. They then left together talking to each other and soon after I missed the first pair that Mr Hupton took up.

"The earrings were safe when I took the tray out of the window. They were safe when I took the glass cover off and when I left Mr Hupton with my father, they were safe but after they had gone, I missed them. The missing pair were the only ones of that pattern in the shop."

His father ran out of the shop and saw the pair heading towards the Terminus Station but suspecting they had been seen, they changed direction and went to an adjacent hotel.

Yon alerted Pc Tatchell and finding the men in a bar, accused Hupton of theft.

"I have not got them, neither has he," Hupton protested but no sooner had the shopkeeper urged the officer to arrest them, Hupton made an extraordinary gesture.

Taking out five sovereigns from a pocket and thrusting them into his hands, he pleaded: "Pray don't. That should cover the earrings."

Yon refused and Hupton offered to double the amount to have the charge dropped claiming: "I am a respectable man and I will send you a good reference when I get home."

But when Yon asked for proof of his good character, he was unable to provide any.

The pair were duly charged and remanded by magistrates to await trial.

Following local newspaper publicity, a landlord came forward and told police he had seen the men chatting to each other in his pub.

They came before the quarter sessions on January 7 the following year when both defence barristers submitted they should be acquitted, maintaining the prosecution's case was primarily built on suspicion and the earring had not been traced.

But in his summing up, the judge told jurors they should concentrate on one issue - if they were innocent, why did Hupton offer Yon the money?

The panel consulted for a short time before declaring both men to be guilty.

The judge fully concurred.

Jailing the pair for two years with hard labour, he declared: "I have no doubt you were professionally engaged in stealing."

Hupton cried bitterly but Horner took the rare step of publicly thanking his barrister for his services.

"Before I leave the bar, I must say this. I have been ably defended. I have no doubt about the abilities of my counsel and could not have been better defended if I had picked England through."

Protesting his innocence, he added: "I expect to stand before God some day and I may be carried a corpse from this place if I know anything about the earrings or the diamond ring. I fear on oath as I was baptised in the Church of England."

But then came a remarkable development.

National and international publicity about their conviction revealed Hupton and Horner to be members of a notorious swell mob and the police had been able to trace an owner for another valuable opal ring of foreign workmanship concealed in Hupton's sock when he was apprehended.

It transpired the men had just arrived in Southampton on a ferry from Le Havre and news of their capture and a description of the jewellery was widely reported in the press.

In particular a copy of the Daily News had reached the notice of the Prefect of Police in Paris who had been investigating a series of shop robberies in the capital and one business had lost a ring resembling the one recovered in the sock.

The police chief spoke to Lord Cowley, the English ambassador who contacted Lord Palmerton, as the men's description seemed to match Hupton and Horner.

Cowley's letter was sent to the authorities in Southampton and the missing ring was despatched to its French owner.