ONE moment he was heading for the cells, the next he was free, following a remarkable gesture of forgiveness by the victim's employers.

It was 8pm on February 10, 1851, when George Whatley approached the toll gate on the Bitterne side of Northam Bridge outside Southampton on his horse and cart.

The collector Edward Andrews cordially asked for his ticket but Whatley said he did not have one and refused to pay.

"I'm sorry but you must," the keeper insisted and with Whatley refusing to budge, he took the horse's head to lead him away.

Insensed, Whatley repeatedly lashed him across the back with his whip before walking through the gate. As a further act of defiance, he turned the horse and cart about and went back over the bridge again.

His arrogance threatened to cost him dearly when he failed to demonstrate the slightest remorse before the town's magistrates a fortnight later when charged with assault which he cussedly admitted.

"You will now have to pay the result for your obstinacy," the chairman E H Hulton bluntly told him.

At the rear of the court his mother began weeping and fearing her son would be jailed, rushed outside.

Hulton had seen the pair arrive for the hearing and was shocked by his attitude.

"You spoke to her earlier this morning as you entered the hall and you treated her so much like a brute she ran down the stairs crying. If you had only listened to her and spoken to Mr Andrews civilly to apologise for your conduct, I have no doubt you would have been listened to. You have put yourself in a very perilous position."

Hulton said the court had only two options. Under the Act of Parliament, they could only impose a £10 fine or pass a six month jail term.

"Can you pay?"

Penniless, Whatley's situation looked hopeless until he was thrown an unexpected lifeline.

Mr Moody, clerk to the Northam Bridge Company which exercised the toll, had been monitoring the proceedings on behalf of his employers. Stepping forward, he urged the Bench to treat him leniently.

"Our object is not to obtain from the defendant the extreme penalty or to inflict on his parents any pecuniary punishment but simply to protect the toll collector in the discharge of his duties. I am willing, in order to meet the case, that we should take any sum under £10 as his share of the penalty that you might name as not to press too hard on the lad."

But Hulton once more explained the only two sentences open to them.

"As all the magistrates have to do is convict and they have no power to mitigate, any arrangement of this sort should be made independent of us."

The Mayor, Cllr Richard Andrews who was also sitting on the Bench, said Whatley appeared to be an ungrateful youth but he knew his parents as worthy people. "Unfortunately poverty is at their door and any payment by them is out of the question."

Resigned to his fate, Whatley turned to leave the dock when Moody made a generous gesture.

"As we have intimated, the company has no desire to be hard on him. We consider he has received sufficent punishment for his conduct and we will give a receipt for the penalty so as to release him from custody."

And so he was, with the magistrates consent and to be reunited with his mother.