HE had no recollection of taking the woollen cloth, his family's tragic history serving to explain why.

George Bishop, a former Southampton mercer, had carefully selected four yards of the material in the up market London drapery business, but finding no one free to serve him, calmly walked off with the goods. He was followed down the road by a shop assistant who apprehended him without fuss.

Charged with theft, Bishop, 53, had to appear before the Common Sergeant at the Old Bailey on May 10, 1850, as he had a previous conviction for a felony.

On legal advice, he pleaded not guilty on the basis he could not have formed the intention to steal.

"He has no answer to the charge but this is a most melancholy case," his barrister Mr Parry informed the jury. "This unfortunate defendant, whose connections are most respectable, is decidedly insane, a circumstance proved on a previous occasion when he was convicted before this court for a precisely similar kind of robbery, but the value being small, he was given up to his friends."

With that, he called Bishop's elder brother, a wine merchant, who movingly told the court of his delicate nature which had caused the ruin of his business and so affected his mind it left him incapable of distinguishing between what was right and what was wrong.

"But he is quite harmless and all his acts of larceny are more childish than criminal. He has not been placed under any form of coercion since his last conviction as it was feared it would increase his malady."

The brother then detailed the family's hereditary mental illness.

"My father was insane and both my mother and my mother-in-law suffered from the same disease. Our paternal uncle, who was in the army, was due to be shot for violence to a superior officer when it was discovered he was insane. Other branches of the family have also been more or less afflicted."

Following medical evidence, jurors acquitted him.

Throughout the hearing, grey haired Bishop buried his face in his hands and never uttered a word. At its conclusion, he was gently removed from the dock and ordered to be detained during Her Majesty's Pleasure, a euphemism for being detained in a lunatic asylum as it was then termed.

Three months later, a special hearing was conducted into another case of insanity.

The long since abolished Commission of Lunacy sat to determine the future of tenant farmer Richard King who rented arable land at South Stoneham at £1,000 a year, but in trying to establish a higher yield for his crops, had so badly overspent his budget he was given notice to quit which preyed on his mind and led his family to bring the proceedings to settle his affairs before his tenancy expired.

It was done, they insisted, with the greatest reluctance.

His wife, other members of his family and his bailiff testified how the sacking had badly affected him.

Aaron Gale, his newly appointed bailiff, described how he had found it difficult to get orders from King and when they were finally issued, were soon countermanded which frequently caused the labourers to lie idle.

"On one occasion he had 50 sheep marked to go off to the London market but after the flock had gone some 200-300 yards from his mansion, he decided they should be driven back home and to remain there to await his consideration. After a considerable time, he decided he should sell them for more money at the Fareham and Botley markets."

Following other incidents, one involving violence, King was examined by two doctors who independently agreed he was of unsound mind, incapable of running his affairs and posed a danger to the public. Consequently he was detained in Fisherton Asylum, Salisbury.

Extraordinarily King was not present to listen to the evidence and was only produced by warders at its conclusion. Looking vacant, he fixed his eyes on Commissioner Winslow but initially refused to answer his questions, apart from confirming his identity.

After the nature of the hearing had been explained to him, King moaned: "Tis a bad job," and seeing one of the doctors, muttered: "That is the worst enemy I have. He is a disgrace to society."

The final witness was the asylum owner William Finch who said King's delusions included his fears people, especially his wife, were conspiring to destroy him, he was going to be thrown into a furnace his staff were heating, and he believed the cathedral bells were tolling for him.

After he had led from the court, jurors agreed he was insane and incapable of running his affairs.