"ARE you fit to die?" he asked but before she could answer, the gun went off.

But did Richard Kent intend to kill his wife?

That was the issue facing jurors at Hampshire Summer Assizes in 1864.

Kent, a carpenter by trade, wanted to retrieve a shotgun he had lent to a neighbour.

"Is it loaded?" he inquired of Mrs White in the absence of her husband.

"I cannot tell," she replied.

Examining the firearm, he declared: "One barrel is loaded, the other is not."

He then took leave and returned home to find his wife Ann drunk.

"Are you fit to die?" he bizarrely asked. "Here's one barrel for you and one for me."

The gun then went off but the cartridge missed her and she scurried down the road to the police.

Kent however insisted he had not tried to kill his wife, only frighten her.

And when his case came to court, she of all people supported him.

"It was not pointed at me," she told Mr Justice Byles. "I'm sure it went off accidentally. We have always lived together most happily. I never drink but he has got into his head that I do."

Pointedly she concluded: "He could have easily shot me if he intended."

A fact which the judge noted had run contrary to what she had said in her deposition at the committal proceedings.

Mr Cole, defending, relished the straightforward task in his closing speech of reiterating what she said in evidence.

Jurors took little time to acquit him.

A similar case then followed.

James Knight, 42, a butler to a Winchester doctor, married his wife, a widow of two years, but love never went smoothly and within two years they had parted.

Winchester High Street in the 19th century..

Winchester High Street in the 19th century..

Knight visited her from time to time but yet another row developed after they both been drinking. But on this occasion, Knight stood by the lounge room for a moment, then went into the kitchen, only to return with a white handled knife to stab her in the thigh.

Her lodger, hearing her scream, rushed into the room and told Knight: "I'm afraid you have done something for her," to which he replied: "If I have done something for her, I'll do something for myself."

Knight's employer tended his wife who was carried to a sofa, and Knight apologised for what he had done. The butler acknowledged being responsible to the police but claimed he had been carrying the knife for self protection after his wife had threatened to hire someone to give him "a real hiding".

Knight pleaded not guilty to wounding, with the doctor telling jurors in as many words that he had been fortunate not be charged with a more serious offence because the blade, which had penetrated her thigh to the depth of three inches, had narrowly missed a main artery.

Knight told the court how he had found her house "full of confusion and drunkenness," and had tried to persuade his wife to give up "a gay life" but refused to enlarge on the statement because he did not want to expose her conduct.

Jurors found him guilty of felony but recommended him to mercy through his wife's provocation by keeping a bad house.

The judge adjourned the hearing overnight to ponder the length of his sentence. When the court reconvened, he told him it was impossible not to pass a prison term.

"But the knife was not used in a mortal part and you have received a good reference which is not the case as regards your wife.

"Taking her bad character into consideration, also the provocation and the jury's recommendation to mercy, I will be warranted to pass the slightest sentence of penal servitude, that of three years."