HE went to his estranged wife’s aid and met his death.

Furious she had been locked up in prison for allegedly assaulting her new lover, Charles Cozens sought out seaman John Westlake to put their differences to one side and persuade him to put up money for her release.

But Westlake would do no such thing and grabbed hold of the fisherman to throw him out of the house for which he ironically paid the rent. Cozens resisted and a struggle ensued inside the property and then spilled out onto the street.

Westlake, a much more powerfully built man, swiftly took hold of his adversary by the shoulders and with three shuddering blows, smashed his head on the ground. Cozens never recovered. Lapsing into consciousness, he died within hours from a fractured skull.

But did it amount to murder? A judge was to have the final say.

Robert Phillips, another fisherman, witnessed the drama unfold in Grove Street, Southampton, late on March 2, 1868.

“They had a struggle and both fell,” he related how the quarrel got out of hand as Westlake sat by the fire.

“I went out of the room and saw no more till both fell again in the street,” he told the town’s coroner Mr Coxwell at Cozens’s inquest. “They curled over and the deceased got under, and Westlake took hold of him by the shoulder part of his collar or thereabouts as he was lying on his back, and beat his head on the ground.”

Significantly he added: “The deceased was helpless after the first blow. In my opinion, both men had been drinking.”

Unlike others who had assembled and merely watched, laundress Mary Welsh went to Cozens’s assistance after she saw his head being banged on the ground.

“The blows were not a dull thump but were a sort of crashing sound. I took hold of Westlake by the arm and pushed him off, telling him ‘Oh, you good for nothing fellow. Do you want to kill this poor dear man?”

Westlake, she said, promptly broke off, claiming he had been acting in self-defence after Cozens had tried to turn him out of his own house.

“I then took hold of the deceased’s right hand as he lay on the ground but there seemed to be no life or movement in him. I loosened everything about his neck and he drew a long breath and moaned two or three times. Meantime there was gurgling in his throat.”

Westlake looked “much frightened” when he realised that she could not rally him, and tried to do the same.


Grove Street - Southampton

Grove Street, Southampton.

The throng were soon joined by Pc Jackson who had been patrolling St Mary Street when he was called to the scene by a young boy. He immediately inquired who had been responsible and was told the perpetrator had gone back indoors. He twice knocked on his front door but they went unanswered.

“Thinking the man might escape, I burst the door open. I found Westlake in the backroom, talking to a woman. I asked how he had served the other and he replied that he had only done it in his own defence.”

Following confirmation Cozens had died some 36 hours later in hospital from a fractured skull, jurors consulted for a few minutes before returning a verdict of wilful murder. The coroner accordingly made out a warrant for his committal to the Assizes.

However, before his trial opened on July 13, Mr Justice Mellor, having read the statements, determined the death did not amount to murder, explaining to the Grand Jury: “It is a clear case of manslaughter. Although the violence of the prisoner was great, there was a certain amount of wrestling between the parties and the offence seems to have been committed in hot blood. Murder means killing and slaying with determination and malice prepense, and in condescension to the infirmities of human nature when a fight or struggle takes place, it is generally considered to take away that prepense, and so to reduce the offence to manslaughter.

“In addition to this, the prisoner seems to have been under the influence of drink at the time of the commission of this offence, and though it is true drunkenness is no excuse for crime, yet it is manifest that a man in drink would not be likely to treat any provocation as a man not so influenced, and therefore to some extent, it might be taken in mitigation as to the effect of the law.”

The case then proceeded on that basis.

Having heard the evidence which was not opposed by the defence lawyer, jurors without hesitation found Westlake guilty.

The judge was scathing in sentencing him to 12 years penal servitude: “Your crime was one of the most violent and brutal character, committed on the husband of a woman with whom he was living in adultery. To pass less than a severe sentence would be a violation of my duty.”