They were once neighbours and friends but now one stood accused of killing the other.

Pub banter suddenly became acrimonious, fists flew and Henry Russell was sent sprawling. Hours later he was dead.

Had the remorseful Samuel Ballantyne used sufficient force to defend himself or had it, as the Crown maintained, been excessive?

Jurors were to hear the facts were not in dispute, only the number of blows inflicted.

Prosecutor Mr Bere submitted: "If he had only used sufficient resistance to protect himself and keep himself uninjured and if, in the course of that resistance by some accident ensued, he is not to be liable for that death, but if death happened through unnecessary violence, he is.

"That is what we say in this case. If you are of the opinion that five or six blows from the prisoner were from violence and were struck after the first or second blows by Mr Russell, you will no doubt come to the conclusion that the subsequent blows were unnecessary and that death arose from that violence."

The tragedy happened at the Unicorn public house in St Mary Street, Southampton, on September 3, 1868.

Both men were well known in the town and highly respected. Ballantyne had a flourishing business in South Front, Kingsland Place, and Russell, who was 52, was a painter and a member of several musical societies.

Ballantyne had been drinking for about an hour in the parlour when Russell joined him, and as was their custom, they began "chaffing" each other, but the mood changed when they began talking about religion, and Russell suggested Ballantyne should go home as he was drunk.

Ballantyne slurred: "I can go home to my wife, she is a virtuous woman, and I have always stuck to her. When I go home to my wife, I don't go home to a woman."

Russell took umbrage: "What do you mean? You are a blackguard," and rising from his chair, slapped his friend across the face with an open hand. Ballantyne would have responded but landlord Thomas Palmer stepped in to defuse the situation.

"I don't allow this in my house," he firmly told the pair, holding the draper back as Russell left and that appeared to be the end of the drama as Russell went home.

Sadly not. 

Daily Echo: St Mary Street in the early 1900s - from old FGO Stuart postcard.

Within minutes the painter reappeared. Clutching a brolly, he challenged Ballantyne. "I will give you a good thrashing with my umbrella when you come outside."

Palmer once more tried to placate Ballantyne but he stormed out of the pub to face Russell who was waiting for him on the other side of the street. Repeating his blackguard insult, he struck Ballantyne three or four times with the umbrella. Ballantyne responded by knocking the unlikely weapon out of his grasp and hitting him with as many punches, if not more.

The skirmish ended as quickly as it began with Russell falling backwards into the road, his head hitting the surface with a thud.

Unconscious, he was carried back into the pub where he was revived with water and had his face cleaned. A concerned Palmer offered him a bed for the night but Russell politely declined.

Meanwhile Ballantyne, realised the futility of the fight, was profusely apologetic. "I am sorry for what I have done," he told Russell." Wishing each other 'good night,' they went their separate ways, though at Russell's request, Palmer accompanied him home.

But during the night, he began to feel unwell and died within hours.

Bere alleged: "A doctor examined his body after death and he had not the slightest doubt it had been caused by a blow from the defendant as a result of which Mr Russell fell. That fall produced death, a fracture of the skull."

When arrested, Ballantyne initially said he had nothing to say but then changed his mind, telling Pc Henry Brayne they had been "larking about" and insisted Russell had struck him first.

Daily Echo: Unicorn Inn - 132 St Mary Street.

On the conclusion of the evidence given at the coroner's inquest, Ballantyne was committed to stand trial at Hampshire Assizes where on December 7 he faced an allegation of manslaughter which he denied. 

The defence submitted the victim had brought his demise upon himself and the defendant had only defended himself.

"No one came to feel what happened more keenly than the prisoner as you will see by his demeanour," the barrister, also called Russell, urged jurors, calling on them to look at Ballantyne crestfallen state. "But it has to be admitted that whatever circumstances might have taken place before this unfortunate affair, both might have been a little in fault."

However, Russell had provoked the trouble by threatening to "give it" to the defendant, who was renowned as being quiet, patient and inoffensive, and carried out the threat by waiting outside the pub and assaulting him with the umbrella. "It is a great pity his anger had not subdued and he acted in the way he did."

Russell also contended there was also no proof how he had sustained his fatal injury, suggesting by stepping back he could have struck the kerb and tripped, or simply fallen. 

Summing up, Mr Justice Bramwell reminded jurors Ballantyne had the right to defend himself as Russell was the aggressor and the issue was whether he had exceeded it to the point he was criminally responsible for his death.

"Of course, the law is not so foolish as to say you must hit just hard enough and no more, It allows a man reasonable latitude because it is a law of reason and good sense. And so, if you are of the opinion that less might have been actually necessary, but yet that, speaking reasonably, the prisoner no more than defended himself, then you ought to find him not guilty.

"On the other hand, the law does not allow that because a man is struck, he is to punish the man for doing so, nor does it allow a struck man to see who is the better person, to see whether he can mark him. If you are therefore of the opinion the prisoner struck Mr Russell not in self-defence but for the purpose of punishing him, or if you are of the opinion he carried on the fight to see who was better man, or whether one could strike the other, then it is an unlawful act on the part of the prisoner and he caused this man's death, then he is guilty."

Without deliberating, the jurors acquitted Ballantyne, the verdict being met with applause which was swiftly suppressed by the judge. 

Ballantyne left the dock in an emotional state to be greeted by family and friends.