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Britain's 10 best-kept secrets

By Paula Dear and Martin Rosenbaum
BBC News

Killer James Jefferson's file (see below)

Britain's 10 oldest state secrets have been opened to the public after a freedom of information request from the BBC.

The files, closed by the Home Office for 100 years, have been disclosed in advance at the National Archives, following the use of the new Freedom of Information Act.

They had previously remained secret under the "Lord Chancellor's Instrument", a legal device that keeps files closed for a century. But following a review it was decided the files were not protected by any of the Act's exemptions.

They may not all appear at first to be controversial but behind each of those 10 secret files lies someone's story... and a piece of history.

1. CHILDREN KEPT AS 'DISREPUTABLE' PARENTS DEPORTED

In a case that would likely provoke outrage today, the Home Office refused to allow four children to join their parents and three siblings in Italy after their expulsion from the UK in 1910.

Despite protestations from the Italian consul and the director of education in Cardiff - where the children had been committed to an "Industrial School" - the home secretary said they were to be kept in Britain until they were at least 16, but more likely 18, years old.

In view of the "disreputable character" of the parents - who ran a brothel - it was not in the best interests of the children to be returned to Italy, he said. The four, aged from three to 13, were believed to have been born in Britain.

Their mother, Mary Lorenti, had been convicted of child neglect but one concerned official wrote that he believed there were "grave difficulties" in separating a family.

2. 'LUNATIC'S' CONVICTION QUASHED

The man who robbed, killed and beheaded 31-year-old Elizabeth Todd in 1908 was caught with the bloody weapon in his hand and never denied the crime.

Certificate
Jefferson's Criminal Lunatic Certificate of Insanity

Although the trial jury determined he was fit to stand trial, later Home Office files - to be closed until 2020 - showed labourer James Jefferson, 21, from North Shields, was "congenitally defective" with the intellectual development of a 10-year-old.

As Jefferson was convicted and sentenced to death, he told the judge he was "wrong in the mind" at the time of the murder. Later that year the conviction was quashed on appeal due to insanity, and Jefferson was taken to Broadmoor to be detained at His Majesty's Pleasure, under the Trial of Lunatics Act 1883.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the following attempt by Jefferson to be released from Rampton Criminal Lunatic Asylum, Lincoln, in 1914, was not successful. "When you let me out of this asylum I will stop out of it, and I shall never do anything wrong again," he told the home secretary.

3. 'THE LESS SAID ABOUT THIS THE BETTER'

There was nervousness at the Home Office about whether two German Navy deserters should have been sent back to their home country without the proper procedures being followed.

Germans file
'The less said about this...'

Johann Junker, 17, and Franz Siener, 16, were found sleeping under shrubs in Tottenham, north London, in 1910, having overstayed their leave and been left behind.

They were initially charged under the Police Act for begging, and remanded in custody. The German consul made arrangements to send them to Hamburg, as long as the police escorted them to the port. But the move angered Home Secretary Winston Churchill, who said Britain had no power to expel an "alien" except by using the proper law.

"No order has been signed by me... the course adopted has been altogether irregular and illegal," he wrote in a letter demanding to know who was responsible.

A note on the file simply said: "The less said about this the better."

4. RELEASE OF CHILD KILLER

The trial of 34-year-old widower Willie Greaves - convicted of murdering his young daughter Hilda by putting her on the fire - provoked outrage in the local press. On his conviction and sentence to death in July 1907 the Sheffield daily paper called his crime "a fiendish act".

In his drunken state he was said to have been angry that the two-and-a-half year old - who was recovering from measles - had "messed herself".

But it was later determined that he suffered from epilepsy (he had a fit in court during the trial), often brought on by alcohol or "excitement", and may have suffered from a fit just before injuring Hilda. She died some days later in hospital.

He escaped execution - originally set for 6 August 1907, at Wakefield Prison - after his sentence was changed to life, for medical reasons. He was released on licence in March 1922 and his file was closed for 100 years.

5. SISTERS DOING IT FOR THEMSELVES

Suffragette sisters Arabella and Muriel Scott were jailed for 21 days for "obstruction" after taking part in the handing in of a petition to Prime Minister Asquith at 10 Downing Street, in July 1909.

Suffragette
Cul de sac a highway? The mere question became a state secret

A letter from G K Knight of Suffragists' Vigilance to H Gladstone MP questioned whether Downing Street, being a cul de sac, was a highway within the meaning of the Act under which the women had been prosecuted.

Both sisters, who were aged 21 and 20, complained to the Home Office that they had not been treated as "political offenders", and Muriel protested: "Is it in so-called 'freedom-loving' England that a visitor to London is arrested because she wishes to walk up a certain street?".

On the day of their release comrades from the Women's Freedom League told the governor of Holloway Prison they were outraged to have been kept waiting for 45 minutes outside the gates.

6. ITALIAN FEUD ON THE ISLE OF WIGHT

There were concerns in 1906 over the question of extraditing an Italian alleged to have shot and killed a fellow Italian organ grinder on the Isle of Wight, in July 1901. Raffieti de Cicco had almost certainly fled across the Atlantic, and the Home Office pondered asking the authorities in Italy to have him extradited from the US.

In the Home Office file notes an official wrote that he didn't think it was right to seek extradition via a third government, and that any such request would leave the UK "open to a rebuff" from the Italians.

"As the USA are always so reluctant to part with any of our criminals, let them keep this one," he concluded.

7. ROW OVER TELEGRAM BETTING

Home Secretary Churchill was upset again - this time by the actions of the post office (GPO) in a debate in 1911 over the rights of the police to demand to see telegrams where they believed they were being used for betting transactions.

Betting
An outraged Home Office official writes...

Liverpool's chief constable of police had told the minister the law, and practice of the GPO in vehemently guarding access to telegrams, was unsatisfactory.

After the Home Office suggested it could consider issuing a warrant - if the GPO felt it necessary - the post office sought the advice of Crown lawyers, who in turn questioned whether any telegram should ever be disclosed.

Their failure to consult the Home Office before seeking legal advice sparked an angry response from Mr Churchill, although he did agree that in this specific case the telegrams should not be divulged.

Perhaps most interesting is the pithy file note added by a Whitehall official: "The GPO write as if they were a private business responsible only to the people for whom they do business, not a department of government responsible to the general public - see memo within!"

8. UNIONS DEMAND FAIR PLAY AND FAIR PAY

Plans
The controversial police station plans

Building industry trades unions got hot under the collar about the offer of a £11,000 contract to build a new police building in London to a firm they claimed was unfair to its workers.

Urging the government to consider its own Fair Wages Clause, union bosses said Messrs Fryer and Co "held themselves aloof" from the unions, and sometimes declined to pay the recognised overtime rates.

The Home Office decided to stick to its original offer of the tender, with the Met Police Receiver promising to investigate any complaints from workers.

9. IMPERIAL NAME 'QUITE OUT OF THE QUESTION'

An application by an insurance company to register either the name Imperial and Colonial Insurance Corp Ltd or Imperial Guarantee Corp Ltd received a sharp rebuke from the Home Office.

The department would not consent to the use of the word imperial in connection with the title of those companies.

"Quite out of the question", was added in brackets.

10. POACHER'S SENTENCE CONFUSION

A minor wrangle over the way a sentence was handed down to a poacher has been a closed file since 1909.

Thomas Joy, from Shrewsbury, convicted for carrying a gun without a licence and "night poaching", lost out on prison privileges and potential early release because the judge gave no direction on whether his sentences should run consecutively.



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