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OP-ED: A slippery path

  • Published at 08:27 pm March 15th, 2021

Believing something to be true, simply does not make it true

On the night of Sunday, November 2, 1952, two teenage boys, Derek Bentley (19) and Christopher Craig (16) attempted to break into the warehouse of the confectionery manufacturers Barlow and Parker in Tamworth Road, Croydon, South London. 

The pair had managed to clamber on to the flat roof of the building and were in the process of smashing the glass skylight in order to gain access to the warehouse below, when they were seen by a young girl living opposite. The girl told her father who in turn alerted the police.

The first officer to arrive on the roof was Detective Sergeant Frederick Fairfax who promptly arrested Bentley. It was at this point that Bentley was alleged to have called out to his friend, “Let him have it, Chris.” Craig, who was armed with a Colt .455 revolver, opened fire, grazing Fairfax’s shoulder.

More police arrived. The next to get onto the roof was Constable Sidney Mills (42) who was immediately shot in the head and killed by Craig. With his ammunition running low, the gunman then tried dramatically to escape by jumping off of the roof and landing 30 feet below onto a greenhouse. Craig fractured his spine and his left wrist and was arrested immediately. 

The trial of Bentley and Craig opened at the Old Bailey on December 9, 1952 before the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Goddard. 

The whole proceedings hinged on the five words that Bentley had shouted at his co-defendant, “let him have it, Chris.” Did this mean, as the defense maintained, that Bentley was telling Craig to hand over his weapon to the police officer, or was it an exhortation to the gunman to shoot Sidney Mills? 

The jury believed the latter interpretation and, after only 75 minutes of deliberation, found the pair guilty of “joint enterprise” in the murder of Sidney Mills. Bentley, despite having the mental age of an 11-year-old and being under arrest at the time of the fatal shot, was sentenced to death. 

However, Craig, since he was under the age of 18 and even though he was the one who actually fired the gun, was given a sentence of life imprisonment of which he served only 10 years. Derek Bentley was executed at 9AM on Wednesday, January 28, 1953.

This case came to mind last week during the never-ending brouhaha over the claims of racism within the British royal family made by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. How are these two seemingly disparate events connected? I will try to explain.

In the Bentley/Craig case the determination of guilt or innocence rested upon the interpretation of the words used on that rooftop by Derek Bentley. We will never know if what he said meant that he wanted his accomplice to surrender his weapon, or to kill the policeman. 

We don’t know, because we weren’t there. Similarly, the alleged conversation that took place between an unknown senior royal and Prince Harry about the unborn baby Archie’s skin tone will remain knowable only to the two people concerned. 

Was the question a harmless inquiry to a soon-to-be father about what he thought the baby might look like, in the same way that one might speculate about the colour of an unborn child’s hair or eyes? Or was it, as the Sussexes have suggested, an unwarranted and unpleasant racial slur that implied that the whole institution of monarchy must be branded irredeemably racist?

Who can say? But, as the Queen wryly observed, with her wonderfully understated response to the couple’s interview, “… some recollections may vary …”

Clearly Meghan (even though she wasn’t physically present during this conversation) and Harry took the view that the words were said with racist intent. And, judging by the outpouring of support for the pair, a large proportion of the British public believe that to be true as well. 

But believing something to be true, simply does not make it true. It was interesting to note that at the start of the interview, the host, Oprah Winfrey, invited Meghan to tell “her truth.” But her truth is not necessarily the truth. 

As the stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote as long ago as the Second Century CE, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective not the truth.”

I don’t know what the intention of the “unnamed senior royal” was when he or she posed the question about the skin tone of the Sussexes’ unborn son, nor do those members of the British public who have been so quick to characterize the family as a bunch of bigots.

I don’t know because, once again, I wasn’t there and I wasn’t in the mind of the person who allegedly said it. And I don’t know what was in the mind of Derek Bentley when he called out to Christopher Craig to “let him have it.” 

I know what the police thought was his intention because of the subsequent actions they took in accusing Bentley of encouraging Craig to kill Mills. 

If, as now seems commonplace, we continue on the road of preferring “my truth,” “my interpretation,” “my feeling” over actual, verifiable, and demonstrable facts, then we are on a very slippery path indeed.

Kit Fenwick is a freelance writer and historian.

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