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Is it illegal to die in Parliament? 6 weird laws in England and Wales

Apr 28, 2023 | Uncategorised

You may have heard that it’s legal to shoot a Welshman with a longbow on a Sunday in the Cathedral Close in Hereford. We hate to break it to you, but it’s a load of baloney.

That’s not to say, though, that the law of England and Wales doesn’t include some peculiar artefacts – strange, fossilised laws that have yet to be repealed but which seem, to modern eyes, a little bizarre.

In this article, we look at six weird laws and ask: is it illegal to die in Parliament?

1. It’s illegal to enter the Houses of Parliament wearing a suit of armour

King Edward I had a problem. He was at loggerheads with his nobles, who disapproved of his favourite, the low-born Piers Gaveston – so much so that they refused to attend Parliament when Gaveston was there.

But rather than just staying at home, the earls raised armed retinues and set up camp outside London. Edward responded with a 1313 statute that forbade any noble to bear armour or come armed to Parliament.

This law hasn’t been broken recently. The last offender may have been the Earl of Lancaster, who insisted on arriving in military gear until at least 1319.

2. It’s illegal to be drunk on licensed premises

Bad news for pub-goers in England and Wales: it’s against the law to get sloshed in the pub.

Yes, section 12 of the 1872 Licensing Act states that “every person found drunk… on any licensed premises, shall be liable to a penalty”. This was brought in as a means of reducing drunkenness among poor people and is still in force today.

It’s also against the law for the keeper of a public house to allow drunkenness on their premises – and it’s an offence to sell alcohol to a drunk person.

3. It’s illegal to carry a plank along the pavement

Carrying a plank or ladder on the pavement may be the stuff of slapstick – but it’s also an offence.

Since 1839’s Metropolitan Police Act, you can only carry a cask, tub, hoop, wheel, ladder, plank or pole if you’re loading or unloading a cart or carriage. This is to avoid any Chaplinesque injuries and more generally to remove obstructions from public thoroughfares.

The same section of the Act prohibits kite-flying, annoying games and sliding on ice or snow in the street.

4. It’s illegal to fire cannon within 300 yards of a dwelling house.

Have you made plans to fire a cannon within 300 yards of a dwelling house? We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s an offence under the aforementioned Metropolitan Police Act 1839. Please don’t shoot the messenger…

5. It’s illegal to beat or shake a carpet or rug in the street.

The Metropolitan Police Act 1839 had a lot to say on the subject of annoying neighbours. It blacklists a broad range of antisocial activities, from singing rude songs to playing “knock, knock, ginger” – from having a pigsty in front of your house to putting up a washing line that goes across the street.

More surprisingly, perhaps, it’s illegal to beat or shake a carpet or rug in the street. Presumably, this is so as not to block the pavement – or cover passersby in household dust.

Be thankful for small mercies. Beating or shaking your doormat is above board, so long as you do it before 8AM.

6. It’s illegal to ride a horse while drunk.

In 2009, Godfrey Blacklin fell foul of the 1872 Licensing Act when he was spotted by police riding bareback on a road in Newcastle.

Blacklin was drunk – and it’s illegal to be drunk while in charge of a horse, cattle or a steam engine.

Although Blacklin claims that he “only had a couple of cans” and that his horse “needed some exercise”, he was slapped with a fine of £150. 

Some other bizarre bits of legislation:

  • It’s illegal to drive cattle through the streets between 10 am and 7 pm without permission from the Commissioner of Police.
  • It’s illegal to handle salmon in suspicious circumstances (see the Salmon Act 1986).
  • It’s illegal to jump the queue in London Underground stations – however, as of October 2020, Transport for London hadn’t prosecuted anyone under this bye-law.
  • It’s illegal to import potatoes from Poland – or, in the words of the legislation, “potatoes which [a person] knows to be or has reasonable cause to suspect to be Polish potatoes” – without written permission. This was in response to an outbreak of ring rot in Poland.

Why do these laws still exist?

The simple answer to this is that there’s a huge amount of law to get through, so laws that are in practice obsolete are left in the statute book.

The good folk at the Law Commission propose the repeal of laws that are now obsolete. In their words, they seek “to modernise and simplify the statute book, reduce its size and save the time of lawyers and others who use it”.

They submit their proposals to the Government, which then implements the ones they see fit in Statute Law (Repeals) Bills. There have been 19 of these since 1965 and more than 3,000 Acts have been repealed.

So… is it illegal to die in Parliament?

This is a claim that would set the QI klaxon ringing. It derives from a myth that anyone who dies in a royal palace – which technically includes the Houses of Parliament – is entitled to a state funeral. But the Law Commission’s Statute Law Repeals team say otherwise.

To date, there have been at least four deaths in Westminster, the most famous being the executions of Guy Fawkes and Sir Walter Raleigh. There was also Prime Minister Spencer Perceval who, on 11 May 1812, was shot in the lobby of the House of Commons.

None of these men were arrested.

Are you looking for legal guidance? At Milners Law, we have a professional, friendly team of lawyers serving Leeds, Harrogate, Pontefract and the wider UK. Please don’t hesitate to contact us for a free, no-obligation consultation.

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