The Camberwell Society

Society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell

The serial bigamist of Crofton Road


Mark Warby reveals that the real offender behind the famous libel case made a habit of it

Harold Newstead of Camberwell was a bigamist. In 1937 he went through a marriage ceremony with Doris Skelley, aged 19, when he was already married. He was found out and prosecuted. On 29 March 1938, at the Old Bailey, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment. Newstead was 30 years old.

These were the essential facts of the case as related in a Daily Express feature the following day, under the headline “Why do people commit bigamy?”. The paper also reported Newstead’s rueful comment: “I kept them both till the police interfered.” All diligent students of libel law know this.

What they also know is what the paper did not publish. Harold Newstead, the 30-year-old bigamist, was not the only Harold Newstead of Camberwell. There was a second man of the same name, who was not a bigamist. He was 26, but looked older. He lived in Gubyon Avenue, Herne Hill, but he helped his father in a hairdressing business in Camberwell Road.

Harold the second was the plaintiff in a famous libel action which went to trial before Mr Justice Hawke and a jury and later went to the Court of Appeal. Harold retained A T Denning KC, later Lord Denning, to argue his case: that Harold the second had been libelled because his customers had quite reasonably thought that he was the Camberwell man referred to by the Daily Express.

Of course, the editor had not intended to refer to Harold the second. But the law was (and is) that the writer’s intention does not matter. What matters is whether “reasonable people acquainted with the plaintiff” would understand the article to refer to him.

Harold’s claim was only plausible because the newspaper, writing up the Old Bailey hearing, had removed some key details about the defendant that had been dutifully recorded in other reports: his occupation as a barman and his address at 90 Crofton Road. If those details had been put in, a case based on mistaken identity would surely have failed. And in any event the article would have been a fair and accurate report of the court proceedings, immune from suit in the absence of malice.

At the libel trial in March 1939 the jury were asked whether a reasonable person would have thought Harold the second was the convicted bigamist. They could not make up their minds. They did answer all the other questions they were asked and would have awarded damages of a farthing, but the Judge said an answer to the first question was crucial. There would have to be a retrial.

The newspaper’s appeal against that decision was heard by the Court of Appeal in November 1939 – during the “phoney war” period of WWII. The appeal was dismissed. The Court reaffirmed the rule that all depends on what the hypothetical reasonable reader would make of the words. The Master of the Rolls said, “If there is a risk of coincidence it ought … to be borne not by the innocent party to whom the words are held to refer, but by the party who puts them into circulation.” Here, a jury could have found that the reader would identify Harold the second as the subject of the article.

Whether any jury got the chance to make that decision I have been unable to find out. The parties may well have settled their differences rather than fight it all out again, in wartime. But contemporary reports of the bigamy case do add some remarkable details to the story.

The severity of the sentence is explained by the fact that Newstead was a repeat offender. This was his second conviction for bigamy. And his marriage ceremony with Doris was his fourth.

The first lawful marriage was in 1927, when Newstead was just 18. According to his defence Counsel, the woman was “considerably his senior” and he lived with her for just a week before realising he had “made a mistake”, and they separated. He did not trouble to get a divorce before going through another marriage ceremony in 1928, aged just over 20. For this bigamy offence he was sentenced at Leeds to two months’ imprisonment. His first wife divorced him. The decree absolute was granted in 1931.

In December 1932 Newstead married again, at Chelsea Register Office. Newstead was settled in his job at the pub. The couple had two children. But on 12 April 1937 Newstead ‘married’ Doris Skelley at Westminster Register Office. He used a false name. He and Doris lived together and had a child. But Newstead did not leave his legal wife. They continued to share a home.

This could not last, and the truth came out within a year. For Doris, it came as a terrible blow. Prosecuting Counsel told the sentencing Judge that she had been left “absolutely destitute with a child five months old”. So she must have been pregnant when they ‘married’. The prosecutor said that Newstead appeared to have “the completest contempt for the marriage laws of this country”. The Judge described Newstead’s behaviour as “wicked”. But his legal wife wanted him back.

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The Camberwell Society was formed in 1970 and is the recognised amenity society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell.

The Society’s objectives, as defined by our constitution, are: to stimulate public interest in Camberwell, to promote high standards of planning and architecture in Camberwell, and to secure the preservation, protection, development and improvement of features of historic or public interest in Camberwell.

We are a charity and raise money for local charities. In the past we have raised money for Southside Rehabilitation Association, St Giles Trust, Cambridge House, the CamberwellCommunity Choir, the HollingtonYouth Centre and the Camberwell Arts Festival