Authors:Ollie Persey
Last updated:2024-04-29
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Desert island
Desert island judgments: Armory v Delamirie
Ollie Persey on why a 1721 ‘David and Goliath’ dispute between a chimney sweep’s boy and a wealthy silversmith still strikes a chord with social justice lawyers today.
Armory v Delamirie (1721) 1 Strange 505 is a forgotten gem of a case about a lost jewel.
The Armory case is my choice for Legal Action’s new ‘Desert island judgment’ column because it underscores the importance of access to justice for all. A poor chimney sweep’s boy could take on the most famous silversmith of the 18th century in front of the chief justice and win. A true David versus Goliath battle with which legal aid lawyers will identify.
The court did not allow a more powerful defendant to pull the wool over its eyes by hiding evidence, and drew adverse inference from the attempts to do so. That is essentially the same rationale for the duty of candour in modern day judicial review, where the court expects public authorities to litigate with their cards ‘face up’.
About the case
Armory was a chimney sweep’s boy who found a jewel and was tricked into handing it over to an apprentice of Delamirie, a famous silversmith.
The official law report from 1721 is (admirably) pithy and sets out three principles of law that the jury was directed to consider:
Finder of a jewel may maintain trover.1Trover is an action in tort for recovery of damages for the wrongful taking of personal property.
The plaintiff being a chimney sweeper's boy found a jewel and carried it to the defendant's shop (who was a goldsmith) to know what it was, and delivered it into the hands of the apprentice, who under pretence of weighing it, took out the stones, and calling to the master to let him know it came to three halfpence, the master offered the boy the money, who refused to take it, and insisted to have the thing again; whereupon the apprentice delivered him back the socket without the stones. And now in trover against the master these points were ruled:
1. That the finder of a jewel, though he does not by such finding acquire an absolute property or ownership, yet he has such a property as will enable him to keep it against all but the rightful owner, and consequently may maintain trover.
2. That the action well lay against the master, who gives a credit to his apprentice, and is answerable for his neglect.
3. As to the value of the jewel several of the trade were examined to prove what a jewel of the finest water that would fit the socket would be worth; and the Chief Justice directed the jury, that unless the defendant did produce the jewel, and shew it not to be of the finest water, they should presume the strongest against him, and make the value of the best jewels the measure of their damages: which they accordingly did.
The first principle set out in Armory is why it remains a key authority (and why it was the first case on my undergraduate ‘personal property law’ reading list). Armory stands for the proposition that someone who finds a chattel is considered its owner against anyone in the world other than its prior and rightful owner, ie, finders keepers except against someone with a prior, better property right. That seems an especially useful rule of law to have to hand if stranded on a desert island.
The second principle referred to, respondeat superior, was already well established and provides that the master is responsible for the acts of his servants.
The third principle is, according to Alex Feerst and Carol DeMartino:
… one of the first instances of spoliation of evidence. Under this evidentiary rule, courts presume that evidence a party has concealed or destroyed would have been injurious to their case, based on the interpretive canon omnia praesumuntur contra spoliatorem, (all things against the spoliator of the evidence).
Gems about the case
Although the defendant is reported as Delamirie, his actual name was Paul de Lamerie.
‘Strange’ in the case citation refers to reports of adjudged cases in the courts of Chancery, King’s Bench, Common Pleas, and Exchequer from 1716–49 produced by Sir John Strange, formerly Master of the Rolls.
de Lamerie was known as the ‘King’s silversmith’; however, his biographer, Susan Hare, observes that ‘in spite of his title of King’s silversmith there is little evidence that he was fulfilling royal orders’ (Paul De Lamerie: At the Sign of the Golden Ball. The Work of England’s Master Silversmith 1688-1751, Goldsmiths’ Company, 1990, page 11).
It is not known whether Armory was legally represented. The circumstances of the case are shrouded in mystery. That so little is known about Armory is probably because he was poor.
1     Trover is an action in tort for recovery of damages for the wrongful taking of personal property. »