Heritage: Harold Hill farmer told court he shot ‘wicked’ cow in self defence

John Cedric Coates was obviously not a natural cowherd. Picture: David Mirzoeff

John Cedric Coates was obviously not a natural cowherd. Picture: David Mirzoeff - Credit: Archant

Prof Ged Martin relates a strange episode from a Harold Wood farm a century ago

Havering wasn’t always a haven of rural peace.

John Cedric Coates was the son of a prosperous family in Streatham. He trained as an engineer, but – aged just 21 – decided to switch to farming.

He claimed he’d “gone into farming for his health”. By 1911, he was running a farm in the Ingrebourne valley, near Harold Wood.

Coates admitted that he “suffered from inexperience”. Worse still, he got into dairying. Cows have to be milked every day, and they can be cussed creatures.

A married couple helped run the farm. Frank Bosworth was a general handyman. His wife, Emily, was the housekeeper.

The Bosworths were horrified by their employer’s antics, and reported him to the police for animal cruelty.

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Coates had problems with two of his cows, one white and one red – probably a rich-brown Aberdeen Angus.

Once, Mrs Bosworth saw Coates pepper the red cow with two blasts from his shotgun, causing it to bleed in its hindquarters. He then beat the animal with a stick.

On another occasion, the two beasts invaded a field of oats. Coates unleashed both barrels to encourage them to leave.

Appearing in court in Romford, Coates vigorously defended himself. He carried a shotgun to exterminate rats and stoats. He’d only fired it over the heads of the cows to drive them out of the oats.

Under questioning, he shifted his ground.

“It was possible he might have shot these cows, but he had not done so intentionally.”

In any case, the red cow had charged him. As he took evasive action, his gun accidentally discharged. The cow “did not apparently suffer much pain”.

Coates had hired a defence lawyer. Macrae Diggle was a young barrister, the son of Joseph Diggle, a well-known clergyman, politician and scoundrel, whose lavish lifestyle had recently led to spectacular bankruptcy.

Macrae Diggle wasn’t responsible for his father’s sins, but he had inherited his impudence.

Since the red cow could not give evidence, Diggle decided to blame the victim.

It was “the worst cow in the county”. It jumped fences “like a Welsh sheep” and “ate all it could lay its hands on”. It even drank its own milk!

In effect, Diggle pleaded provocation. The red cow had been rooting for a shooting. This was a case of self-defence.

The episode was gleefully reported around the world. An Australian newspaper ran the headline: “The Wicked Cow”.

The townie lawyer’s belief that cows had “hands” also aroused mirth.

Were the two animals badly hurt? A policeman reckoned “there were hundreds of shots in the red cow”.

But the expert opinion of Louis Barrett, a vet from Western Road, Romford, played down the injuries to the red cow, and found no wounds on the white one.

“Both animals were in good condition and showed no sign of cruel treatment.” (Apart from being shot.)

Coates saw himself, not his cow, as the victim. He complained at “the manner in which the professional farmer looked down upon the amateur”.

This was a warning shot against one of the magistrates, Abraham Saltwell, who farmed at Upminster Hall, across the Ingrebourne. And Coates specialised in warning shots.

The magistrates fined him £5, emphasising that “the practice of using guns to shoot cows was most reprehensible and unheard of”.

In 1912, Coates got married in Romford, but as the couple’s only child was born in Croydon in 1914, it seems he abandoned farming.

Macrae Dibble’s career as a barrister ended soon after too. His wicked cow defence would hardly attract clients.

Coates joined the Army in the First World War. Had the Germans used cows on the Western Front, his talents might have been useful.

He died young, aged 35 in 1925. It seems his health was indeed bad. So was his temper.