This blog was researched by Julie Lee, Volunteer at Trafford Local Studies.
Gunner Vivian Coryton
“It is stated that 40,000 signatures have been affixed in Manchester to the petition to the Home Secretary against the sentence upon Gunner Coryton..”
This tiny paragraph certainly caught my eye in the 25th April 1919 edition of the Altrincham, Bowdon and Hale Guardian. What could this WW1 soldier have done to provoke such a response from the post-war Mancunian public?
Vivian Coryton was born on 2nd May 1881 in Lancashire. He was the son of a banker, a very respectable profession, and the 1891 census shows that the family had a cook and a housemaid.
However, it seems Coryton was something of a spirited man, as in 1905, aged 23, he was fined a total of £11, 1s. for “furiously driving a motor bicycle he might have been going at forty miles an hour”(1) In November 1907 he married Mary Annetta Webster, and the 1911 census shows Vivian and Mary living on Cross Street, Ashton-on-Mersey, both working as tobacconists.
Then in 1914, the First World War broke out, and Coryton enlisted in 1916, aged 35. He was a Gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery.
When on leave in April 1917, Coryton returned home in the early hours of Sunday 22nd April. There he found another man, Walter Davies, in bed with his wife. An argument followed, and Mrs. Coryton restrained her husband while Davies fled. After 24 hours’ deliberation (2), Coryton turned up at Davies’ house and started firing at him with a revolver as he fled. Davies escaped unharmed and Coryton was arrested. Coryton showed no remorse: After describing the incident he concluded “It was deplorably bad markmenship’” (3) However, he was acquitted and returned to the Front until the end of the war.
Clearly unhappy about his wife’s actions, Coryton’s Army Pension records show that he applied for the stoppage of separation allowance in May 1917.
In January 1919, yet to be discharged from the army following the end of the war, Coryton was again on leave. Once again he sought out Walter Davies. Davies was still involved with Coryton’s wife; now living with her and taking her money. Enraged, Coryton pursued Davies once more and after firing several shots, he wounded Davies in the side before he was arrested.
The charge was now attempted murder. At Coryton’s trial, the judge asked him about the incidents in 1917:
“‘Do you suggest that in April 1917, you fired at Davies?’
[Coryton]: There is no suggestion about it. It is a well-known fact. Unfortunately I missed him.” (4)
Coryton, who was undefended, continued to protest:
“‘I have done nothing I am ashamed of.. The law provides no real punishment for scoundrels like this. If one values the honour of one’s home one has to take the law into one’s own hands and put up with the consequences.’” (5)
This time, Coryton was found guilty and the Judge was keen to “fight the notion of the unwritten law” (6): that is that a soldier is entitled to take the law into his own hands. “’.. I treat you as rather a poor, misguided fool, with a villainous temper. Still, as a warning to you… and as a warning also to other people the punishment must be a substantial – even a severe – one. You will go to penal servitude for seven years.’” (7)
Gunner Coryton launched an appeal to the sentence, and garnered a huge amount of support from sympathisers in Manchester who had provided him with money for legal assistance this time. But the appeal was rejected:
“..Mr. Justice Bray said the verdict arrived at was the only one under the circumstances. This was not an unimportant case, because there had been several instances of this kind of case. It was necessary for the Court to lay down that under no circumstances was a soldier.. to take the law into his own hands..” (8)
A few days later, it was estimated that between 1,200 and 1,500 men (the majority of whom were soldiers) assembled in Manchester to discuss how to secure the release of Coryton. There was even talk of petitioning for a change in the law to punish men who broke up homes. (9)The National Federation of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers (later to become part of the Royal British Legion), prepared a petition to be presented to the Home Secretary. Three weeks later, it was this petition that reportedly contained some 40,000 signatures.
In July 1919 the case was put before the Home Secretary. He was asked “whether he is aware of a strong feeling among discharged soldiers that this man’s crime was due solely to an erroneous belief in the existence of what is called the unwritten law..” (10) The Home Secretary declined to intervene, and Coryton remained in prison.
Coryton’s campaign medal was subsequently forfeited and I have not yet been able to trace any records relating to him after 1919, until his death in 1943 in Manchester aged 61.
The case drew international press interest from as far afield as Singapore and New Zealand (11). The huge amount of support both from hundreds of ex-soldiers and the 40,000 signatories is a powerful reflection of the strength of feeling and support for a soldier who left his home and family, and gallantly went off to fight for his country.
2 Altrincham, Bowdon and Hale Guardian, May 4, 1917, Pg. 6
4 The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959); Feb 20, 1919; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and the Observer Pg. 9
6 The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959); Feb 20, 1919; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and the Observer Pg. 9
7 Altrincham, Bowdon and Hale Guardian, 21st Feb., 1919 Pg. 4
8 Altrincham, Bowdon and Hale Guardian, 1st April, 1919, Pg. 4
9 The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959); Apr 7, 1919; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and the Observer Pg.9
11 reported on in the Auckland Star, Jun 30, 1917, and The Singapore Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), May 22 1919, Page 10