Defunct British Laws


If there’s anything we are good at in Britain it is the obsolete yet enduring – from the red phone box to the game of cricket, we have enthusiastically stuck by our eccentricities for decades. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the British legal system which contains several famous anachronisms; some still functional, others myth, all examples of how quaint and peculiar British custom can be.

It is illegal to eat mince pies on Christmas Day.

Is the act of eating a mince pie on Christmas Day is illegal in England? All manner of festive celebrations like indulging in mince pies and Christmas puddings, were reportedly banned in Oliver Cromwell's England as part of efforts to tackle gluttony. Oliver Cromwell believed that Christmas was plagued with superstitions left over by the Roman Catholic Church; he also thought the tradition had Pagan roots, at odds with his puritanical regime. However, the ban did not survive for long after the restoration under Charles II’s hedonistic administration, if anything the notoriously debauched monarch would have blessed your Christmas gorging, so feast away peasants!

It is an offense to be intoxicated and in charge of a cow.

Much like any other vehicle it is considered bad form to operate a cow when drunk. This bovine regulation is part of the Licensing Act of 1872 and actually also applies to horses and steam engines. It allegedly carries a penalty fine of up to £1,200, though presumably it is rarely applied. In 2009, a Norfolk man was actually charged (the not convicted) under this Act when found to be drunk in charge of a mobility scooter - a powered carriage that doesn’t fall under the ordinary drink-driving laws.

You cannot ride in a taxi if you have the plague.

While this sounds like a law lingering on from the 14 th century, it is actually the legacy of thePublic Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. In practice it is most likely left up to the taxi driver’s discretion, if your buboes are worryingly swollen he might feel a moral obligation to take you to the closest hospital.

It is illegal to import Polish Potatoes.

As officially phrased under the terms of the Polish Potatoes in England Order, 2004 - ‘ No person shall, in the course of business, import into England potatoes which he knows to be or has reasonable cause to suspect to be Polish potatoes.’ Fortunately, this isn’t quite the arbitrary and xenophobic act that it first appears, in reality it has a valid ecological explanation. It was created to stunt the spread of "ring rot" disease spreading from Poland where it has devastated vegetable crops.

All beached whales and sturgeons must be offered to the reigning monarch.

Just another perk of the job; not only do the king or queen of Britain get the crown jewels, prime tickets for sporting events, weekly tea with the Prime Minister, exemption from taxes and all of the swans, but it turns out they also receive first dibs on the carcass of any large beached marine life!

The original law which is now largely defunct states: "The King shall have throughout the realm, whales and great sturgeons taken in the sea or elsewhere within the realm, except in certain places privileged by the King." In the absence of the monarch, the responsibility often falls to the "Receiver of Wreck" to decide on their behalf and the whale is rarely offered to the Monarch. In reality, all beached whales or strandings should be reported to the Natural History Museum but it might be quicker to ring the police.

In the city of York it is legal to murder a Scotsman within the ancient city walls, but only if he is carrying a bow and arrow

‘It was just self-defence…’ As of April of this year, it was still perfectly legal to carry this out but thankfully there are no reports of anyone ever trying it. This law was one of many set to be included in a drive to abolish archaic laws - some 817 acts of law are set to be consigned to history by the law commissions of Britain’s constituent countries.

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