At Hertfordshire Assizes on Monday, Jean Van Hoof (49), a Belgian, was indicted for setting fire to a stack of wheat straw, the property of Mr J. W. Smith, farmer, of Stevenage, on October 24, with setting fire to a stack of clover hay, the property of Jeremiah Inns, at Knebworth, on the same date, and with setting fire to two stacks of clover, the property of John Inns, at Little Wymondley, on October 25. The prisoner could not speak English, and an interpreter was engaged to speak Flemish.
It appeared from the statement of counsel for the prosecution, Mr E. H. Tindal Atkinson, that the prisoner was a Belgian refugee who on the day that the first stacks were set on fire, was walking on the road between Hertford and Stevenage, being on a tramp to Harrogate, a distance of 180 odd miles. He was seen by a man named Charles Cherry, who is in the employ of Mr Jeremiah Inns, to go round a stack situated in a field by the roadside. When he got up to the prisoner the latter asked him some questions in a foreign language, which he did not understand, and then he produced a paper on which was written the name of the places on the main road from Hertford to Harrogate.
Cherry directed him as best he could to Stevenage, and he went on. Directly he had gone Cherry saw the stack was in flames. There was no one else about except the prisoner. The prisoner was then traced to Stevenage and on to the public-house called the Lord Kitchener, at Graveley, and subsequently was seen by the police outside Baldock in the neighbourhood of the second stack fire.
The police let him go that night as he had no matches or other suspicious evidence about him, but the next morning he was found not far away with two boxes of matches, and in the meantime the third fire had occurred.
Evidence was given by Charles Cherry, Mrs Paternoster, PC Stroud, Supt Reed, and Inspector Bowyer. The prisoner told the last-named that he slept in the field and did not quite know what he was doing. The prisoner had on four shirts, two pairs of trousers, two waistcoats, a sweater, a jacket, and an overcoat.
The prisoner said he was not guilty, and declared that the second and third stacks were on fire before he got to them.
The jury disagreed and began to wrangle aloud to the great amusement of the Court. The Judge told them that if they had any doubts they had better give a verdict of not guilty.
The foreman said that the majority were in favour of doing so.
After some further discussion they were told to retire, and they returned shortly after with a verdict of not guilty.
The Judge in ordering the prisoner’s discharge told him that owing to the merciful consideration of the law of England he had not been convicted, and advised him to have regard for the law in future.
The second and third charges were not gone into.