LAST week marked World Mental Health Day.

With this in mind we take a look through the archives of the Shire Hall Courthouse and Museum in Dorchester and see how an elderly man who was suffering from mental health problems was dealt with by the justice system.

Daniel Baker was brought before the county quarter sessions at Shire Hall on June 29 1904, charged with stealing a shirt. He was 84. This was his 59th appearance before a magistrate, and the eighth occasion he had stood in the dock at Shire Hall.

The Grand Jury would have been provided with the long list of previous charges against Daniel Baker. His first convictions were for public nuisances: breach of the peace, assault, and drunkenness.

In the early 1860s he was twice convicted for leaving his family without income, so they had to be supported by the parish. These two convictions were followed by two charges of vagrancy, suggesting that he was living away from the family home, with no work or means of support. It was from this point that he seems to have turned to theft. Between 1868 and 1902 he was found guilty of stealing 22 times. Most items were small: tools, food, and clothing. Twice he was caught trying to sell the stolen items on. In both cases he blamed drunkenness for his behaviour; as he put it: “I had so much brandy I didn’t know what I was about, your honour.”

Given his record, the Grand Jury had no hesitation in sending Daniel Baker for trial.

Linda Bryant is the chief executive of the national mental health charity Together for Mental Wellbeing. We asked her to look at Daniel Baker’s case in the light of today’s justice system.

She said: “Repeat offenders present many challenges for the criminal justice system.

“From our point of view, when we work with people who commit a lot of crimes we look at their health needs to see if there’s anything in their background that might give us some clues about why they are getting into trouble with the law. We then try and help them in order to support them to stop offending. If Daniel Baker was a younger person today he might be within a programme called ‘integrated offender management’, where agencies would collaborate to stop him from repeat offending.”

Newspaper articles about his previous convictions:

i. Dorset County Chronicle 3 January 1884

Felony at Portland – Daniel Baker, an elderly man, was charged with stealing a pair of stockings at Portland on the 29th of December, the property of Fanny Comben. Mr Udal prosecuted…

ii. Dorset County Chronicle 22 October 1891

The ‘Cursed Drink’ - Daniel Baker (69), labourer, was indicted for feloniously stealing from the dwellinghouse of Thomas Light, a pocket knife value 6d, the property of Alfred Light, at Stourton Caundle on July 4th…

iii. Dorset County Chronicle 18 January 1894

One More Chance for an Old Offender – Daniel Baker, aged 73, described as a labourer, pleaded guilty to breaking into a stable adjoining the house of Thomas Ffooks at Sherborne and stealing a stable rubber.

iv. Dorset County Chronicle 6 June 1895

Petty Theft at Chardstock – Daniel Baker, 75, labourer, was charged with stealing a pair of hedging gloves and a whetstone, the property of Samuel Tarrant, at Chardstock on May 8th.

*Next week we delve further into the Shire Halls archives to look at Daniel Baker's continuing list of offending and discover what fate he met.