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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 May, 2005, 05:24 GMT 06:24 UK
Changing the flaws in London's laws
By Louise Scrivens
BBC News, London

It is illegal to have a pigsty outside your house in London
The English law is key to shaping the society we live in today but along with important legislation lies a wealth of amazing archaic rules.

For example did you know that it is illegal to enter the Houses of Parliament in a suit of armour or that until 1976 cab drivers were required by law to carry a bale of hay to feed a horse?

In some cases what must have been a necessary law at the time still stands centuries later.

It is still illegal for cabbies to carry rabid dogs or corpses and by law they must ask all passengers if they have small pox or the plague.

Weird and wonderful

There is still a law in place which requires Royal Navy ships which enter the Port of London to provide a barrel of rum to the Constable of the Tower of London.

Although not enforced today it is marked by an annual ceremony of the Constable's Dues where the Royal Navy moors one of its ships alongside the Tower Pier and the captain delivers his alcoholic tax.

The Law Commission, in central London, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, is responsible for sifting out the aging laws of England in an attempt to bring the whole system up-to-date.

Every few years the commission's team of law reformers read through lists of statutes and make a note of the most weird and wonderful, but more importantly the archaic.

John Saunders, head of the Statute Law Revision group, described his team as the "undertaker" of the law.

Appearing on the public highway wearing upon his head a tall structure having a shining lustre and calculated to frighten timid people
A charge brought against a top hat wearer - in 1797

"We pore through the statute book, pulling out any laws or statutes that are obsolete and outdated, and add them to a Repeal Bill," he said.

"These Repeals Bills are passed by Parliament every few years, each one getting rid of hundreds of pages of law.

"This sounds like a lot, but when you consider that every year around 3,000 pages are being added to the law books, it sometimes feels like the labours of Sisyphus (the man condemned by the Gods to push a boulder up a mountain for all eternity) to even keep on an even keel."

The last bill went through in 2003 and contained 68 whole acts and parts of 400 others.

The acts repealed in 2004 included an 1888 law encouraging emigration to the colonies for unemployed adults and pauper children from the overcrowded cities of England and Wales.

London Bridge
Freemen can take a flock of sheep across London Bridge
Despite the team's hard work to bring the English Law into the 21st Century, there are a few bizarre rules that manage to stay in place.

A law introduced in 1307 ensures that the head of any dead whale found on the British coast becomes the property of the king and the tail belongs to the queen - should she need the bones for her corset.

Until 1835 anyone who carried a trade in the City of London had to be a freeman - a title still taken up by some 1,800 people every year.

Nigel Cawthorne who researched archaic English laws for his book The Strange Laws of Old England said as a freeman of the City of London he was entitled to a number of ancient privileges.

"Apparently I am allowed to take a flock of sheep across London Bridge without being charged a toll and drive geese down Cheapside," he said.

'Women fainted'

"I have immunity from press ganging, can get married in St Pauls and will not be arrested if found drunk and disorderly."

The Freedom of the City of London now holds privileges of a purely educational and charitable nature.

In 1797, a law was passed preventing people from wearing a top hat after London haberdasher John Hetherington showed off his creation round the city.

The sight of his hat caused quite a stir and according to Mr Cawthorne "people booed, several women fainted and a small boy got his arm broken", when a crowd formed around Mr Hetherington.

The haberdasher was arrested and charged with breach of the King's peace in particular "appearing on the public highway wearing upon his head a tall structure having a shining lustre and calculated to frighten timid people".

If anyone was caught in the Houses of Parliament wearing armour it would first be a matter for the police
CPS spokeswoman

He was found guilty and fined 50.

It is still an offence to beat or shake any carpet rug or mat in any street in the Metropolitan Police District, although you are allowed to shake a doormat before 8am.

And Londoners are not allowed to keep a pigsty in the front of their homes.

A spokeswoman from the Crown Prosecution Service said she did not know of any of these archaic laws coming to court lately.

She said until recent trading laws came into effect you could sell a newspaper on a Sunday but not fish and chips.

"If anyone was caught in the Houses of Parliament wearing armour it would first be a matter for the police," she added.

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