public services

I Broke Some Old Laws in Front of Police to See If They’d Arrest Me

And made some commuters feel very uncomfortable in the process.

by Oobah Butler; photos by Peter Butler
15 September 2017, 7:22am

Consider the UK. From welling up en masse about an old clock not chiming for a bit, to a grassroots campaign backing a politician whose beliefs lost all relevancy around the time the Queen took the throne, it's fair to say we're a country that likes to look backwards. We still turn people into knights. We still ritualistically set fire to wood to remember a man who tried to destroy Parliament.

Another example: those endless lists of bizarre Ye Olde British laws that people presumably go mad for, considering they pop up on the tabloids' websites every other week. You know the ones: "it's legal to murder a Scotsman within ancient city walls, but only if he's carrying a bow and arrow"; "it's illegal to bring Polish potatoes into England", etc, etc.

But that's all you ever get: just a list of weird old laws that are technically still in place; never any context as to what would happen if you actually broke them. Curious, I spent a day breaking some directly in front of police to see what would happen.

1) It Is Illegal to Beat or Shake Any Carpet, Rug, or Mat in Any Street in the Metropolitan Police District After 8 AM

According to Section 60 of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839, this is illegal—but it's 9AM and I'm vigorously shaking down my door mat, like a Border Collie fresh from a walk, in plain sight of armed police.

Looking around at tourists covering their mouths, trying to frame selfies to avoid the man dressed like he was arrested at Italia 90 creating a storm of cat hair and dead skin cells, you can see why this is illegal. Yet there's not a peep from the police.

So there you have it: one old law you're apparently free to break.

2) It Is Illegal to Gamble in a Library

I'm not at the British Library to score books; I'm here to score some action! And people don't seem happy about it. In fact, when I ask an American lady if she wants to make this place a little more interesting by popping a few nickels on a game of dice, she looks at me like I've just put gravy on Angel Delight. Eventually, though, I find myself in a quiet thoroughfare.

"Psst! Hey man." He stops and looks at me. "Want some action? You see this staircase? You reckon this thing is pretty busy?" He nods. "How many people do you think walk up and down it within three minutes?"

"Hmm…" He pauses. "I'd say five?" I chuckle.

"Are you willing to put your money where your mouth is?"

Within seconds, there's £5 on the table, the stopwatch is going and we're totting up visitors. He starts strong with a flurry of two, and I'm a ball of nerves. Another: three. There are 15 seconds left and he only needs one more. The man is dawdling. Five, four... another few steps... three, two… slow down!

Victory! The man screams and disagrees, but a photo finish seals it.

The feds, evidently, are none the wiser. I've made £5 in an hour, which I'll be investing in my next move.

3) It Is Illegal to Handle Salmon in Suspicious Circumstances

Since the game-changing Salmon Act of 1986, things in this country have never been quite the same. Only thing, though, is that I'm unsure I understand the parameters of this particular law. What even are suspicious circumstances in which to handle a salmon? At the opera? Riding a Segway? To find out, I take my £5 to the nearest fishmonger and ask for all the salmon it'll get me.

Unfortunately, a whole salmon is like £80, so instead I buy a sea trout, because the fishmonger tells me they look enough like salmon to dupe police officers not well versed in fish.

I make my way to a bank, where I try to look as shifty as possible in a bid to arouse some suspicion. The staff ask what I'm looking for. I tell them "a low interest, high yield deal on a new account." They keep asking me to leave, I stay. When it becomes clear I'm not going to be detained, I go.

In a rush to top up my Oyster card, cutting in front of someone in the queue, I break this TfL bylaw without even really thinking:

4) It Is Illegal to Jump the Queue in a Ticket Hall

But back to the fish.

With all eyes on me, I can confirm: the British public has developed an ingrained distrust of anyone handling what looks like salmon.

Still, no sign of the police—Transport, City, Met or otherwise.

I give up on my fish dream and hop off at Marble Arch.

5) It Is Illegal to Sing Any Profane or Obscene Song or Ballad in Public

I know: the Town Police Clauses Act of 1847 is one we all know like the back of our hand, but I think it's still worth putting it to the test. So I'm here at the door of a man to whom the rule of law doesn't apply, Tony Blair, because it's guarded by armed police at all times.

"Don't waste your time on me / You're already, the voice inside my head!"

I croon Blink 182's "Miss You" up at the former Labour leader—not necessarily profane in terms of its lyrics, but definitely obscene in sentiment.

After 30 seconds, an officer splutters in: "You can't take pictures, mate."

"Is this Tony Blair's house?"

"I think it's pretty obvious what it is. Would you mind backing off, sir. And put your phone away."

I back away, but continue singing Blink 182, throwing my voice toward his balcony. The policeman receives a call on his walkie-talkie and says he can't talk as he has "a situation to deal with here." But this situation has already dealt with itself, and I've got some inspiration for my final destination—the place where all this nonsense started.

6) It Is Illegal to Wear a Suit of Armour in Parliament

Where better to break laws than the land of laws? Having been illegal since the 1313 Forbidding Bearing of Armour, this is without a doubt the most longstanding law on my list.

Heading past security, every single one of the nine police officers on the door takes me aside for questioning. I make up a fictitious stag-do, and a few suspiciously ask, "Why are there only two of you?"

I don't know if you've been frisked by the police in a suit of armour before, but they like to go really deep under your chest plate. I'm actually asked twice whether I have a sword. What do they think I am, stupid? After 30 minutes of questioning, longer than I spent getting into the United States last month, I'm in!

It dawns on me that I'm the first person in over 700 years to wear a suit of armour in the Houses of Parliament. And had I done this about 150 years ago, my head would probably be rolling along the floor by now.

Which is the lesson here: Things can change. While all these laws remain in place, no one enforces them because they're ludicrous. Let's just hope that, in 50 years, we've got past the current nastiness of British politics in a similar way.

Follow Oobah on Twitter. See more of Peter's work here.

A massive thank you to Mad World, Charing Cross for providing the suit of armour.