Britain, in many ways, is a place of tradition. The Royal Family, the Sunday roast, and a cup of tea in the morning are all traditions that stretch back centuries, and are still held onto dearly by much of the population.
However, there are some old fashioned aspects of the UK that aren’t as easy to spot. The legal system of the United Kingdom is very old, with many of its systems dating back to the Middle Ages. With such an old, complicated system of courts, common law, and legal precedent, some strange laws have found their way into legislation.
While the UK now has a modern legal system, and by and large its laws reflect current cultural norms, a few oddball laws have managed to slip under the radar, and remain technically in place today. Owing to the fact that the UK relies on common law - using previous legal cases as the basis for new ones - many of these antiquated laws are simply obsolete and happen to remain in place merely because an Act was passed at one point or another that nobody has since bothered to challenge.
So don’t worry, you’re highly unlikely to face any real criminal charges should you commit one such crime, but hearing what’s technically still in British law may come as a surprise. Here are some of the strangest British laws still technically in legislation!
Carrying a plank of wood down the street
According to section 54 of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839, it is indeed illegal to carry a large plank of wood down the street in the Metropolitan Police District. This district encompasses all of Greater London, minus the City of London - so construction workers better watch themselves. The idea behind this law was to protect public spaces from disruptive behaviour, and also bans flying kites on public pavements.
Technically speaking, The Queen holds claim to all of the sturgeons, whales, and dolphins in the waters around England and Wales. One of many archaic rules that grant special powers to the reigning monarch, this particular law dates back to a 1324 statute passed during the reign of King Edward II.
According to this statute, all sturgeons, purpoises, whales, and dolphins hold the status of “fishes royal”, and should they wash ashore or be captured within 3 miles (or 5km) of British shores, the monarch withholds the right to claim them for themselves. This law, somewhat surprisingly, is still observed. In 2007, the Scottish government even issued guidance on how to properly observe the article, outlining the protocol for claiming stranded whales.
No cows on the street during daylight
According to the Metropolitan Streets Act of 1867, it is in fact illegal to drive cows down the street during the day time without the express permission of the Metropolitan Commissioner of Police. This means that if you’re hoping to drive your cattle down the streets of London during the hours of 10am and 7pm, you might want to think again before you run into trouble with the law!
Sober up before taking charge of a horse
According to the Licensing Act of 1872, it is a criminal offence to be intoxicated while taking charge of a horse. This Act contains a number of laws legislating further activities that become illegal to do once drunk. Beyond taking charge of a horse, the Licensing Act of 1872 forbids drunk people from being in charge of a carriage, a cow, a steam engine, or being in possession of a loaded firearm. That last one is pretty reasonable, in all fairness.
Knock, knock, Ginger
A classic childhood game that everyone seems to call by a different name - Knock Knock Ginger, Ding Dong Dash, Knick Knack - the thrilling act of ringing a doorbell and running away before it’s answered. Under section 28 of the Town Police Clauses Act 1847, citizens are barred from “wilfully and wantonly disturbing people by ringing their doorbells or knocking at their doors.” Which means pretty much every kid that grew up on a neighbourhood street should rightfully be in possession of a criminal record.
No gambling in the library
The Libraries Offences Act of 1898 created a set of rules for library conduct, to be applied across England and Wales. It limits behaviours in libraries and reading-rooms that were considered disturbing to the other patrons. These offences include gambling, using foul language, or staying beyond closing hours. At the time of enactment, the punishment for breaching these offences was a fine of up to 40 shillings.
The Act is still technically in force, although to a limited degree. Nowadays, the Act no longer applies to public libraries, which are administered under the Public Libraries and Museums Act of 1964. As a result, the law can only be implemented in private libraries.
There are several costumes which could land you in a good deal of trouble in the UK, including dressing up as a police officer, naval officer, or soldier. According to the Seamen's and Soldiers' False Characters Act of 1906, it is a criminal offence to dress up as or impersonate a member of the Armed Forces. The Police Act of 1966 enforces a similar law against dressing up as a police officer. So think carefully before donning handcuffs as part of your next Halloween costume, or else you could promptly find yourself wearing a pair!
No mating with royal pets
Again, a rule designed to afford special privileges to the Royal Family. In a law dating back from before the reign of George I, a person who let their pet mate with an animal of the royal court without permission was eligible for the death penalty! Thankfully, the death penalty was abolished in the UK in 1965, but the law remains in place - so make sure to keep a close eye on your pet’s leash should the Queen ever come to town.