Sunday, February 21, 2021

Weird UK Laws Still Current

 Zoë Sharp


During the lockdown back in October 2020 here in the UK, there was a news story of Scottish National Party MP, Margaret Ferrier, who travelled by train from London to Scotlandafter she’d tested positive for Covid-19.


This reminded me of an old English law, which I understood had never been repealed, saying it was illegal to get onto public transport in London if you had the plague, and that a cab driver could refuse to carry a passenger he or she suspected might be infected.


It turns out this is indeed still in force as part of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act of 1984, which also applies to a number of other notifiable diseases - Typhus, Tuberculosis, Rabies, Typhoid Fever, Cholera, Anthrax, Dysentery, Smallpox, Leprosy, and Scarlet Fever being among their number. I wonder if coronavirus counts?


In looking this up, I found a number of other archaic laws which were quoted as still being in force… unless you know differently, of course.




When it comes to cabs in the City of London, they may not carry rabid dogs or corpses.


It is illegal for a lady to eat chocolates on a public transport conveyance.


It is illegal to jump the queue in the ticket hall of the London Underground, if there’s a sign saying Queue Here.

Your car can get you into all sorts of hot water, so it’s best to know the rules there, too. It is legal for a male to urinate in public, only if it is on the rear wheel of his motor vehicle, and his right hand remains on the vehicle at all times.


You must carry a bale of hay in your vehicle at all times so you can feed your horse. I think a full tank of fuel—or at least enough to get you to your destination—probably counts.


It is illegal to drive with ice or snow covering any part of your windscreen, and you can be fined for snow that falls off your car roof as you drive.


It is also illegal to pay for your meal at a drive-through using a mobile phone, if the engine is running and your handbrake is off. Six points on your licence and a £200 fine.


House & Home


The Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 was a doozy for those who want to stop anybody having any fun. Under the terms of this Act, people were forbidden to knock on someone’s door and then run away (to ‘wilfully and wantonly disturb any inhabitant’ at their door without lawful excuse), or to discharge any firearm ‘of greater calibre than a common fowling-piece’ within 300 yards of a dwelling. Fall fowl (arf, arf) of that bit of legislation and you’re looking at a fine of £200.


Not to mention the fact that you are not allowed to beat or shake any carpet, rug or mat, except door mats before 8am in a thoroughfare. Apparently, the same Act also forbids flying a kite in a public place, or to ‘sing any profane, indecent, or obscene song or ballad’ in the street.


And don’t even think of stringing a washing line across the street or you’ll be in breach of the Town Police Clauses Act of 1847. This Act also bans making slides out of ice or snow.

In London, woe betide anyone with a faulty alarm system. It is illegal to activate your burglar alarm without first nominating a key-holder who can switch it off in your absence, preferably within 20 minutes.


More of a tradition than a law, but you are not allowed to refuse someone the right to use your toilet. It used to be legal to travel freely through another person’s land, so this may be a throwback to that.


Streets & Buildings


Ever wondered why some stores put up brown paper over the glass while they’re changing the display? Well, in Scotland, it’s illegal for a boy under the age of 10 to see a naked mannequin.

Under the Library Offences Act of 1898, it is illegal to gamble in a library.


It is illegal to order or permit any servant to stand on the sill of any window to clean or paint it.


It is illegal to carry a plank, ladder, wheel, pole, cask, placard, showboard or hoop along a pavement in the Metropolitan Police District, according to the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839.


Rights of Royalty


Beached whales and sturgeon must be offered to the reigning monarch – came into force in 1322, called the 'Prerogativa Regis' (King’s Prerogative). 


It’s against the Treason Felony Act of 1848 to attempt to depose the monarch, so if you put a stamp on an envelope upside down in ‘absolute defiance’ that may count…


While it isn’t illegal to deliberately destroy a banknote, under the Currency and Banknotes Act 1928, it is an offence to deface a banknote by printing, stamping, or writing on it. And the Coinage Act of 1971 also makes it an offence to destroy a metal coin that has been current in the UK since 1969, unless a licence to do so has been granted by the Treasury.

It is still an executable offence to allow your pet to mate with a pet belonging to the royal house without permission.


Only the monarch may eat a mute swan. Which brings us to:


Food & Drink


No person shall, in the course of business, import into England, potatoes which he knows, or has reasonable cause to suspect, are from Poland. This came into effect in 2004. It’s been illegal to import potatoes from non-EU countries since 2013 because of a disease called ring rot.


It is illegal to be drunk in a pub according to Section 12 of the 1872 Licensing Act. 'Every person found drunk... on any licensed premises, shall be liable to a penalty'. It is also an offence under the Metropolitan Police Act 1839 for the keeper of a public house to permit drunkenness or disorderly conduct on the premises. Furthermore, under the Licensing Act 2003, it is an offence to sell alcohol to a person who is drunk, or to obtain alcohol for consumption by a person who is drunk. The same Act also forbids you to be drunk and in charge of a steam engine, a horse, or cattle in England and Wales.


In Scotland, it’s illegal since 1972 to be drunk and in charge of a cow. You could be fined £200 and jailed for up to 51 weeks.

The Salmon Act 1986, Section 32 poaching law states that it is illegal to ‘handle salmon in suspicious circumstances.’ In recent years this has been extended to trout, eels, lampreys and smelt.


Around & About


Until relatively recently, women at official Thetford Town Council sessions were required to seek the mayor's permission in order to take off their hats. The blokes, on the other hand, could to use their own judgement about when to discard their headgear.


In York, it is legal to shoot a Scotsman on sight, with a crossbow, except on Sundays.

Singing Happy Birthday is in breach of copyright laws if used for commercial purposes, which is why staff in some restaurants often sing their own made-up alternative. The rights are owned by Warner/Chappell. 


And finally…


A law from 1313 states that it’s forbidden for MPs to wear armour in parliament, and that anyone who dies in the Houses of Parliament is entitled to a state funeral.

Under the terms of the Police Act 1996, Pt V, it’s illegal to pretend to be part of the police by wearing part of the uniform, even for a fancy dress party or for the purposes of, ahem, removing it again.


Sadly, the one about pregnant women being allowed, in an emergency, to relieve themselves in a policeman’s helmet, is apocryphal.


But, I’m sure you will be relieved (arf, arf) to learn that, under the terms of the Prohibition and Inspections Act of 1998, it is illegal to cause a nuclear explosion.


  1. Some of these are wonderful, Zoe. That urinating on your back wheel in public...why not just use a nearby house's toilet since you have the right?
    I always wonder how the police would react if someone laid a complaint under one of these archaic laws. I guess shooting a Scotsman in York might raise a few eyebrows.
    Good thing the one about wearing armor in parliament doesn't apply in the US. The members of Congress may need it there!

    1. I suppose there may be occasions when you are out in your car with no houses in sight, Michael...?

      I don't know if body armour counts!

  2. Fantastic list. I would always be in jail for eating chocolate on public transportation. Or perhaps singing a bawdy ballad on the street?
    Some are so absurd. I mean, like it's legal to shoot a Scotsman except on Sunday!
    But so much fun to read about. Now what will happen since Brexit about importing potatoes from Poland? Sounds like a set-up for a potato smuggling ring.

    1. I should have added a codicil to this blog, to the effect that anyone who gets arrested trying to put any of these to the test is on their own, Kathy!

  3. There has to be a short story somewhere about enticing the dog of someone you dislike to mate with the Queen's corgis.

  4. I love this, Zoe! One can try imagine the motivations of the authorities in passing such laws. In some cases, they seem to be trying to prevent the reoccurrence of an incident that was only going to happen once anyway. I would guess that none of the men involved in the automobile one was left handed.

    1. That Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 was just determined to take all the fun out of doing just about anything, wasn't it?

      Hadn't considered the plight of the left-handed motorist, though!

  5. I believe a bale of hay counts as 'biofuel.' And I know those Scottish lads get into trouble with sheep, but manniquens??? At least they don't mishandle the Salmon. All of which may explain the treatment of Scotsmen in York. (...or not.)

    And since you didn't give a Word of the Week, I'll give you two:

    HALFPACE - that small landing at the top of a flight of stairs where you have to turn and take another flight of stairs whether going up or down.

    ULOTRICHOUS - the characteristic of people with curly hair.

    1. You do come up with some lovely words, EvKa. Thank you for those. I was aware of halfpace as my house has such a feature. But ulotrichous is a new one on me. Wonderful word!

  6. My mother was ulotrichous? I never suspected.

    1. Hmm, you have to wonder, though, Kathy, if you went up to someone and made the comment, "I see your mother is ulotrichous..." You may get a punch on the nose!

  7. Hmm, well the subject of left handed drivers is pretty well exhausted, and dogging the royal family's pets might find favor in certain animal husbandry chat rooms, but my favorite is the bit about ten-year-old boys and naked mannequins. Are similarly aged girls not worthy of similar protection from the corruption of their young minds? By the way, the no snow on vehicle windshields or roof tops is a still enforced law in the Northeast US...and if ever you've been behind a snow covered eighteen wheeler on an interstate, you know why.