R v Dudley and Stephens (“Lifeboat case”) (1884) 14 QBD 273

ON 9 DECEMBER 1884, the Queens Bench Division of the High Court of Justice delivered R v Dudley and Stephens (1884) 14 QBD 273.


In 1848, Sydney Barrister John Henry Want purchased an English 52 foot yacht, “The Mignonette”. Want arranged for the yacht to be sailed from England to Australia by Tom Dudley (Captain), Edwin Stephens, Edmund Brooks and Richard Parker.

On 18 May 1884, Mignonette set sail from Southampton to Sydney. On 5 July, somewhere near the Cape of Good Hope, the yacht was struck by a wave and sank. The crew abandoned ship to the lifeboat with only turnips and water.

On 29 July, the lifeboat was rescued by “The Montezuma”. The crew of the Montezuma discovered that Richard Parker had been eaten by Dudley, Stephens and Brooks. The survivors were taken to Falmouth, Cornwall, where they were interviewed about incident. Dudley and Stephens made statements to the effect that on about 25 July, Parker was close to death so they decided to kill him so they could, as well as eat his flesh, preserve his blood to drink. Brooks denied being party to the killing but admitted to eating part of Parker.

Dudley and Stephens justified their actions out of necessity to preserve their own lives. They maintained that this justification was an ancient custom of the high seas.

Dudley and Stephens were charged and tried. The matter ended up before the Queens Bench of the High Court in London.

Dudley and Stephens were convicted of murder. The court held that the law did not recognise a defence of necessity, either in precedent nor morality.

Per Lord Coleridge CJ:

“Now it is admitted that the deliberate killing of this unoffending and unresisting boy was clearly murder, unless the killing can be justified by some well-recognised excuse admitted by the law. It is further admitted that there was in this case no such excuse, unless the killing was justified by what has been called ‘necessity’. But the temptation to the act which existed here was not what the law has ever called necessity. Nor is this to be regretted. Though law and morality are not the same, and many things may be immoral which are not necessarily illegal, yet the absolute divorce of law from morality would be of fatal consequence; and such divorce would follow if the temptation to murder in this case were to be held by law an absolute defence of it…..”

“It is not needful to point out the awful danger of admitting the principle which has been contended for. Who is to be the judge of this sort of necessity? By what measure is the comparative value of lives to be measured? Is it to be strength, or intellect or what? It is plain that the principle leaves to him who is to profit by it to determine the necessity which will justify him in deliberately taking another’s life to save his own. In this case the weakest, the youngest, the most unresisting, was chosen. Was it more necessary to kill him than one of the grown men? The answer must be ‘No’”

Dudley and Stephens were sentenced to death. In response to public pressure, the Government commuted the sentence to a 6 month term of imprisonment on the grounds that the trial court had withheld the verdict of manslaughter from the jury. Dudley and Stephens were released from prison on 20 May 1885.

John Henry Want later became the Attorney General for New South Wales from 1894 to 1899.


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