Buckley v Gross: 1863

The court had to decide the ownership of of tallow which had been kept at warehouses. In a fire; it melted and flowed down the sewers into the river where part of it was collected by a man with no right to it; and he sold it to the claimant. The police stopped the claimant and took him before a magistrate. The magistrate discharged the claimant. Under the section the magistrate had power, where the real owner was known, to make an order for the detention and subsequent delivery of goods ‘charged to be stolen or fraudulently obtained’ to the rightful owner, and where the owner was unknown to order delivery to the receiver of the Metropolitan Police Force who was authorised, in the absence of a claim made by the real owner within 12 months, to sell them. Pursuant to these statutory provisions the magistrate made an order for the detention of the goods. The tallow became a nuisance and the police sold the tallow to the defendant before the 12 month period expired. The claimant then sued the defendant to recover it. The court directed a verdict for the defendant with leave to the claimant to move to enter judgment if the Court of Queen’s Bench should be of the opinion that he could maintain his action. The court held that he could not. Cockburn CJ said: ‘Under these circumstances it appears to me plain that, by virtue of the authority vested in him by the statute, an order was made by the justice, within the scope of his authority and jurisdiction, with respect to dealing with this tallow, and whether the police were or were not warranted in selling it within twelve months is immaterial. The plaintiff, who had nothing but bare naked possession (which would have been sufficient against a wrong doer) had it taken out of him by virtue of this enactment. As against the plaintiff, therefore, the defendant derives title, not from a wrong doer, but from a person selling under authority of the justice, whether rightly or not is of no consequence. I wholly disagree with the doctrine of the plaintiff’s counsel, that if the policeman did anything ultra vires, that would revest the possession of this tallow in the plaintiff. He had no title beyond what mere possession gave, and, so soon as the goods were taken from him by force of law, there was a break in the chain of that possession.’ Crompton J said: ‘This action must be founded on possession; here the possession was divested out of the plaintiff, and he cannot revert to a right of property to re-establish it. I agree with my Lord Chief Justice that, where possession is lawfully divested out of a man, and the property is ultimately converted by a person who does not claim through an original wrong doer, the party whose possession was so divested had no property at the time of the conversion. Here, in my mind, the plaintiff’s possession was gone. The goods were properly taken from him ….’ Blackburn J: ‘I do not wish to question the doctrine laid down in several cases, that possession of personal property is sufficient title against a wrong doer; nor that it is no answer to the plaintiff in such a case to say that there is a third person who could lawfully take the chattel from him; and I do not know that it makes any difference whether the goods had been feloniously taken or not. But, assuming that to be the law, the plaintiff has not brought himself within it. … I draw the inference of fact that the justice was satisfied that this tallow had come from the warehouses, and I hold that, as matter of law, the police were bound to keep it for the true owner, because they had ascertained that there was a true owner, and who he was. Their possession was the possession of the true owner and not of the wrong doer, whose possession was terminated by their taking possession. It is therefore not necessary to consider whether the sale of the tallow to the defendants by the police was right or wrong. If wrong, the true owner may complain against them; if not, no one else can, but at all events, not the plaintiff, who was himself a wrong doer.’


Blackburn J, Cockburn CJ, Crompton J


(1863) 3B and S 556


Metropolitan Police Act 1839 29


England and Wales

Cited by:

CitedField v Sullivan 1923
(Supreme Court of Victoria) The claimant claimed return of goods seized by the police believing them to be stolen. The theft was not established and the claimant as the party in possession at the time of the seizure was held entitled to their . .
CitedCostello v Chief Constable of Derbyshire Constabulary CA 22-Mar-2001
The police seized a car from Mr Costello, believing that it was stolen. The seizure was lawful at the time, by virtue of section 19 of PACE. The police never brought any criminal proceedings against Mr Costello, but they refused to return the car to . .
CitedIrving v National Provincial Bank CA 1962
Goods were seized by the police from the claimant. Neither the claimant nor the defendant could establish that they were the true owners. Under section 1 the first court directed the goods to be delivered to the defendant as the person who appeared . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Police, Torts – Other

Updated: 04 July 2022; Ref: scu.194102