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The strangest British laws still in use today

A photograph of a courtroom gavel and the Union Flag in the background

Being a law-abiding citizen can be a lot harder than you might think. Whether it’s using your phone to pay at a drive-through without turning your car off first or loitering after a funeral; some laws might be quite easy to accidentally break. A man was fined in 2015 for holding up the gravediggers at his own wife’s funeral! But with most, you can kind of see where they’re coming from. After all, laws are about keeping the peace and maintaining the safety of the general public.

But what about the ones that just don’t make sense? With all the new laws being created each year, it would make sense that we’re keeping an eye on what’s suitably illegal and what isn’t. However, there are still a surprising amount of absurd and counter-intuitive restrictions in Britain that you could very well get fined for. Here are 13 of the strangest British laws that are still in action today.

No planks in London

Thanks to the 1839 Metropolitan Police Act, it is illegal to carry a plank of wood, poles, ladders, or even placards along the pavement in the Metropolitan District. This covers the entirety of London and Greater London, with the exclusion of the City of London as they have their own police force. It’s a wonder anyone has managed to get any DIY done.

Beat your rug in private

Another 1839 Metropolitan Police Act states that it is illegal to beat or shake a rug or carpet openly in the streets of London. All rug beating must be done away from public areas. The is an exception for doormats which can be shaken, but only before 8am.

Keep your cows

It is also illegal to walk your cows through the Metropolitan district during daylight. All cattle corralling must be done outside the hours of 7am and 10pm.

Here comes the fun police

Still, on the laws from the 1839 Metropolitan Act, simple childhood pranks and fun are considered illegal. The game of knock-down-ginger (also known as a ding-dong ditch, or knock-a-door run) is against the law. If you were to “willfully and wantonly disturb any inhabitant by pulling or ringing any doorbell or knocking at any door without lawful excuse”, you could find yourself charged with a criminal offence.

However, it’s not just frustrating japes that can land you in hot water. The same act also rules out sliding on snowy or icy pathways, and thanks to the Town Police Clauses Act 1847, it is illegal to fly a kite in "any street, to the obstruction, annoyance, or danger of the residents or passengers”.

Getting drunk in a pub

Section 12 of the Licensing Act 1872 outlaws “every person found drunk in any highway or other public place, whether a building or not, or on any licensed premises”. This means that you could land a hefty £200 for getting drunk in a pub. Maybe it’s time to reconsider organising that brewery knees-up.

Drunk farmers

Along a similar vein, it’s against the law to be drunk while in charge of cattle in England and Wales. Perhaps to dissuade farmers from driving carriages, horses, or large herds of cattle into places they shouldn’t go, the law from the 1872 licensing act is still very much in play today. Interestingly, however, in Scotland, it’s only been illegal to be drunk in charge of a cow since 1972.

Total pigsty

Thanks to the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 you are not allowed to keep a pigsty in your front garden. The law reads that “Every person who keeps any pigsty to the front of any street, not being shut out from such street by a sufficient wall or fence, or who keeps any swine in or near any street, so as to be a common nuisance” - so it’s best to keep those pigs out of view!

Hanging your washing across the street

Also from the Town Police Clauses Act 1847, it is illegal to hang your washing across the street. It could land you with an eye-watering £1000 fine, so best to hang your personals out to dry with the pigs around the back instead.

Fancy dress Faux pas

We all know that impersonating an officer is an absolute no-no, but what about when it comes to fancy dress? If you’ve ever dressed as a police officer, soldier, or sailor, then you’ve technically broken the law.

Stripping off in Scotland

It’s against the law for boys under the age of ten to see a naked mannequin. The law doesn’t specify the gender of the mannequins or whether there are varying levels of nudity. Dating back to times when public decency was a serious concern, the law is still in place today (however, I doubt you’d find it being enforced all too often).

No Armour

Perhaps one of the longest-standing ludicrous laws is that members of Parliament are forbidden from wearing armour in the Houses of Parliament thanks to the Statute forbidding Bearing of Armour enacted in 1313.

Suspicious fish

According to Section 32 of the Salmon Act 1986, it is against the law to be seen “handling salmon in suspicious circumstances”. Probably (and more sensibly) tied to the illegal poaching or selling of contraband fish, it’s still delightful to imagine that you’re breaking the law by wearing a trenchcoat and dark glasses whilst buying your fish supper.

Plague, or Pox?

You might have heard about the much-storied law that London Hackney Carriage cabbies had to carry a bale of hay in the boot of their cab. Unfortunately and somewhat disappointingly, this law was repealed in 1976. However, along with it being illegal to transport dead bodies or rabid dogs, there is another throwback law that is still technically in action today.

Due to regular outbreaks of disease in historic London, cabbies were required to ask their fares if they were infected with the plague or smallpox. Fast forward a few centuries, and thanks to the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, your taxi driver “has a right to refuse anyone who may have a notifiable disease”, including plague, rabies, leprosy, and food poisoning. So don’t be offended if your cabbie throws a couple of extra diseases in when they ask to see your lateral flow tests.