A day in the life of an 18th-century Justice of the Peace
Justices of the Peace, or magistrates as they are also known, traditionally came from the higher ranks of county society who often had little or no knowledge of the law, relying instead on the ‘instincts and education of an English gentleman.’
They could do a lot of their work from home, from their ‘own dining room’, and some of their personal notebooks have survived in local archives and private collections. One or two have been published in book form and are well worth looking for to get an impression of the sheer range of things that they had to deal with.
The notebook of Thomas Horner of Somerset published as The King’s Peace (edited by Michael McGarvie, Frome Society for Local Study, 1997) describes a day of Petty Sessions at Frome on 5 February 1777. He and another magistrate, Mr Edgell, examined three men of the Cox family and a woman called Mary Nowell regarding whether they had a legal right to settle in Frome. They ‘allowed poor rates for the parishes of Leigh and Woolverton’ and consented to the apprenticeship of two unnamed pauper children. They also heard ‘a complaint made by John Batchelor against William Hayward of Beckington, clothworker, for an assault and battery’ which resulted in the defendant being bound to appear at the next Quarter Sessions. On the same day they signed six removal orders evicting people from parishes where they didn’t have the legal right to remain, convicted and fined a man for ‘keeping and using a lurcher and gun to destroy the game’. They also ordered an assessment of work needed to repair the highways in the parish of Nunney.
Petty Sessions, held between the three monthly Quarter Sessions, could take place anywhere from a church vestry to the local pub. The Talbot Inn in Mells seems to have been a particular favourite with Thomas Horner and Mr Edgell.
Sessions House, in Clerkenwell Green, Islington, was built to hold Quarter Sessions