A day in the life of an 18th-cen­tury Jus­tice of the Peace

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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

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