So wrote Charles Dickens in Bleak House.
In this Guest Post, Owen Davies and Louise Falcini from University of Hertfordshire explain how justice was conducted in the pubs of London during the 18C and 19C. These are programme notes for our re-enactments of the Petty Sessions and the Coroner’s Inquest tonight and tomorrow evening at the George On the Strand. There are places available if you’re quick.
The inn or pub was central to the effective administration of local justice in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – until the rise of police courts. In many communities the inn or pub was the only readily-available, large, indoor space where public events could take place. So auctions were commonly held in pubs and so were the petty sessions (the forerunner of magistrates’ courts) and coroners’ inquests. The proceedings were normally held in an upstairs or back room of the pub, sometimes with their own entrances so that the magistrate or coroner need not pass through the beery throng. But the sounds of conviviality and the smell of alcohol and tobacco smoke would have pervaded the proceedings. Pub justice was a nice little earner for the landlord, who benefitted from payment for the room and the increased custom petty sessions and inquests invariably brought, with locals and thirsty witnesses quenching their curiosity and thirst.
Petty sessions were presided over by Justices of the Peace (magistrates) in the counties, gentlemen and local squires of social and financial standing, and in urban Middlesex merchants and tradesmen. For much of the 18th century the position was unpaid, for some the prestige of being a royal officer was enough, for others there was a necessity to charge fees leading to the Middlesex epithet of a ‘trading justice’. In London, the Middlesex Justices Act of 1792 created stipendiary or paid magistrates with salaries of £400 a year. The rest of the country followed suit in later decades. The Justices did not need to have formal legal training and printed guides were available to ensure they knew their remit and the parameters of their power. They sat without a jury and could dispense small fines, order whippings, impose time at the Bridewell or House of Correction (an institution in which inmates would perform some kind of menial work or hard labour), bind individuals to keep the peace, or merely publicly admonish an individual. More serious cases would be sent to the Quarter Sessions, also presided over by a panel of magistrates, but with a jury. Serious offences were dealt with at the Assizes, although in Middlesex and the City of London these cases were heard at Gaol Delivery Sessions held at the Old Bailey.
Inquests were not trials but the proceedings resembled them. They were presided over by a coroner and not a magistrate. Coroners, mostly lawyers by training, were required to enquire into the circumstances of a sudden or suspicious death and to investigate its cause. Inquests were held very quickly after death. The Coroner would issue a warrant to summon 24 ‘able and sufficient men’ to act as jurors. From these local men 12 would be selected and empanelled to form the jury. The coroner and jurors would be required to ‘view’ the body before they began to hear evidence. Unlike at a criminal trial, the members of the jury had the right to question witnesses. If the jury decided on a verdict of murder or manslaughter, then the case would be brought to the Assizes or for cases arising in the City of London and Middlesex – the Old Bailey.
Owen Davies & Louise Falcini
University of Hertfordshire, September 2013