Policing, Magistrates' and other courts

The Metropolitan Police

The notorious Ratcliff Highway murders of 1811 exposed the lack of a coherent policing and detective service. The City of London had its own long-established police force (divided into day and night watches until 1837), but apart from the appointment of a small number of constables working to the seven 'public offices' established under the 1792 Middlesex Justices Act - they were paid 12s. a week, and as explained here regarded this as a 'retaining fee' to be boosted by other income - and the Marine Police Office, separately established in 1798, no organised system existed for the rest of the capital; as explained here, each district had voluntary constables, headboroughs, and (elderly and poorly-paid) nightwatchmen. Right is the old watch-house in Wellclose Square, in 1925. There was some private initiative, with residents paying 'thief-takers' to catch offenders and bring them to court.

A series of government reports in 1812, 1818 and 1822 recommended no major change in these arrangements, but a more co-ordinated approach emerged under the 1829 Metropolitan Police Act. A London-wide force was created, headed by a Commissioner (originally two, but they disagreed) based at Scotland Yard, with four districts - northern, eastern, western, and southern - divided into alphabetically-designated divisions; the number of these gradually grew to 22, and the St George-in-the-East area eventually came to be divided between H Division (Whitechapel, with headquarters in Leman Street) and K Division (Stepney - previously U division). More details of the various divisions here.

At its formation in 1830, H Division had a superintendent, 4 inspectors, 18 sergeants, and 168 constables. Its boundaries were
north along the City of London boundary to Hackney Road, east to White Street, south through Charles Street into New Road, Cannon Street Road, Old Gravel Lane to the riverside at Wapping, then westwards to the Tower of London and back along the City Boundary.

In  1831, it was using the old watch houses in Denmark [Crowder] Street - left - and Spitalfields as police stations, and 26 Leman Street and 75 Bethnal Green Road as section houses (where the single men lived). In 1847 a new police station was built at 37-39 Leman Street, which was replaced in 1891 by a building a few doors further along: details here. Read this account of the officers (64, all but two single) and prisoners (19) at the Leman Street station on census night in 1851, and what life was like for  them. On joining up, officers had to be between 21 and 35, physically fit, able to read and write, if married have no more than two children, and neither partner own a shop. Married men lived in police-owned properties; single men lived in their station or at a section-house.

The new force took in Fielding's Bow Street Runners [see below] and the Bow Street Horse Patrol (which existed for a short time in 1763 and was revived in 1805), but not the City of London Police, which was given its own statutory authority in 1839 and still remains independent.

Marine Police
It also took in both the policing and judicial functions of the Marine Police Office, whose origins and early history are described in detail here. All magistrates had jurisdiction over offences on or connected to the Thames, under the colloquially-known 1761 Bumboat Act, which authorised searches of all small vessels on the river, which were required to be registered with Trinity Corporation. Until the Docks were built, in the early years of the 19th century, goods were transferred to and from shore in small vessels, and all involved in this traffic - 'lumpers' (as dock labourers were known), coal-heavers, lightermen, customs officers, tidewaiters and even ratcatchers - were notoriously implicated in widespread pillage, justified as 'custom', amounting to about £½m a year on a turnover of £60m.  But the magistrates were inhibited, by lack of resources or diligence, from addressing this huge challenge. In 1796 Patrick Colquhoun, one of the first appointed stipendiary magistrates under the 1792 Act  - though he never drew his stipend - proposed, in his Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis  [several editions - the link is to that of 1806], the establishment of a system combining policing and judicial functions. In 1798, backed by West India Dock merchants and others, this came about, and was regularised in 1800 by an Act for the More Effectual Prevention of Depredations on the River Thames, with a further Act in 1821.

Patrick Colquhoun LLD (1745-1820 - left is his portrait in the Marine Police Museum), the 'Glasgow trader' mentioned by Sir Robert Peel, was an honourable exception to the corruption of the magistracy discussed below: he was able and public-spirited, confining himself to police work (shunning the Brewster Sessions which, like the Fieldings, he found morally dubious). He served as a magistrate for Middlesex, Surrey, Kent, Essex, the City and Liberty of Westminster, and the Liberty of the Tower of London [before the latter jurisdiction was abolished]. He used his influence to get the Marine Police scheme established, and was its superintendent magistrate. The resident magistrate, who had worked unsuccessfully on a similar scheme with his relative and fellow-magistrate John Staples, appointed to Whitechapel in 1792, but through his association with Colquhoun is now honoured as a co-founder of the service - he was certainly very assertive of the role he played in it - was John Harriott (1745-1817) - right. (The other magistrates for the Thames court, William Kinnaird [senior magistrate, who died in 1821, aged 66 - highly respectable according to his obituaries, though see below] and William Bragge, did not live locally and had little understanding of the issues.) Active until his death in 1816, when he was stricken by cancer and died of self-inflicted stab wounds, Harriott had an eventful life: three times married, he served in the Royal Navy, the Merchant Navy, and with the East India Company (where for a time he served as a kind of chaplain, though was not ordained); he then developed farming in his native Essex and served as a magistrate for that county; when fire destroyed his farm, he emigrated briefly to America; on his return, he lived in Prescot Street (later moving to Spitalfields), and took out four patents for pumping (for which he set up a small factory) and other equipment. In 1809 clerks in the office brought charges of 'maladversion' against him, and it was agreed that for the reputation of the force he should face them, in a King's Bench trial. He was acquitted of all but a minor technical charge about documentation, but the experience hit him hard.

In the 1820s the 'Thames Police Office', at 259 Wapping Street, was still listed as a separate court with 'Special Justices' - John Longley (based there), Thomas Richbell (of Muscovy Court, Tower Hill), William Ballantine (of Serjeants' Inn, Fleet Street) and William Broderip. But the Marine force amalgamated with the Police Office in Shadwell in 1839/40 and the Lambeth Street, Whitechapel Police District in 1845; having lost its specific river duties, the court moved in 1844 to East Arbour Street [later Charles, and Aylward] Street, Stepney - here is a descrpiton of its work in 1887, from The Graphic. It is now the Thames Magistrates Court at 58 Bow Road. But the operational base remains at 225 Wapping High Street, now known as the Marine Support Unit: there is a small and interesting museum on the premises. Right is an 1859 etching by Whistler of the Wapping Wharf headquarters, and the Bow Road court today.

In 1838, after three years of argument, the Queen's Bench (judgement given by Lord Denham) confirmed the right of the Watermen's Company to limit the speed of steam vessels in the Pool of London to 5 miles or knots per hour. Mr Combe, at the time a Thames Police magistrate, had fined the master of the Star steam-packet £5 for exceeding this limit; the Star Company objected that the court had no jurisdiction under the Watermen's Act. In the intervening period, there had been several accidents, with loss of life, from the rapid navigation of steamers from London Bridge to Greenwich. The court affirmed their jurisdiction, and re-stated the by-law which set a speed limit.

In the years after the creation of the 'Met', as explained
here, St George-in-the-East Vestry was complaining about its expense, and the fact that (as they saw it) it had done nothing to reduce criminality in the area - indeed, they believed it had made matters worse, and reduced the sense of local control; also, they said that the 'bobbies' or 'peelers' (as the were popularly known, after Sir Robert Peel who introduced the 1829 Act) looked too military!

Initially they wore white trousers, a swallow-tailed coat and a rabbit-skin leather-covered stove-pipe hat - useful apparently as a step to climb or see over walls; by 1863 this had changed to a dark blue Melton tunic with a broad belt (from which hung a Bull's Eye lamp - right - at night) and a 'custodian' helmet (which from 1875 incorporated the now-familiar Brunswick star helmet plate (named for Braunschweig, the German state which had been ruled by the Hanoverian kings of England - other agencies used this device). Their ID number was shown on the collar (which had a leather stock to prevent garrotting), and they carried a regulation-issue wooden truncheon, and a rattle (whistles were only introduced in 1884). They were not routinely armed (nor did they carry the cutlasses with which they were issued), but firearms were available for serious incidents. As well as constables, there were detectives: here is an account of H division in 'Ripper times', and right a picture of its detective team at that time.

Magistrates' (Police) Courts

Some historic areas, such as the Tower Liberties and Precinct of Wellclose, had long-established arrangements for the administration of justice, both criminal and civil, but there was no co-ordinated system across London. In 1740 Sir Thomas de Veil (1684-1746), a Westminster justice, had set up rooms in his home at 4 Bow Street, near Covent Garden; he also was proactive in pursuing and investigating crime, and advocated the appointment of properly qualified 'magistrates of police' who would hold courts regularly for a stipend rather than fees, but nothing came of this at the time. Two years after his death Sir John Fielding took over (he was chief magistrate at Bow Street from 1754-80) and, with his half-brother the novelist Henry Fielding, and the aid of a government grant, sought to dispense justice without charge to the poor. They established the Bow Street Runners (who preferred the title Principal Officers, as 'Runners' made them sound like servants) to ensure that cases proceeded expeditiously, and set up some patrols along the main thoroughfares.
[There are currently plans to turn the former Bow Street police station and magistrates' court into a museum.]

In 1792, after various abortive atempts to get more immediate progress, Bow Street become the pattern for a metropolitan system of police offices and courts under the
Justice of the Peace, Metropolis Act, which established seven 'public offices' (St Margaret Westminster, St James Westminster, Clerkenwell, Shoreditch, Whitechapel, Shadwell and Southwark) where fit and able magistrates would attend at fixed times to deal with criminal offences. (The Whitechapel office was in Lambeth Street; the Shadwell office, in the High Street, was short-lived; another in Marylebone High Street was opened in 1821.) These justices of the peace (three at each office - later reduced to two) were the first stipendiary magistrates - originally on £400 a year, rising to £800 soon after. Each office could appoint up to six constables.

One of the more extraordinary events dealt with by the new Lambeth Street 'office', in 1797, was to order the removal to the vault of St Mary Matefelon church of a coffin found in a caravan driven into the area and intercepted by a watchman. It contained the body of Richard Parker, a pressganged marine who had been hanged on board HMS Sandwich as the leader of a mutiny, and buried near Minster; his distraught widow, denied access to his body, with three women friends had dug it up with their bare hands by night, and brought it to London:  see further chapter 10 of J.R. Hutchinson Rule Britannia (1914).

A more typical example of its work, from 1816, is:
Shocking Nuisance. — Yesterday no less than 25 wretched females, some of whose ages did not exceed 16, and others of whom appeared to verge upon 30, and even 60, were brought before the sitting magistrate (Mr. Davies) charged with being idle, disorderly, and profligate characters. The cases of these wretched females exhibited a melancholy picture of the increase of vice and depravity in the quarter from whence they were brought in custody, namely that of Whitechapel and its neighbourhood. That quarter, it appeared, had for a considerable time past, become a scene of continued riot, disorder, profligacy and robbery; and this had increased to so alarming a degree that the inhabitants of High-street, Whitechapel, found it necessary to form themselves into a body in order to patrole [sic] the streets, and to remove the evil in question. Some of the most respectable individuals attended to prove these facts, and stated that the system of plunder and depravity at present exercised by the increasing number of prostitutes, was such as to prevent all peace in the neighbourhood, and to subject their wives and families to every species of depravity and nuisance. The prisoners were each sentenced to imprisonment for short periods in the house of Correction.

Returning to the bizarre: In 1838 the Lambeth Street court also received reports of manifestations of Spring-heeled Jack, or the 'Terror of London'.
Jane Alsop deposed that she had answered the door of her father's house to a man claiming to be a police officer: For God's sake bring me a light, for we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane. She brought him a candle, and noticed that he wore a large cloak, which he then threw off, and presented a most hideous and frightful appearance, vomiting blue and white flame from his mouth while his eyes resembled red balls of fire. She said he wore a large helmet and that his clothing, which appeared to be very tight-fitting, resembled white oilskin. He then caught hold of her and began tearing her gown with claws which she was certain were of some metallic substance. She screamed for help, and managed to get away from him and ran towards the house. He caught her on the steps and tore her neck and arms with his claws. She was rescued by one of her sisters, after which her assailant fled. Eight days later, Lucy Scales and her sister were returning home after visiting their brother, a butcher who lived in a respectable part of Limehouse. As they passed through Green Dragon Alley, they saw someone standing in an angle of the passage; he approached her, wearing a large cloak and spurted a quantity of blue flame in her face, temporarily blinding her and causing violent fits which lastested several hours. Her brother, hearing the screams, ran to her aid. Her sister reported that the attacker was tall, thin, of gentlemanly appearance, wore a cloak and was carrying a lantern similiar to the bull's eye lantern carried by policemen; he did not attack her, but walked away. No-one was ever found.
This urban legend - which appears to have begun in Sheffield - continued to terrify and fascinate, and has generated many books, including Philip Pullman Spring-Heeled Jack: A Story of Bravery and Evil (Doubleday 1989), based on a school play he wrote when he was a teacher; Mark Hodder The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (Snowbooks 2010), and Karl Bell The Legend of Spring Heeled Jack: Victorian Urban Folklore and Popular Culture (Boydell Press 2012).

Although called 'police courts' (in the original sense of 'regulating civil administration'), they were not run by the Metropolitan Police, and once the Met was established they were renamed 'Magistrates' Courts' to avoid this confusion. See here for more detail as to how they operated. From 1839 separate police stations were established, and the 'offices' continued as courts. Their boundaries of their jurisdiction were not co-terminous with the police districts; that of Lambeth Street was (re-)defined in 1840 as:
Lambeth Street Police Court: from the Tower Stairs, on the River, in a line running northward along the boundary of the city of London, to the corner of Wentworth Street; thence eastward along the centre thereof, and of Old Montague Street, Prince's Street, and Northampton Street, to Cambridge Road; thence northward along the centre thereof to Old Ford Bridge; thence to and along Old Ford Road to and including Bow; and thence to the River Lea; thence southward along the River Lea to the north corner of the East lndia Dock; thence westward along the centre of East India Dock Road, and of the Commercial Road, to the corner of Street Road; thence southward along the centre thereof, and of Cannon Street, to Ratcliff Highway; thence westward along the centre of the same, and of Parson's Street, to East Smithfield; thence southward to and along the centre of Nightingale Lane to Hermitage Dock; thence westward the boundary of the River Thames to Tower Stairs, including the Tower of London and the liberty thereof ...
- note that the separate jurisdiction of the Tower Liberties (including the Precinct of Wellclose) therefore for most purposes became extinct; it finally ended in 1855.

The neighbouring court, which took in that part of the St George-in-the-East local government area east of Cannon Street Road, was:
Thames Police Court: from the River Thames, Old Gravel Lane Stairs, in a line running northward along the centre of Old Gravel Lane, and extending to and along the centre of Cannon Street, and Cannon Street Road, to the Commercial Road; thence eastward along the centre thereof, and of the East India Dock Road, to the north of and including the East lndia Docks, to the River Thames; thence westward along the boundary of the said River to Hermitage Dock; thence northward to and along the centre of Nightingale Lane to East Smithfield; thence eastward to and along the centre of Parson's Street and of Pennington Street, to Old Gravel Lane; thence southward to and along the centre thereof to the River Thames, at Old Gravel Lane Stairs ...

However, the Lambeth Street court closed at the end of 1844, and its business was divided between the Worship Street (Clerkenwell) and Thames courts (which, as noted above, had moved away from the river to Stepney). Henceforth, the boundaries of the Thames court were
Tower Stairs to High Street Whitechapel, Gobe Lane, Mile-End Road, Eastern Counties Railway, Hackney Cut, Bow Bridge, along the River Lea to the Thames, Tower Stairs.
Its magistrates - as opposed to its business - were transferred to the new court building opened in Kennington Lane, Lambeth, resulting in some confusion in reports and documents, reflected in current web references, between 'Lambeth Street' (Whitechapel) and 'Lambeth' (the new court south of the river).

Who were the magistrates who served these courts? Some biographical details of most of them are given here; they demonstrate that the expectation that these magistrates should have legal qualification and experience as barristers (as explained below), was duly fulfilled. (The 1964 Administration of Justice Act finally ended the distinct identity of the Middlesex magistracy.)

Here is an item from Punch in 1863 about the times of sittings, suggesting that magistrates had some way to go before they were offering an accessible service - however, 10.30am remains the start time for the present-day court, although some business is transacted before then.
The advantages of early rising for the administration of justice are signally instanced and explained in the subjoined extracts from a relative to the Thames Police Court:

AS IT SHOULD BE. The Magistrates of this court have commenced business fifteen or thirty minutes past ten o'clock since the 6th instant, to the great convenience of the public. The change has effected immense good. The Magistrates have been enabled to leave the court every afternoon at five o'clock, and good and quiet order has prevailed.The people attending upon the night charges and remands are away before the persons attending on summonses arrive. There has been no quarrelling or disorder in the avenues leading to the court, and there is no prospect while the present system continues of people being detained until seven and eight o'clock in the evening, or of leaving the court wearied, exhausted, and disappointed.
It may with truth and justice be averred that Early to bench and early to rise Marks a Beak popular, pleasant, and wise.
The parties, however, who are interested in the dispatch of business at the Thames Police Court find that 10.15 or 10.30, though vastly preferable to 11, is not quite sufficiently early to completely suit their convenience; and they say that If the Magistrates will follow up their good intentions and commence at ten o'clock precisely every morning (the hour at which the judges commence business in Westminster Hall), they will confer another boon on the inhabitants of the district. Two additional clerks are much required. Two clerks were to tbe Thames Police Court when it was first established 60 years ago. The has since increased tenfold, and no additional clerks have been appointed. Two clerks are not sufficient for the business of tbe Court, and were it not for the assistance of the ushers and summoning officers, matters would be brought to standstill.
 It does not seem unreasonable to ask his Worship, the Magistrate, to turn out at the same hour in the morning with my Lord Judge. The rogues are all up and doing betimes, and justice ought to be even with them. The moralist in tbe Grammar declares that the way good manners is never too late; but it appears that a Magistrate be a little too late and nevertheless on his way to amendment. For we are further apprised that on Tuesday last week Mr. Woolrych arrived at tbe Court this morning at a few minutes after ten, heard the applications immediately and commenced the hearing of the charges at half past ten. A few minutes past ten is only a few minutes too late. It is an approximation to ten sharp; which is the desiderated hour. The Thames Police Court reporter seems happy to report that the Magistrates in their attendance there, are tending to that hour, which, when they have adopted it precisely to a minute, will be just the time of day.


Did the introduction of stipendiary magistrates reduce the corruption and pursuit of self-interest which was rife in the latter part of the 18th century? There were some honourable public servants, but others who abused their role and status. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in English Local Government from the Revolution to the Municipal Corporations Act: The Parish and the County (Longmans, Green 1906) show that the change of culture took some time. In a section entitled 'The Breakdown of the Middlesex Bench', they finger among others Sir Daniel Williams, stipendiary magistrate of the Tower Hamlets Division, as we suspect, a successful practitioner in the higher flights of remunerative use of the manifold powers of a Justice of the Peace. (One example, from 1811, is that he became a member of the committee promoting the London to Cambridge canal.) The Webbs ally him to Joseph Merceron, the 'Boss' of Bethnal Green, who as a magistrate got himself onto every committee for auditing accounts and letting contracts, and to William Mainwaring, chairman of the bench, through whose influence Williams, having got a stipendiary magistrate's post, was appointed deputy chairman. Together they built up a complex machine which ... for some years . . . wielded, unseen, unnoticed, unopposed, the whole patronage of the county magistracy, to which government turned a blind eye, even making secret payments to Mainwaring for 'keeping Middlesex quiet' for over thirty years - £350 initially, rising to £750. G.B. Mainwaring, William's son, became Treasurer. Even after the Mainwaring family bank [no connection to Captain Mainwaring of Dad's Army!] crashed, they were all re-elected to office - and now the son was paid £500 a year. In 1816 Mainwaring senior retired, after 36 years, and was granted a pension; his son continued for a further six years until the scandal became too great as irregularities came to light and he resigned. Investigations followed, and an Act of Parliament regulating the Treasurer's activities and those of the 'trading justices' in relation to lucrative contracts.

However, another opportunity came via the Brewster Sessions, held in each Petty Sessional Division to license the sale of alcohol. Rapid population growth, the rise of wealthy firms of brewers and distillers, and the concentration of all the liquor traffic in the licensed houses, had made these licences of great and steadily growing value. Brewers and distillers, publicans and owners of public-houses were ready to buy them for considerable sums. Many Justices did not hesitate to profit from this via 'hole in the corner' meetings, either by selling licences or granting them to their friends and contacts. Most of those involved were the unpaid magistrates, since the stipendiaries, despite the fact that they were full-time, tended to concentrate on police cases - indeed, their involvement in licensing matters and in the civil 'county business' was resented by the others. But Sir Daniel Williams chaired the Tower Hamlets Brewster Sessions and was clearly involved in this trade. His conduct was specifically reported by the Home Secretary to the Lord Chancellor in 1816. He had relicensed public houses which had been reported to the police with only a short and general admonition; he also granted licences to unfinished houses, and when this was objected to as against the law, said he agreed as to the law, but their practice was different. A more scrupulous magistrate had written in 1815 Who, then, is there but must have boiled with indignation when condemned to hear read a recent correspondence submitted to the magistrates at a late meeting, wherein individuals are openly charged with conniving, or something very like it, at a trafficking in public-house licences?  Another Middlesex magistrate, John Thomas Barber Beaumont (whose life elsewhere, as this link shows, was colourful), gave evidence to the 1816 report on the state of the police in the metropolis, first about the handling of crime, and then about licensing irregularities; and here is further evidence about Williams and his associates.

The Webbs suggested that as a result Williams mended his ways: in his later career, as chairman both of the Holborn and Finsbury Court of Sewers and of the Tower Hamlets Court of Sewers, both of which he dominated until his death, he proved himself an able administrator and (at any rate after his earlier struggles were over) apparently a man of upright character shows him to have been, not only an able administrator, but (at any rate after his early struggles were over) apparently a man of upright conduct. This is despite a letter from 'B' to The Times on 10 January 1828 commenting loftily on the poor quality of candidates for the stipendiary posts - apart from the issues of corruption: he alleged that Sir Richard Birnie was an unscrupulous and dissolute Scotchman, a journeyman and afterwards a master saddler; that Kinnaird, I remember, kept a little chemist's shop in Holborn, and that Daniel Williams was something of the sort.
Sir Robert Peel recognised the difficulty - he said in 1825 that among the first batch had been three clergymen [one of whom, at Whitechapel, was Henry Reynott DD], one major, two starch dealers, one Glasgow trader [Patrick Colquhoun - whose record was in fact exemplary] and three barristers - and sought to address this with a Bill increasing their salaries, rising in time to £800 a year, as 'blameless barristers' unconnected with the unpaid magistracy were appointed.

Ironically, in 1821, shortly before his final exposure, G.B. Mainwaring (whom the Webbs term a bankrupt peculator) had written unctuously and disingenuously in favour of the 'Great Unpaid':
A national, independent, gratuitous magistracy, giving their time, their learning, and their efforts to the preservation of the peace and good order of society, and the due administration of the laws throughout the country, reconciles all even to their severest exercise, inasmuch as it proves that general good, and no sinister motive or interest, can actuate those who so engage in the public service ... Can such a feeling prevail with respect to a stipendiary body? ... Will not the feeling be ... that the members of such a body are the servants of the Government, instead of the independent guardians of the public interest? [And be begged of the King] ... the gracious boon of an independent magistracy for the Metropolis.

Problems continued: in 1834 the Spectator reported that a number of poor people wrote to the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House stating that they had been denied access to the magistrates except on Saturdays, and had been told that they would pay not the slightest attention to any complaints that they might make. The Lord Mayor wrote to the magistrates, who shrugged it off, simply begging to acknowledge the receipt of the Lord Mayor's communication. This tends to reinforce the Webbs' conclusion that by 1835, now with thirty stipendiaries across Middlesex and Surrey, all were barristers, a set of quiet, gentlemanlike persons, perhaps those who had failed to make their mark in court, concentrating their attention on trying the ordinary cases of a London police court; entirely divorced from 'county' business, and letting slip even their magisterial control of the Poor Law, for which they had neither desire nor aptitude. It is certainly the case that a number of them were from eminent legal families, with more eminent siblings and other relatives.

Civil courts: Court of Requests, and the County Court

In the early 19th century a number of small claims 'Courts of Request' (sometimes called Courts of Conscience, or Courts of Record) existed, providing cheap access to justice for the recovery of debt, with a simple procedure (hence their unpopularity with lawyers). Set up by special acts of Parliament, they were based on the King's Court of Requests - originally 'Court of Poor Men's Causes', a prerogative court of equity rather than common law (a key division in the justice system at one time, though no longer), established in 1483 but in abeyance by the 17th century even though it was not formally abolished.

There were about sixty such courts around the country, five of them in London. The Westminster, Southwark and Tower Hamlets courts were set up around the same time, in the early 18th century. They dealt originally with claims under £2, but in the 1830s this was increased to £5. The Tower Hamlets court, in Whitechapel, met every Thursday, and its proceeedings were described as short and easy to the Suitors - actions taken here could not be transferred to the higher courts. Its steward from the 1770s until his death in 1822 - combined with various other legal roles - was Sir John Silvester, who had been a barrister (featuring in semi-fictional roles in the 2009-11 BBC series Garrow's Law - played by Aidan McArdle), a 'Common Pleader', a Serjeant and then Recorder (senior judge) of the City of London. The 'Prothonotary' (principal clerk) was R.W.L. Farmer, and counsel Philip Keys - both of whom also held office elsewhere. Because of the poverty and population density of the East End, this was by far the busiest of these courts, conducting up to half of all the business across London. James Grant, in Sketches in London (1838), comments The Tower Hamlets’ Court of Requests affords an apt illustration of the well-known adage: 'Most work, least pay'. The principal clerks, though they are much harder worked than the clerks of any of the other Courts of Requests in London, have the smallest pay of any. They have only £300 each, without one sixpence in the shape of fees. (Clerks in some other similar courts did receive fees - regimes varied widely.)

The Tower Hamlets Court of Requests had no less than 240 Commissioners, chosen annually from ratepayers by the parishes of its area; typically, twenty or so would sit at each session. They originally had the power to imprison for up to 40 days, under the 1749 Tower Hamlets Court of Requests Act (23 Geo 2 c20) but this was removed by the general 1823 Gaols &c (England) Act (4 Geo 4 c64), and was not restored by the next local act, the 1832 Tower Hamlets Court of Requests Act (2 Will 4 c65): this was confirmed by a King's Bench case of 1833, R v. the Governor of the Middlesex House of Correction (1833) 3 Law J (NS) MC 124 / 2 Neville & Manning 138, which can also be read here (p170). The City of London and County of Middlesex magistrates accordingly denied access to the debtors' prisons under their control.

This is probably the reason why (despite upping the limit for claims) in the 1830s the court's business roughly halved: traders became more cautious in giving credit, and less inclined to prosecute for debts, knowing that their chances of successful recovery were reduced. Vol.1 of the Statistical Society of London (1839) gave these figures:

debts not exceeding £2
debts not exceeding £5




The Court was in Osborn(e) Street, behind what is now the Whitechapel Art Gallery [junction with Whitechapel Road above right around 1890 - long after the court had gone]. Reforms for these small courts were proposed throughout the period. In the event, they were all abolished by the 1846 Small Debts Recovery Act, later known as the County Courts Act, which established a system of national courts to deal with civil matters (amended 1888 and 1934 and subsequently); its premises remained in Osborn Street for the following decade. They dealt with debts up to £50, and tenements worth up to £50 a year.

See here for details of the judges who served this court. There were some teething problems, in terms of procedure, handling debtors, recognition of their authority and establishing appropriate boundaries between civil and criminal jusrisdiction, as these High Court cases show (see further
Margot Finn The Character of Credit: Personal Debt in English Culture 1740-1914 (CUP 2003):
Edmonds & others v. Challis & others (Court of Common Pleas 1848 & 1849)
Prior to the Act, and the new courts it established, Sheriffs distraining debtor's goods took out a bond for replevin, with a charge for the 'obligor' to appear at the local Sheriff's court or office (in this case, at Red Lion Square) to 'prosecute his Suit with Effect'; but in a case where the Sheriff was sued for proceeding in this way, after lengthy technical argument Coltman J. held that this was no longer insufficient: it must go through the county court.

Pollett v Chesterton - custody of a prisoner committed by a County Court Judge (Queen's Bench 1849)
In 1848 Pollett, a 'respectable' clerk on the South Western Railway, was sued by Ridlington at Whitechapel County Court for £1 19s, on a purely civil matter, with no question of fraud, the point at issue being whether Pollett was entitled to deduct a attorney's fee from money he had collected for Ridlington. In less than three minutes the court found for Ridlington, with an order that the debt should be paid by instalments. Three weeks later Pollett was carried off to Coldbath Fields Prison, where the Governor, George Lavall Chesterton (a zealous proponent of reform who claimed in his autobiography to have transformed Coldbath Fields from one of the worst speciemens of corruption and misrule into an establishment distinguished for industry, order and impressive discipline) allegedly greeted him with the words You are sent here for correction, and correction you shall have. He was subjected to the full prison regime: uniform, diet, hair and whiskers shaved off, marked with a number and set to picking oakum. There were many letters and protests at the time against the application of the new punitive regime to the middle classes, as the Home Office sought unwisely to lump together small claims defendants with fraudulent bankrupts and insolvents as 'penal debtors'. Baillie Cochane raised the case in the House of Commons, describing it as a case of great oppression involving unjustified stigma of his character. Pollett sued (in forma pauperis - without liability for fees) the governor for trespass and illegal imprisonment, saying he had been degraded, and was a most injured man... He was most reuptably connected and ... had lost his character, and should have some difficulty to obtain another situation.
The basis of his action was that no judgement summons had been issued for his imprisonment, as required by s98 of the County Court Act; that the Governor refused to provide a copy of the warrant; and likewise the Home Secretary, who claimed he had no control over the matter. It therefore became a consitutional question.
Wightman J instructed the jury to find for Pollett, since all that had been done must be taken as illegal, and there was no issue of justification. All the governor could ask was that under the circumstances the damages should be mitigated, on the ground that he had acted as a public officer in the discharge of his duty. The County Court had power to commit to the House of Correction under the statute, but nothing was said about how the prisoners were to be treated. The judge later instructed the jury to assess the various damages separately, which after long deliberation they did: £5 for imprisonment; £10 for searching and shaving; £10 for improperly treating Pollett as a misdemeanant.

They seem to have got their act together in terms of paperwork, but issues continued:
Dews v Riley, Court of Common Pleas (1851) 11 C.B. 434
Dews was sued at Whitechapel County Court by one Davis in July 1850 for £3 17s and 14s 4d costs, an an order was made that he should pay by monthly instalments of 5s. He failed to do so, and a judgement summons for 10 October was issued under s98 of the Act. He failed to appear and an order, duly recorded in the court book, was made On the 17th October instant, or thirty days' imprisonment for not attending. By 17th he had failed to pay, and a further order was made for payment of £5 2s 8d (adding in the additional costs of this summons) or committal for 30 days to Whitecross Street; he was arrested on a warrant bearing the seal of the county court, signed by Riley, the clerk, and detained.
He sued for trespass and false imprisonment. The issue here was that, although the judge in his evidence and a private memorandum stated that his intention was to make a postponed order (issued on 10 October for commitment forthwith on the understanding that it would not be enforced until the following week), he had no power to do so, but only to make a peremptory order for immediate committal. The court was bound by the evidence of the recorded entry, albeit incorrectly made. Riley pleased not guilty, by statute: in issuing the warrant he was simply acting as required by s102 of the Act, even though the order turned out to be bad. The court (whose judgement was delivered by Sir John Jervis CJ) agreed: he was a mere ministerial officer, and could not be expected to review the decision of his superior, the judge. At the suggestion of the court, Dews 'nonsuited' (terminated the action without prejudice or costs).

Another case in the same year touched on the authority of the court, and the issue of oaths which was to become a recurrent feature - see here and here:
Lavey v The Queen ( 20 July 1851)
Ann Lavey, widow & executrix of Hyman Lavey, was charged with perjury, having stated on oath that she has not been tried at Central Criminal Court for any offence (which in fact she had in 1843, for feloniously uttering a forged endorsement to a bill of exchange, defrauding Adolphus Brand and another) nor had ever been held in custody at the Thames Police Court (which again she had in the same year, having obtained £1 5s by means of a forged note, defrauding Thomas Yates). She claimed (clutching at straws) defects in the indictment: that the county court was not properly specified; that it had no jurisdiction and that the judge had no authority to hear the case, or to administer the oath to her as a witness in her own behalf (rather than as plaintiff on behalf of her deceased husband); and that it did not state that the oath was taken on the Holy Gospel of God or in any other manner.
Parke B (Baron of the Exchequer Court) rejected these claims: he held after verdict upon writ of error, first, that the court was sufficiently designated as a court held under stat. 9 10 Vict c 95; and, secondly, that although there was no express averment that the oath was administered in a judicial proceeding over which the court had jurisdiction, that averment was, by necessary intendment, involved in the allegation that the judge had sufficient authority to administer the said oath. In other words, the court, the judge, and the oath were all in order.

Two curious cases from the 1850s:
Kidnapping a Tailor (1851)Jamieson v. Ramsay was an action of tort. Jamieson was a retired tailor owned 'Labour's Retreat', a villa on the banks of the Thames. Ramsay, an old 'man-of-war's man' owned various properties in Whitechapel but preferred to live afloat, and equipped a yacht of six guns, the Tom Bowling, in which he lived. On Easter Mondays Jamieson held a festive anniversary, letting off cannon to mark the day of his wife's death. On the last anniversary Tom Bowling was cruising off 'Labour's Retreat', and when her crew smelt the powder, all hands were piped for action, and they returned fire. Firing on both sides continued until the landsmen put stones in their guns and riddled Tom Bowling's duck and streaming bunting. Her boatswain then seriously damaged the tailor's chimney-stack. Captain Ramsay landed his crew, to demand satisfaction for the insult offered to his flag, and having thrashed the tailor's friends, challenged Jamieson, politely offering him swords or pistols. Thinking it safer to faint than to fight, Jamieson swooned away, upon which Ramsay ordered him to be taken prisoner; when he recovered his senses Jamieson found himself under hatches of the yacht, where he was kept the whole night, bewailing the misfortune of being kidnapped by pirates, as he termed his captors. In the morning he was brought before Ramsey and subjected to a court-martial, for insulting the British flag, and being found guilty was sentenced to the yard-arm. He begged for mercy, however, and, as a last resource, offered up prayers. The sentence was then commuted to the infliction of an operation performed on sailors when first crossing the line. In that state he was transported to Herne Bay, forty miles from home, without a farthing in his pocket. The judge awarded Jamieson £5 damages, without costs.
The 'operation' referred to was a ritual for sailors' first crossing of the Equator, whereby 'pollywogs' became 'shellbacks' in the 'kingdom of Neptune', and curiously still exists in attenuated form in some navies as a tourist attraction. Its forms varied, but it involved shaving, blindfolding, and covering the victim with dirt.

Breach of Promise (1856) An action of trover: The plaintiff, Mr McGregor, was a schoolmaster, and Mrs Page, the defendant, a widow carrying on a small grocery business.
McGregor said:
Ye dinna remember whan I first got acquainted wi' Mistress Page, but, waes me, I do. Weel, your Honour, last Christmas I left Perth for this modern Babylon, and have endeavoured to establish a school, wi' sma' success, being a stranger. I was never a disciple of Thales, the Milesian, upon the subject of matreemony. When the mither of that learned philosopher asked if he wad na marry, adding that a gude wife was the greatest blessing a man could enjoy, he shook his head, and did not make her any answer; but upon pressin' the feelosopher, he replied, he was too young, and when he got old he was very deeficult on the article of marriage. I really thocht that I had never seen a better-faured, or a more gallant-looking lass, and it was'na very lang until I drew up and tho' she didna gie me any great encouragement at first, yet in a week or twa after the ice was fairly broken, she became remarkably ceevil, and gied me her oxter sae often, that the shoemaker was no loser by it. I represent to her how useful I could be in her storehouse after school hours, by keepin her buiks, for puir ignorant cratur, to see them one wad think she dipped blue bottle flies in the ink, and let them loose on her accounts. When I put the important question, she was see mim, and left it like to myself. 'O, Mistress Page', says I, 'I am owre happy now oh, hand my head.' This gift, 'O Joy is like to be my dead'. 'I hope not, mate', says she, 'I wad rather hae ye to live than dee for me.'  That same nicht I tak her to the goldsmiths in Cornhill, and clap on her finger the golden hoop, and here I wad observe that the laws of matreemony in Great Britain are determined by  longitude and latitude for had the leddy done one half the other side of the border, in our courtship, she wad hae been married to me for a dead certainty; and I wad further observe, that at the Act of Union, it was by grievous error the Lords Commissioners did not asseemilate the English to the Scotch marriage laws.fter she had got the ring she grew cold towards me, complained of my snuff-taking, and of the tint o' my hair. She now laughs at me, and refuses to gie me back the ring. I now beseech the court to order its return.
Mrs. Page said she had offered to pay for the ring, and the reason she could not return it was that the plaintiff had placed it on the fourth finger of the right hand so tight that she could not get it off. It was also a gift.
The Judge said, it being a gift, he could make no order.
Verdict for the defendant.

A new court was built in 1857 in [Great] Prescot Street - left in 1938, and further described here.

Jack Hicks [right], landlord of the King's Arms Tavern in Whitechapel Road, and a noted puglilst [boxer] brought two actions in this court. The first, in 1862 (reported in the stage magazine The Era as The Fancy in the Dark), was against Lawrence Levy, proprietor of the Garrick Theatre, Goodman's Fields, who was apparently more interested in the sale of alcohol than in organising performances. In the following year, In Hicks v. Windham, he sought to recover £29 8s. from his former patron the Hon. Mr. Windham, of Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk, for various colours or silk handkerchiefs supplied after his victory in a match near Gravesend (a venue that had become less popular as the railways enabled tourists to go further afield). Hick's solicitor was B.J. Abbott of Mark Street [later St Mark's Street], but Windham did not appear, and was said to be on a yachting excursion at Weymouth. The judge said there was no proof that he had received the summons, although it had been served on his solicitors, so the case was adjourned.

In 1871, under the County Courts Admiralty Jurisdiction Act 1868, Whitchapel County Court took over maritime cases from various other districts, including Rochford, Brentwood, Romford, Dartford, Gravesend, Greenwich, Woolwich and the City of London, presumably because it had acquired expertise in this area because of its location. An 1899 Order in Council continued this jurisdiction, but by the County Courts (Mayor's and City of London Court) Admiralty and Jurisdiction Order of 1932 it was transferred to the Mayor's and City of London Court [right].

Whitechapel County Court, together with Bloomsbury County Court in Great Portland Street, were presided over from 1878 until his death in 1912 by the legendary Judge Francis Bacon, whose career is more fully recorded here, together with many of his famous witticisms. He developed an exhaustive knowledge of local life (including some fluency in Yiddish) and had a particular expertise in fashion and rag trade issues, despite (or perhaps because of) being a bachelor. At his death, he was the oldest serving judge. In 1900 the MP for Stepney (William Charles Steadman, a former barge builder who sat on the London County Council and gained his seat as a 'Lib-Lab' in a 1898 by-election, losing it two years later) asked a question in Parliament of the Attorney-General (Sir Robert Finlay) as to why Judge Bacon had suspended sittings for an extended period, causing inconvenience to many hundreds of litigants; the answer was that he had extended his holiday because of ill-health, and no great inconvenience had been caused. Since he was an exceptionally hard-working judge, whose lunch break was typically fifteen minutes, and who on one occasion sat until 9.30pm (at a time when workmen's compensation issues were dominating the court), the implication that he was lazy seems unjustified, though perhaps he should have considered retirement. In his last year, his idea of a rest was to swap courts with his opposite number in Cornwall for a few months; on his return, he fell ill and did not recover.

His successor, at Whitechapel but now also at Shoreditch (Leonard Street EC2 - left in 1919) rather than Bloomsbury, from 1911-34 was Albert Rowland Cluer, who was of a similar ilk - both as a controversialist and a 'judicial wit': some of his many reported sayings and cases are noted here. The area served by both these courts had become overwhelmingly Jewish - one jury was said to have been compsed entirely of Cohens - and (as a classicist who published translations of Livy and Xenophon) he studied Hebrew in order to understand some of his clients. Its bailiff at this time rejoiced in the name of Ebenezer Crottick.

The Whitechapel Court closed in 1944 and was 'consolidated' with Shoreditch, and was known as 'Shoreditch County Court'. This in turn was joined to the Clerkenwell Court in 2006, as 'Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court', with a new court in Gee Street [first right]. Other business had been transferred to Bow County Court [not to be confused with Bow Magistrates' Court], now housed in Romford Road [second right] - what a contrast  with the handsome Prescott Street building! - and dealing with adoption, children, divorce, domestic violence, money claims and repossession cases.

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