Summary Justice in the City: A Selection of Cases Heard at the Guildhall Justice Room, 1752-1781

Edited by Greg T. Smith

Records from London’s Guildhall reveal the workings of the law in the eighteenth century.

For centuries, the City of London’s Lord Mayor and Aldermen have headed various courts and tribunals as part of their official obligations. In the City’s Guildhall, Londoners from all walks of life could appear before an alderman sitting as a magistrate in the “justice room” and initiate a criminal complaint when they were the victims of crime. But what actually happened in those initial hearings between the accuser, the accused and the magistrate has remained largely obscured to history.
These records shed light on the earliest phases of a criminal prosecution and reveal the routines of criminal justice administration in the eighteenth-century metropolis. From the fragmentary minutes of the proceedings conducted before London’s aldermen, who sat for a part of every working day as Justices of the Peace, we learn of the petty squabbles of the City’s poor with parish officials, the ready resort to physical violence in public and private spheres, the steady campaign against prostitution, and the growing professionalism of the parish constables who policed London before the arrival of the Metropolitan Police.The records will be of interest to historians of London, social historians of crime, genealogists and scholars interested in summary or pre-trial procedures in early modern England; they are presented here with introduction and explanatory notes.

Greg T. Smith is Associate Professor of History at the University of Manitoba.

Available to purchase from Boydell and Brewer

Review from the London Journal

I must declare an interest in reviewing this edited volume; as someone that struggled through many of the original notebooks that Professor Smith has transcribed for my own postgraduate research, I feel I have a certain ownership of them! Therefore it was with a mix of both excitement and trepidation that I turned the first pages of this new London Record Society volume. Fortunately I was not disappointed because not only is this an excellent example of the transcription and presentation of what are quite eclectic court documents, it is also an important addition to the growing body of work on summary proceedings in the long eighteenth century.

The City of London was served by two summary courts in the period 1752-1781, the Guildhall (where the elected Aldermen sat in rotation) and the Mansion House (which was the home of the lord mayor). The courts effectively divided the city geographically with the east covered by the lord mayor and the west by the Guildhall courtroom. Both courts operated five days a week throughout the entire year; these were busy arenas of justice, argument and negotiation whose records have survived in extensive but incomplete form at the London Metropolitan Archives. While they have been consulted for a number of research projects this is the first time that a long run of records has been transcribed. As a result we now have a second LRS volume that deals exclusively with summary proceedings (the first being Ruth Paley’s transcription of the notebooks of Henry Norris JP, from Hackney – volume 28).

This volume contains a tremendous amount of recorded crime and other disputes or offences in the City including petty assaults, domestic violence, minor and not-so minor thefts, fraud, charges of vagrancy, bastardy examinations, prostitutes charged with lewd or disorderly behaviour, bullock hunters and other disputes surrounding the use of the streets, complaints about trade, and all manner of cases that reflected the crowded Hanoverian metropolis. As a result this LRS volume offers the social historian a fascinating glimpse into eighteenth-century life.

These sources are not easy to navigate without some careful guidance and Smith has provided a very careful system to make sense of the clerk’s note taking without losing the essence of how these records were created. One of the hardest things for researchers in this area of history is to try and understand how summary proceedings operated. By attempting to imagine how the various case entries were made we get a feel of how summary hearings were conducted. So, for example, in September 1777 Jonathan Lane and Richard Wolley fetched up from Poultry Compter (one of the City’s two holding gaols) on a charge that was not stated. However, the alderman (in this instance Robert Alsop) failed to turn up and so the case was not heard. However, the clerk had already taken the trouble to carefully record the names of those appearing, the constables that brought them and of those complaining. As the magistrate did not appear the details were then struck through and the record of the non-appearance preserved.

Browsing the records give the reader some idea of the wide scope these courts had and the range of business that the aldermen magistracy dealt with. On December 11 1775 the noted radical John Wilkes was in the chair. He first discharged a prisoner accused of stealing a pewter pint pot and then another who had supposedly taken goods from their lodgings. Wilkes then issued a warrant for an assault before committing Isabella Condon to Wood Street compter charged with passing counterfeit money. Wilkes was very busy on this day, his next hearing that of a couple brought in for being drunk and disorderly. The man was apparently ‘incapable of giving a rational answer’ to the alderman’s questions and both were remanded. Two more thieves were dealt with, as was a carter who had infringed City regulations, before a hackney coachman successfully extracted a summons for a man who had refused to pay him. Finally Wilkes dismissed the complaint a watchman whose lantern had been pinched. This short sample gives a flavour of the richness of these records.

Overall this is a very welcome resource and one that will help future researchers negotiate the tricky geography of summary records. I do have one small grumble however. An index system based on proper nouns is great for genealogists, but a wider system would have been helpful. So we are unable to search for particular offences or types of hearing except by systematically reading through the cases. It would also be great if LRS and Smith would consider making this resource available as a fully searchable online database, or indeed to look at a volume that covers the Mansion House courtroom, but perhaps that is one for the future.

Drew D. Gray

Review from The Journal of the Archives and Records Association, vol 35, 2014

From 1737, all aldermen of the City of London took part in a daily rota to sit in the Guildhall to administer the law. From wife beaters and thieves to prostitutes and paupers, a troop of individuals were brought before the aldermen by local constables and watchmen, accused of crimes, antisocial behaviour or simply behaviour that offended the morality or ethics of the administrators of the law. The aldermen, acting as city magistrates, had significant summary powers to deal with petty offenders, and those who came before the aldermen in this context were drawn from across the social sphere and included men, women and the poor, all of whom saw the summary process as a means to deal with their problems and grievances.

This new book, edited by Greg T. Smith, Associate Professor of History at the University of Manitoba, details some of the many cases that came before the aldermen in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The aldermen could deal with some of the cases summarily, issuing fines or committing the accused to the Bridewell; or they could indict the person and send them for trial at the Old Bailey. Yet, as Smith states, what happened in these initial hearings has ‘remained largely obscured to history’. There was no standard means of recording these hearings in England in the eighteenth century, although to do so was recommended. Therefore today, relatively few written records of summary proceedings survive and fewer have been published – although a couple more have been published than the brief list that Smith records on p. xii. Those that have been published are largely concerned with rural summary proceedings, and therefore Smith intends this book to be a ‘complement’ to the existing published records, adding to our picture of how offenders were treated at this initial stage of the legal process and showing how summary justice was carried out in an urban context.

Although the title of this book suggests a fairly wide time frame, there is a 9-year gap between 1752 and 1761. Smith speculates that the gap in entries suggests a ‘culling of the records’ at some point (introduction, p. xxviii), although there is no firm evidence for this rather than an accidental loss of some of the records at some time past. This is not to negate the value of Smith’s book, though, and it is a very useful addition to the still limited works on summary justice in eighteenth-century England, and illustrates the variety of cases that came before the London aldermen. As Smith points out, the local justice of the peace was ‘the common point of entry into the criminal justice system in England’ (introduction, p. xi). From domestic violence to thieving and whoring, all shades of London life are here. The book shows, as Smith notes, the process of negotiation, arbitration and mediation that occurred during summary proceedings, with justices either finding lesser charges than those that were possible, or enabling a defendant to make satisfaction to a complainant and thus avoid the need for a formal prosecution. The cases also show the economic pressure on some of London’s inhabitants – men and women are charged with begging, others are ordered poor relief; one woman is accused of leaving her baby daughter on the local constable’s doorstep (p. 168). Light is also shed on marital relationships, not just in respect of what we would now describe as domestic violence, but also in terms of maintenance payments being negotiated between spouses who have separated.

One of the negatives of the book lies in Smith’s desire to keep the original text as unchanged as possible. This results in an untidy layout with such a multiplicity of abbreviations that it is sometimes a struggle to decipher what the entries say. There is a list of abbreviations at the start of the book – before Smith’s introduction – but it is time-consuming to have to keep referring back. Lengthening these abbreviations might be criticized by some historians but it would make the book far more readable for a wider audience. Other quibbles with the editing lie in the recording of subsequent action. Although an editorial note is made when cases proceeded to trial at the Old Bailey, Smith does not consistently record what the verdicts were. Although not the focus of this book, it would be more satisfying, when a trial is noted, to know what happened to the individuals once they appeared in court and thus be able to follow a case from its initial stage to its conclusion.

I would also have been interested to read more comment from Smith on the frequent references to female streetwalkers. Smith refers to prostitution being a feature of the justice room minutes, and states that it is a sign of a clampdown on prostitution in London, but surely there is more to add on this. The frequency with which women are accused of being prostitutes by dint of being out in London at night, and the tendency to dismiss charges against men associating with these women, whilst locking the women up or convicting them with little or no mention of evidence against them, hints at the importance of reputation in eighteenth-century London, and the desire to keep women within the domestic sphere. The men are often dismissed because they have found a friend to give a good report on them; only in one case does a woman manage to do the same. Does this mean that these were all prostitutes with bad names, or that women found it harder to get witnesses to their character in a way that men did not? And were the women really all prostitutes, or were they simply being punished for being out in the city after dark? The importance of reputation, and character witnesses, is clear throughout the book. For example, when William Shephard appeared before Alderman Sawbridge on 9 April 1779, accused of being ‘an idle and disorderly Person having no Visible Way of living’, he was discharged after a former employer appeared to say he ‘had employed him four months in his said trade at 14s per Week and Was a Steady Sober Man & a good Workman’ (p. 155).

Similarly, the use of judicial discretion is also evident in the cases. On more than one occasion, an alderman discharges a defendant because they see the charge as being ‘frivolous’ (see, for example, pp. 153 and 154). Another defendant is discharged because his ‘weak intellect’ is perceived to have affected his behaviour (p. 153). The variety of penalties and punishments that were open to justices to use are also evident and, as Smith correctly points out, sometimes indicate a desire to ‘funnel’ cases away from the Old Bailey, such as when boys, charged with petty offences, are sent to sea or to the Marine Society (introduction, p. xxvii). There are also indications of conflict between the aldermen and other law-enforcers such as the constables, on one occasion an alderman reprimanding a constable for arresting a couple who he then discharged, no crime being proved to have been committed (introduction, pp. xxiv; 174).

This volume may well pique its readers’ interest in the eighteenth-century magistrate’s work at summary level, and for those who want to read more detailed analyses of summary proceedings, the work of Drew Gray, Peter King, Peter Rushton and Gwenda Morgan is recommended. However, for those wanting an introduction to the administration of the law in London, this book offers a tantalizing insight into the working world of the City justices. As such, it is a valuable addition to the published literature.

Nell Darby ©2014