Justices of the Peace in Georgian Norfolk


It’s hard to imagine a time when there was no police or detective force, no system for public prosecution and no official means to investigate crimes and collect evidence to bring the criminals to justice. But that’s just as it was in Georgian England. How did the authorities maintain law and order? Most of the burden fell on local magistrates[1], backed up by higher courts for more serious crimes. The Justices of the Peace did the work of administering both criminal and civil justice, as well as carrying out or supervising what passed for local government administration.

Keeping the peace meant exactly what it said: ensuring everyone could live free from fear, disturbance and dispute, as far as was possible. Since offending was believed to be caused by innate ‘criminal tendencies’, justice and prevention could both be tackled imposing severe punishments. For petty crimes, physical punishment, applied in public, caused shame as well as pain. For more serious crimes, criminals who had been transported or hanged were not able to offend again.

Throughout most of 18th century, the onus for securing justice lay with the injured party, or their friends and family. The most that was done officially was offer rewards for bringing criminals to justice. Once someone was apprehended , the next stage was to present him or her before the magistrate and lodge a formal complaint. If the person had fled, a complaint might still be presented. Subject to the agreement of the magistrate, local constables would then be instructed to seek out and arrest the accused and bring him or her before the court to answer the charge.

The magistrate reviewed the evidence — in the form of written depositions by witnesses — and, if he upheld the complaint, either dealt with it there and then or referred it to a higher court. Justice might not have been thorough by today’s standards, but it was certainly handed down a good deal more swiftly!

Who were the Justices of the Peace?

Being a JP was an onerous and sometimes unpleasant task, especially during the turbulent years of the end of the eighteenth and start of the nineteenth centuries. For the early part of the century, most JPs were chosen from the gentry. As the demands role increased, it proved harder to find enough men willing to accept the job. As a result, appointment was widened to include clergymen, members of the professions and people from mercantile families, especially in urban areas. Sometimes people held the office of a JP as a consequence of another office. In most Norfolk boroughs, for example, the mayor would be a JP, as would several of the aldermen or councillors.

As well as providing access to civil and criminal justice, local justices were responsible for keeping the peace, with the assistance of the militia or yeomanry if necessary. They generally acted in pairs, but sometimes on their own. In either case, no jury was summoned. Since each Hundred (a unit of local government dating from mediaeval times) required two magistrates, these were bound to include some who would prove incompetent, idle, or self-interested, with predictable results.

Dispensing Local Justice

Magistrates conducted preliminary hearings on all criminal cases to decide whether the evidence supported a trial. They could hear minor cases on their own or in pairs (sometimes holding the court in the magistrate’s home in rural areas), and impose summary punishments for offences like assault, drunkenness, minor poaching and other misdemeanours.

Local magistrates’ courts could not impose the more severe penalties. More serious cases would be referred to the Quarter Sessions or the Assize, depending on the severity of the offence. Cases warranting death, and there were many at the time, had to go to a higher court. Even so, JPs could sentence offenders to imprisonment, whipping, standing in the stocks or the payment of fines. They also deal with civil cases for matters such as debt, applications for damages, breach of craft regulations, disputes about boundaries and the use of common land. Many JPs also formed part of the labyrinthine network of government agents and spies that monitored individuals or groups suspected of sedition.

The Administrative Burden

The vast bulk of the duties of a magistrate or Justice of the Peace were administrative. They were called upon to make or confirm decisions relating to the supervision of local officials and many other aspects of the government of the hundreds and civil parishes. It would take far too long to go through these in detail, so I hope the summary list below will convey the main point: that a conscientious JP could easily become overwhelmed by the tasks laid upon him.

A monument in St Peter Mancroft Church, Norwich, to Thomas Starling, mayor in 1767, makes exactly this point: “…which office he discharged with Vigilance, Activity and Integrity, at a time when the Exertions of Magistracy were particularly required.” The Rev. Robert Forby of Fincham wrote this in a letter to a friend in 1803:

“Till you have experienced the heavy drudgery of an acting Justice, Deputy Lieutenant and Commissioner of the Land Tax, one of two on whom the burden of a large district lies, you will not readily conceive of the fatigue they cause to the mind … I return at five o’clock to a solitary dinner, which I abhor, with my head full of parish rates, surveyor’s accounts, vagrants, runaway husbands, assaults, petty larcenies, militia lists and substitutes, tax duplicates and distress warrants, some or all of these jumbled together in horrid confusion.”

A Summary of a JP’s Tasks

  • Supervising local constables. These were Chief Constables for hundreds and Petty Constables for parishes, mostly chosen for ability to deal with drunks and rough-houses on their own rather than intelligence. There would also be Watchmen in towns and cities, more to raise the alarm on night-time fires than deal with criminals. Many were elderly men, quite unsuited to chasing or apprehending anyone.
  • Supervising the work and accounts of Churchwardens and Parish Councils and confirming their decisions regarding settlement, vagrancy and begging, bastardy and adultery cases. These bodies were generally responsible for checking on new arrivals to the parish and watching over the morals of local inhabitants.
  • Supervising the work and accounts of the Overseers of the Poor. These handled the collection and spending of the Poor Rate to relieve those in greatest need. They were also responsible for the parish workhouse for elderly, homeless paupers and abandoned, pregnant women. Trying to deal with the plight of the poor alone was heavy burden, especially since the JP might be caught between the demands of common humanity to alleviate suffering and the determination of parish ratepayers not to pay for a single person more than was absolutely necessary.
  • Tasks that would now fall to local authorities, such as the upkeep and repair of gaols, roads and bridges; the collection of certain taxes; the regulation of weights and measures, investigating claims of adulteration of goods; controlling food prices, fixing wages and regulating apprenticeships; licensing alehouses and theatrical performances; and swearing in recruits to the militia.

Local Grievances

Hearing petitions was another important part of a magistrate’s role. Any individual or group could petition the local magistrates to right a wrong, deal with anti-social behaviour or take action against any suspected of causing harm to their neighbours (including claims of ‘witchcraft’ or laying ‘curses’ or ‘love charms’). The JP, if he believed action was justified, might impose an order or a penalty himself or pass the case to Quarter Sessions.

If the magistrate failed to take action, the result might be civil disobedience and ”disturbing the peace”. In April 1796, one Norfolk miller, suspected by the mob of profiteering as the price of grain rose, had to take refuge in the Guildhall while the mayor, as magistrate, read the Riot Act to the crowd. This was no mere saying. The Riot Act of 1715 prescribed particular wording to be read aloud, commanding those breaching the peace to disperse and return home within the hour. If they did not, individuals could be arrested and punished, or the militia could be called in to disperse the mob by force, lethal if necessary.

Magistrates themselves also came in for derision or even threats at times. In 1800, a James Kinghorn wrote of the Norwich magistrates facing yet another food riot:

“They were quite frightened, as they commonly are in any real danger. They can swagger in their gowns to dine and talk about trivial things and they can hang a poor thief … but when activity is required and courage is wanted they are as bad as a parcel of old women.”

In 1766, the Norfolk Chronicle published the text of a letter sent to a Mr Poole, one of the city’s JPs:

“Mr Pool, this is to latt you know and the rest of you Justes of the Pase that if bakers and butchers and market do not sell their commovits at a reasnabell rate, your fine house will be set on fire all on one night … [curse] all you grand Rogues.”

Administration “on the Cheap”

There’s no doubt local magistrates were seen as part of ‘the establishment’ and were relied upon by the government to act as such, especially in situations of a political nature. Faced with fears of subversion, revolutionary ideas and Irish uprisings, especially in the period after the American and French Revolutions, the government constantly urged local magistrates to greater efforts and zeal in suppressing groups suspected of planning revolution. Without a national network of police, local JPs formed the principal bulwark against the spread of insurrection. Even so, they would have been woefully ill-equipped to deal with serious outbreaks of rebellion or terrorism, despite their power to call in the armed forces.

A final point to bear in mind is that all this the work was unpaid. It’s sobering to think that much of our modern-day local government welfare provisions and systems depended at the start on a sense of civic duty of amongst local gentry. Perhaps it might serve to put the constant pressure for savings in local government expenditure into some kind of perspective.

  1. I will be using the words ‘magistrate’ and ‘Justice of the Peace (JP)’ interchangeably. Justice of the Peace was the formal title of the local magistrate, so they’re the same thing.  ↩

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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