The Arrival of the Judge of Assize & Mrs Henry Woods 'The Channings'

  • 19 Feb 2023
  • Crime and Legal
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With the passing of the Courts Act of 1971, a form of justice which had existed for some 800 years, came to an end with the abolition of the Assizes. Usually twice a year, the Queen's Judge's set out from London and took the law to the people of England.

In each county a town was designated as the Assize Town, to which Her Majesty's Judge's would travel, and stay for a week or more trying serious criminal cases, and sometimes, civil cases as well. However, after 1971, all this travelling ceased and the Crown Court system became law, and the dispensation of justice became static. Before the change, England and Wales were divided into severn circuits for Assize purposes, named respectively; Northern, North Eastern, Midland, South Eastern, Western, Wales, Chester and Oxford. Worcester was within the Oxford circuit, and was the second Assize town to be visited after Oxford; the Judge travelled then to Gloucester, Newport, Hereford, Strafford, Shrewsbury and Birmingham. 

The Judge's staff included a Clerk of Assize who was responsible for the overseeing of the Circuit's paper's and equipment, usually carried in large wicker hampers. In very ancient days the Judge travelled on horseback or by coach. As he entered each county the Judge was met by the High Sheriff, who was responsible for his welfare whilst he resided there.

If we look to 'The Channings, Mrs Henry Wood's book of events which took place in 'Helstonleigh', the name she gave for Worcester, we get a picture of the arrival of an Assize Judge in a county town, in the reign of William lV, or the early years of Queen Victoria:

'The sweet bells of Helstonleigh Cathedral were ringing out in the summer's afternoon. Groups of people lined the streets, more than the customary business of the day would have brought forth, some looking in silence towards a certain point, as far as the eye could reach, all waiting in expectations''.

It was the first day of Helstonleigh Assizes - that is, the day on which the courts of law began their sittings. Generally speaking, the commission was opened at Helstonleigh on a Saturday, but for some convenience of the arrangements of the circuit, it was fixed this time for Wednesday, and when those Cathedral bells burst forth, they gave the signal that the judges had arrived, and were entering the Sheriff's carriage, which had gone out to meet them.

A fine sight, carrying in it much of majesty, was the procession, as it passed through the streets with its slow and stately steps, and although Helstonleigh saw it twice a year, it looked at it with gratified eyes still, and made the day into a sort of holiday.

The trumpeters rode first, blowing the proud note of advance, and the long line of mounted javelin men came next, two abreast, their attire being that of the fine livery of the high Sheriff's family, and their javelins held in rest. Sundry officials followed, and the governor  of the county jail sat in an open carriage, his long white wand raised in the air. Then appeared the beautiful, closed equipage of the sheriff, its four horses caparisoned with silver, pawing the ground, for they chafed at the slow pace to which they were restrained. In it, in their scarlet robes and flowing wigs, carrying awe to many a young spectator, sat the judges, the high sheriff was opposite them, and his chaplain by his side, in his gown and bands. A crowd of gentleman, friends of the sheriff, followed on horseback, and a mob of ragamuffins brought up the rear. 

To the assize courts the procession took its way, and there, the short business of opening the commission was gone through, when the judges re-entered the carriage to proceed to the cathedral, having been joined by the mayor and corporation...'

Assize The Judge of Assize arriving at the Guildhall 29 May 1930, as it shows oak boughs marking the Restoration of Charles ll on the Gateway


The business of opening the commission was in the form of a solemn command from the Sovereign addressed to the Judge, authorising him among other things, to 'enquire more fully the truth by oath of good and lawful men of this Our County of all offences and injustices whatsoever'. This was known as the Commisison of 'Oyer and Terminer and General Gaol Delivery'. Oyer and Terminer were Norman French for 'hear and determine', and Gaol delivery bidding the gaols to be emptied of prisoners awaiting trial.. 

The Judges Retinue

Until the Judge's Lodgings were built adjoining the Shire Hall he was lodged in the south wing of the Guildhall, which also housed Hooper's Coffee House, kept by Lucy Hooper, who had the privilege of looking after the Judge's needs.