The Justices of the Peace

  • 20 Feb 2023
  • Crime and Legal
  • Back

The chief agents of local government were the Justices of the Peace. They were unpaid, local gentlemen with considerable power and position. They dealt with all aspects of daily life, from crime and its punishment, through the endless disputes over poor relief, bastardy, unlawful gaming and drunkenness, to the licensing of  alehouses and the state roads and bridges. From Tudor times they played the central role in local administration. They had the powers to try minor cases and to supervise the administration of the parish officers.

The county justices met formally four times a year at the Quarter Sessions, and the records that survive are among the most interesting of local records held at Worcester Hive. They spent most of their time  on minor offences which are now too negligible to be bothered with. Berrow's Worcester Journal of 1748 published a skit on the Quarter Session, which went as follows:

3 or 4 Parsons, 3 or 4 Squires,

3 or 4 Lawyers, 3 or 4 Lyars,

3 or 4 Parishes bring Appeals,

3 or 4 Hands and 3 or 4 Seals

3 or 4 Bulls and 3 or 4 Cows,

3 or 4 Orders and 3 or 4 Bows,

3 or 4 Statutes not understood,

3 or 4 Paupers praying for food,

3 or 4 Roads that never were mended,

3 or 4 Scolds and the Session is ended.

As recent as the 1880s, the Justices spent most of their time on what now appears to be trivial offences. They sat with all solemnity to investigate such awful sins as 'unlawfully wandering abroad without visible means of subsistence, (which the Law stated to be 4d.)  wandering abroad to beg and to solicit alms'. There were many cases of drunkenness  for the beer was intoxicating and it was very much cheaper. There were cases of assault, but the beer was very bellicose. There was likewise more cases of bad language.