A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 4, Hemlingford Hundred. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1947.
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At the time of the Domesday Survey this hundred was known as 'Coleshelle' Hundred and its meeting-place was at Coleshill; it is first called by its present name of Hemlingford Hundred in the Pipe Roll of 8 Henry II (1161–2). Its boundaries on the west, north, and east are the same as those of the county, and on the south are the Hundreds of Barlichway and Knightlow. The whole of it is drained by the Tame and its tributaries and it therefore lies in the basin of the Trent, while the rest of the county, being drained by the Avon and its tributaries, lies in the basin of the Severn. In early times it was largely woodland with considerable tracts of infertile heath which made it unattractive to settlers, and its relatively large size, in comparison with the nine other hundreds into which Warwickshire was at first divided, was probably due to the sparseness of its population.
Hemlingford, from which the hundred took its later name, was, to quote Dugdale's words, (fn. 1) 'a Foard or Passage over Tame, somewhat more than a Flight shoot Southwards from Kingsbury church, of which likewise the Mill near unto it is still called Hemlingford Mill'. The meeting-place of the hundred was near this ford at Hemlingford Green. (fn. 2)
The reason for removing the meeting-place of the hundred from Coleshill to Hemlingford is not known. Dugdale suggests that the change was made because Hemlingford was near to Kingsbury, the home of the Ardens, several of whom were sheriffs of the county in early days; and in its later history there was always a close connexion between Hemlingford Hundred and Kingsbury Manor. The lord of the one was lord of the other, and A. V. Owen, in The History and Records of the Parish of Kingsbury (p. 36), states that 'from time immemorial' the Hemlingford Hundred Court was held in the Court Room of Kingsbury Hall.
The court here referred to must have been the six-months court of the hundred (the court leet), for the three-weeks court of the hundred (the court baron) in Dugdale's time (fn. 3) still met at Coleshill; Hutton records (fn. 4) that it met there, alternately with Birmingham, in 1789; and when it finally ceased to meet there it was held at Birmingham and Tamworth. The annual meeting of the hundred on Martinmas day, at which the warth money from the various townships within it was received, was also held at Coleshill, at the Cross, (fn. 5) possibly at or near the place where the hundred met in Domesday times.
In 1275, when the Commissioners of Edward I visited the county of Warwick to inquire into its administration, they were informed that Hemlingford Hundred belonged to the Crown, (fn. 6) and it continued with the Crown until Queen Elizabeth granted it to Edward Williams and Brian Cave in 1561. (fn. 7) On the death of Brian Cave (to whom William had transferred all his rights) the hundred passed into the possession of Sir Ambrose Cave, and on his death in 1568 it went to Henry Knollys, the husband of his only daughter Margaret. Henry Knollys had two children, Elizabeth and Lettice, and on his death in 1583 the hundred passed to Sir Henry Willoughby of Risley in the county of Derby, the husband of his daughter Elizabeth, and on his death to Sir Thomas Aston of Aston in the county of Cheshire, the husband of Sir Henry's only daughter Ann.
Sir Thomas Aston died in 1645 and was succeeded by his son Sir Wilughby Aston, on whose death in 1702 the hundred descended to his son Sir Thomas Aston. (fn. 8) Sir Thomas Aston died in 1725 leaving one son, also named Thomas, and eight daughters, and on the death of this son without issue in 1744 the hundred went to his eldest sister Catherine, (fn. 9) whose husband, the Hon. and Rev. Henry Hervey, 4th son of John, Earl of Bristol, by Act of Parliament (fn. 10) then took the surname of Aston, and the hundred remained in the possession of the Hervey-Aston family until it was bought by Sir Robert Peel, the first baronet, about 1800.
During the time Sir Wilughby Aston was lord of the hundred two halfpenny tokens were issued by his bailiff for use within it. One of these has on the obverse a head, full face, with the legend EDWARD TAYLOR BAYLIFE, and on the reverse HIS HALFE PENY 1668 and the legend OF HEMLINGFORD HVNDERED. The other has the head side-face, and the date 1669. (fn. 11)
At the end of the 18th century the Hemlingford Hundred Court had completely ceased to take any part in the general administrative work of the county, but, as Hutton records, its lord continued to hold a three-weeks court alternately at Coleshill and at Birmingham which took cognizance of matters of debt, trover, and dispute under 40s. At Birmingham the court met in Cherry Street, but in 1834 its place of meeting was removed to the Public Office in Moor Street, (fn. 12) and about the same time it also began to sit at Tamworth, where the steward of the hundred, Thomas Brooke Bridges Stevens, had his office. It is not known when it ceased to meet at Coleshill, but there is no record of its being held there after Hutton's time.
As described by Hutton the hundred court in his time was a most unsatisfactory institution. 'Its dreadful artillery', he wrote, 'is chiefly levelled at the inferior house-keeper, who, being ignorant, is often taken by surprise and blown to pieces, to the destruction of the family, the detriment of trade, and the increase of the poor's rates', and by way of illustration he relates the following incident: (fn. 13)
'While an attorney, frequently concerned in the Hundred Court, sat smoaking his pipe in a public house he observed to the landlord that if he had any money owing him he could easily recover it without trouble or expence. "I have none" replied the landlord to this silver bait "but what I expect in due course". "Yes" answered his wife with a smile "John M— owes for two mugs of ale". With this slender authority the attorney proceeded against him in the Hundred Court for four pence. The expence soon amounted to more than two pounds, at which price his effects, perhaps, had been rated, and poor John's bed was taken from under him, with his other trifling chattles, and he, with his family, despoiled of house-keeping. The bailiff of the Court, who took distress and sold the property, forgot to render an account or return the overplus, for which John was directed to sue him in the Court of Requests. The landlord appeared and declared he neither gave, nor intended to give, an order to pursue him in any Court, believing he would pay him without, and that his wife meant no more than a jest.'
As a court dealing with quite small matters, chiefly the recovery of debts under 40s., its procedure should have been simple and the costs to those appearing before it should have been small, but its cumbrous procedure of Declaring, Pleading, Replying, Rejoining, Notice of Trial, Judgment, Execution, Levying and Sale, enabled the plaintiff's attorney to draw up a bill of costs altogether out of proportion to the amount in dispute, as in the case Hutton mentions. Then, if the defendant lost, as he usually did, and was unable to pay the large bill of costs, as generally happened, his household goods were seized and sold. Moreover, if a debtor was unable to pay an attorney 10s. to enter an appearance at the beginning of an action brought against him, the court levied a distringas upon his goods, and property, often of great value to its owner, was seized and sold. This could be done three several times, and as it was a fine inflicted by the court it did not in any way reduce the debt for which the defendant was being sued.
In 1829 this court was again brought to the notice of the public by an article in the December number of Jenkinson's Scholastic Tickler, a monthly periodical published in Birmingham by Richard Jenkinson, a schoolmaster with 'Radical' sympathies. One of Jenkinson's complaints with regard to the court was that there were no rules for its conduct in existence, and possibly as a result of this complaint a set of rules was drawn up by the steward of the hundred in June 1834, and a further set in February 1836; (fn. 14) but little if any improvement was effected by them, and in 1839 Jenkinson made another attempt to reform the court by means of a series of letters in The Birmingham Journal. In these he brought to daylight some of the court's deeds of darkness, as he expressed it, and in the issue for 8 June he announced his intention of republishing these letters in the form of a pamphlet to be dedicated to Sir Robert Peel, the lord of the hundred.
No copy of this pamphlet is known to have survived—it may, indeed, never have been published, but in any case the abuses went on unchecked until 1846. In that year a committee was formed in Birmingham to inquire into the working of the local courts for the recovery of small debts, and a meeting was held at the Public Office in Moor Street on 3 August (fn. 15) when examples were given of the oppressive procedure of the hundred and similar courts, and it was unanimously resolved to present a petition to Parliament urging the abolition of all such courts; but Parliament ignored the petition, and that no reform of the hundred court followed is evident from a letter in The Birmingham Mercury on 15 February 1851.
This letter was headed 'Is not this a Robbery?' and signed 'Justice'. (fn. 16) In it the writer mentions the case of a man with ten children who owed a debt of 9s. 9d., part of which had been paid, yet from whom £3 3s. 9d. was demanded for costs, and whose house was entered by three bailiffs who would have cleared it to the bare walls if a friend had not come forward and found the money; and it concludes: 'Will you have the honour of aiding the poor against such oppression and ridding the town of so abhorrant a system, which, to my knowledge, has been carried on for years, more particularly in the Hundred Court.'
This letter attracted considerable attention. Several leading men in the town took up the matter, handbills giving examples of actual cases of oppression by the court were widely distributed, and a public meeting was held under the chairmanship of John Skirrow Wright, (fn. 17) but probably nothing would have resulted if there had not happened to be at the time before Parliament a Bill to increase the powers of the then recently established county courts. In this was a clause abolishing the Court of the Staffordshire Hundred of Offlow South, and this gave an opportunity to William Scholefield, one of the Birmingham members, to draw attention to the misdeeds of the Hemlingford hundred court and to urge that it also should be abolished.
The lord of the Hemlingford hundred court at that time was Sir Robert Peel, the third baronet, who derived from it an annual income of about £100. (fn. 18) When he was approached on the matter, however, he wrote that any reform tending to annul whatever could be shown to act prejudicially to the interests of his fellow countrymen would have his approval and support; consequently, by this Bill, which later became the Act of 15 & 16 Victoria, c. 54, the Hemlingford hundred court was brought to an end on 30 June 1852, and all persons who suffered loss from its abolition were compensated by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund.