Justice in Eighteenth-Century Hackney: The Justicing Notebook of Henry Norris and the Hackney Petty Sessions Book. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 1991.

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'Introduction', in Justice in Eighteenth-Century Hackney: The Justicing Notebook of Henry Norris and the Hackney Petty Sessions Book, (London, 1991) pp. ix-xxxiii. British History Online [accessed 24 April 2024]

In this section


Hackney in the early eighteenth century

Until a wave of speculative building transformed it during the course of the nineteenth century, Hackney was something of a minor London pleasure resort, one that managed to be consistently popular without ever becoming fashionable. It was a pleasant and attractive stretch of open countryside, easily accessible from the metropolis, ideal for day trips and to which City merchants regularly came to retire or to acquire a second home. Fine views, clean air, pleasure gardens, victualling houses, sporting events, fishing - Hackney had something to offer to rich and poor alike.

The economy of the area naturally reflected the constraints thus imposed upon it. Agricultural and horticultural pursuits predominated but even these were affected by the demands of the leisure market: Hackney was noted for its farms and market gardens and later in the century for its many nursery grounds supplying a wide variety of plants and flowers to the leisured classes. It was famous, from the mid-seventeenth century, for its private schools. Additionally, of course, there were numerous opportunities for employment in the mansions of the rich, in the pleasure industry or any of the ancillary trades that were needed to service so prosperous a community. Hackney was also noted for its brickfields and there was a certain amount of industrial activity. The result, as might be expected, was that there was a buoyant demand for labour resulting in a steady inflow of migrant workers, mostly from surrounding parishes but also from East Anglia, the Midlands, the West Country and Yorkshire. Some of the newcomers were skilled workers but large numbers seem to have been unskilled men seeking to take advantage of the variety of opportunities for economic advancement that were on offer. (fn. 1)

Even at this early date, Hackney was already something of a multicultural community. Hackney had long been known for its thriving communities of dissenters, but there was also a large Jewish community, (fn. 2) as well as a number of persons of Irish origin. (fn. 3) Although there was a substantial black population in London at this time, it is clear from the circumstances surrounding the arrest of George Scipio (218), that there were few if any blacks in Hackney.

All these groups were likely to attract considerable hostility. The documents presented here suggest a high level of toleration for only one of them: dissenters. When Robert Royston refused to swear to his settlement, for example, he was immediately offered the option of affirming in case 'he was one of the people called Quakers' (1051). The Irish do not figure prominently in these documents, though there is certainly a world of prejudice implicit in the brief notes of the examination of Patrick Larkin (1036), revealing both that he was Irish (which was relevant to the application of the settlement laws) and that he was Roman Catholic (which was not). To be Irish (and even worse to be an Irish catholic) at this time was to be subjected to stereotypes of irresponsibility, lawlessness and criminality of the kind that are now directed at Britons of West Indian descent.

Jews, superficially, seem to have fared reasonably well. On one occasion Norris acted extremely leniently to a group of young (and very rich) Jewish men, reducing the charge against them from riot to a breach of the peace (283). It is also clear that there was no reluctance to nominate Jews to parochial office. Yet one wonders how far this toleration rested on principle or whether it was not heavily influenced by the extreme wealth of the individuals concerned. The eighteenth century was a period of virulent anti-semitism and there are certainly indications that this was as common in Hackney as elsewhere. One notes in particular an appeal against a rating assessment in 1733 alleging, in effect, that houses kept by Jews had been deliberately over-rated (692). Even the willingness to nominate Jews to parish office could (and probably should) be interpreted as exploitation rather than toleration. It is noteworthy that on one occasion, nine of the thirty-five nominees for office were Jewish, a figure that would seem to be out of all proportion to the size of the Jewish community. (fn. 4) Many of the Jews rated in Hackney were really resident elsewhere, and therefore far more likely to fine rather than take on the duties of office. Such fines provided a lucrative source of extra revenue for the parish. (fn. 5)

Crime in Hackney

As the entries in this volume demonstrate all too well, the apparently idyllic and prosperous rural setting that seemed so attractive to contemporaries screened a world that was just as brutal as that of any city rookery. Major crimes such as burglary and highway robbery were by no means unusual and were regularly reported in the contemporary press. (fn. 6) Such crimes were more likely to be reported there than in justices' notebooks or petty session minutes, simply because the perpetrators stood a good chance of escape. The few that are entered here appear either because the victim had the good fortune to meet with assistance, or because of an application for a warrant to search a suspect's premises.

Yet if direct references to such crimes are infrequent, there are certainly a number of rather more oblique ones. Local legend has always associated Hackney with the highwayman Dick Turpin. Turpin himself does not appear within these pages, but many of his associates (John Jones, Abraham Downham, the Gregory brothers, William Rogers) do. Some of those responsible for convicting his accomplices also appear here. (fn. 7)

Of the events chronicled here, some, such as the arrest of the robber John Jones (164), add minor but intriguing details to those already given in the only reliable account of Turpin's life. (fn. 8) Others may offer additional insights. It seems probable for example that the Jasper Gregory who complained in 1733 of his employer's refusal to pay his wages was one of the three brothers who made up the core of the notorious Gregory Gang (74). John Wheeler, who turned King's Evidence against the Gregory Gang in 1735, also had Hackney links and was almost certainly the eldest child of the John Wheeler whose propensity to violence is so fully chronicled in these pages. (fn. 9) The evidence that Turpin and other notorious criminals of the day had some sort of regular rendezvous in Hackney, although circumstantial, is nevertheless persuasive.

Turpin and the Gregory Gang aside, the vast majority of crimes noted in these pages are petty offences, albeit often violent ones. Henry Norris's notebook makes it abundantly clear that life in early eighteenthcentury England, even in so prosperous a corner as Hackney, was both squalid and brutal. The tale of the toddler stripped and abandoned in the 'necessary house' in order to finance a young woman's need for ginsoaked oblivion makes even so forceful a piece of propaganda as Hogarth's Gin Lane seem understated (45). Casual violence was endemic and there are indications of persistent local feuds suggesting high levels of tension and conflict in everyday life. Perhaps the most obvious of these feuds is that relating to the building of the turnpike, an issue which split the vestry on class lines (the 'gentlemen of the vestry' were for the turnpike; the 'townsmen', led by brewer Thomas Rudge, against it) for almost two years. (fn. 10) The number of assaults on toll-keepers (275, 320, 321, 328, 348, 1132) suggests that even after the vestrymen had buried their differences, popular resentment remained high. (fn. 11)

Justice Henry Norris and his colleagues

Very little is known about the lives and careers of the justices who appear in this volume. They were not descendants of great landed families whose pedigrees can be traced with some confidence; rather, they were drawn from families who were moving up the social scale, and took pains, for that very reason, to conceal (or at the very least gloss over) the origins of their wealth. Samuel Tyssen (d. 1748), who owned lands in Huntingdonshire as well as a plantation in Antigua, was a descendant of a family of Dutch merchants who had settled in Hackney in the late seventeenth century; his nephew was the lord of the manor. (fn. 12) William Caslon (1692-1766) was a self-made man. He had made his fame and fortune (of all the justices mentioned here, he is the only one to have merited an entry in D.N.B.) as a typefounder. Somewhere in between these two extremes came the others: John Dekewer or De Kewer (d. 1762), a merchant of Flemish descent; Alexander Garrett (d. 1748) and his brother George, members of a prominent Spitalfields weaving family; the silk throwster John Oakey of Bethnal Green (d. 1732); Robert Paul (d. 1762), whose principal residence was in Hatton Garden rather than Hackney, and who owned estates in Northumberland and Surrey as well as in the London area; the banker Stephen Ram (d. 1746), who was wealthy enough to indulge his religious fervour by building a proprietary chapel in Homerton (reputedly in his own garden); and Ebenezer Mussell (d. 1764), of whom we know little beyond the fact that he had antiquarian tastes and the money with which to gratify them. (fn. 13) Mussell may in reality have been the most interesting of them all, for only a somewhat quixotic character would have stepped in at the demolition of Aldgate to buy the remains and re-erect them as a residence, Aldgate House, on Bethnal Green. (fn. 14)

But the figure who emerges most clearly from these manuscripts is of course Henry Norris himself. The Norris family was established in Hackney in the middle of the seventeenth century by Henry's grandfather, Hugh I (d. 1661), a prosperous London merchant who became an alderman and treasurer of the Levant Company. It then passed to his son Hugh II, also a Turkey Merchant. At his death in 1693 the property passed to his children Hugh III, Henry and Hester, but by 1715 it had been reunited in the hands of the younger son, Henry (born c. 1676). (fn. 15)

Henry Norris also became a merchant; in addition to his Hackney property, he also held lands in Southwark and the City. We know little of his character and personal life, although his justicing activities certainly suggest a man of somewhat harsh and authoritarian views. (fn. 16) He was a fervent supporter of the Whig government of the day: so much so that in 1731 he (along with Samuel Tyssen) was chosen to sit as a member of the notoriously packed jury that convicted Richard Francklin, publisher of the opposition journal, the Craftsman. (fn. 17) Over the years he had prospered remarkably well, managing to establish his older son, Hugh IV, as a landed gentleman, and leaving himself free to bequeath his Hackney property to his younger son, Henry II.

By the mid 1720s Henry Norris had, in his own mind at least, arrived. William Stukeley's drawing of his house in Grove Street reveals what to modern eyes is a splendid timbered mansion, one that probably dated back to the first half of the sixteenth century. (fn. 18) To early-eighteenth century eyes however it must have looked hopelessly old fashioned, and it was almost certainly in need of considerable repair. (fn. 19) In the spring of 1729, Norris (who had been living elsewhere in Grove Street whilst his own house was let to Robert Ainsworth) (fn. 20) arranged for its demolition and for the construction on the same site of a splendid classical residence, complete with four privies (two, presumably for family use, wainscotted in mahogany, and two, for less august personages, merely lined in pine). (fn. 21) The building contract, which survives in the Hackney Archives, is a remarkably detailed document, telling us not only about the new house, but also about Norris's determination to secure value for money. (fn. 22)

In 1723, Norris became a member of Hackney's select vestry. It is difficult to believe that a man of such wealth and respectability could possibly have found his social status still in question. Yet in the eyes of his contemporaries, Henry Norris continued to occupy a somewhat ambivalent social position. He may have been rich, he may have lived like a gentleman, but it was not clear that he actually was a gentleman. In the list of new members of the vestry, he is described merely as 'Mr Henry Norris'. Only in April 1726, was he at last accorded the coveted title of 'Esquire'. (fn. 23)

In a sense therefore one suspects that his decision to become an active magistrate, following his appointment to the Bench in November 1727, was in its own way just as ostentatious a badge of social status as his new house (completed in the summer of 1730) was self-evidently intended to be. Indeed to contemporaries, it was probably the more important social indicator of the two, which is precisely why levels of activity of Middlesex justices act as something of a reverse index of social status: the lower a justice's social status, the more likely he was to wish to be seen to be one. (fn. 24) Becoming an active justice clearly gave Norris much power in the community (and it must have been extremely satisfying to have reached a position from which one could confer a similar honour on one's neighbours) (fn. 25) but it also resolved all doubts about his social status. His conduct as a justice (which was, by contemporary standards, impeccable) enhanced his claim to gentry status still further, and one suspects that his reputation for integrity was just as important a part of his legacy to his descendants as his house and fortune. When in 1739 a list of 'Chief Gentlemen of the Parish' was drawn up, Henry Norris's name topped the list. (fn. 26) By the time of his death in 1762, there was no longer any doubt that the Norris family had made the precarious transition from trade to gentry.

Process and Procedures

It is perhaps appropriate at this point to remind readers that Middlesex was an anomalous jurisdiction, and that the structure of the courts in the county was therefore unique. Elsewhere in England, the judges of the royal courts came into each county on circuit twice a year to deal with serious offences at the county assizes. Lesser offences were tried by justices of the peace in quarter sessions. (fn. 27) But as Middlesex was the seat of the royal courts of justice, it was technically unable to have assize courts. Commissions of oyer and terminer (to enquire into and try treasons and felonies, etc.) and of gaol delivery (to deliver and try prisoners in the county gaol), which were in other counties directed to the judges on circuit, were in Middlesex directed to the judges of King's Bench and Common Pleas and to some justices of the peace. In practice the judges did not attend the sessions of oyer and terminer and only occasionally attended the sessions of gaol delivery. The volume of business in Middlesex was such that the sessions met eight times a year instead of quarterly as was customary elsewhere.

Matters were further complicated by the fact that Newgate, the county gaol of Middlesex, was shared with the City of London and was effectively under the City's control. Indictments for the sessions of the peace or for the sessions of oyer and terminer were heard at the Middlesex Sessions House, Hicks Hall in Clerkenwell. Indictments for the Middlesex gaol delivery were also initially heard before the grand jury at Hicks Hall as they had to be processed via the commission of oyer and terminer, but the actual trials took place at the Old Bailey before the Aldermen of the City of London, with (until 1754) some Middlesex justices of oyer and terminer in attendance.

It is important to note that the gaol delivery was precisely what its name indicates and that it heard only cases involving prisoners in Newgate, or those who had been bailed from it. When committing a suspect to prison therefore a justice of the peace was making certain assumptions about the nature of the case and the appropriate venue for trial. Persons committed to New Prison or to the House of Correction (also known as Bridewell) were likely to be tried (if tried at all) at Hicks Hall, although it was always possible for them to be transferred to the custody of the keeper of Newgate shortly before the opening of the sessions, if trial at the Old Bailey was thought to be more appropriate or more convenient. Just such a transfer occurred in the cases of Joseph Hall, William Tilly and Edward Marshall (7, 8, 278, 281). Those committed directly to Newgate would be tried at the Old Bailey and were probably facing serious, possibly capital, charges.

The justices met regularly outside of the general/quarter sessions to transact other business. Petty sessions were held for each Middlesex division and in addition to these divisional sessions there were also parochial petty sessions. The precise structure of these sessions varied from time to time (as did the business they transacted), depending on the availability of local justices. The deterioration in the Hackney petty sessions book in the early 1740s and subsequent cessation of entries until 1751 may reflect a temporary failure in record-keeping, but it is likely that it also indicates the collapse of the petty sessions. Middlesex in general was certainly suffering a shortage of justices in the 1740s and a list of candidates for the magistracy drawn up c. 1751 refers quite specifically to the lack of magistrates in Hackney: 'there being only Mr Norris . . . now a justice'. (fn. 28)

Not every parish possessed its own petty sessions and those that did exist were likely to collapse from time to time. Parishes that did not have their own petty sessions had to take their business to one in a neighbouring parish, (fn. 29) or wait for a meeting of the divisional sessions. The division of work between a parochial and a divisional petty sessions was therefore always fairly fluid, and the balance that was achieved in Hackney may not reflect what happened in other parishes or in other divisions.

A final point to be borne in mind is that the initiative in laying charges lay with the prosecutor, who could bypass the local justices completely and present a case directly to the grand jury at the general/quarter sessions (often without any prior notice to the defendant) or even directly to the King's Bench itself. (fn. 30) If the grand jury found that there was a case to answer, a bench warrant would then be issued to take up the alleged offender (276, 279).

The documents presented here may well be unique. Petty sessions books survive for a number of areas, often because, as in Hackney, the minute books came to form part of a collection of parish records. Justices' notebooks are rather more ephemeral: only twenty-four items falling into this broad category (some of them fragmentary) survive for the whole of the century. (fn. 31) It is extremely rare for a justice's notebook to survive together with a contemporaneous petty sessions minute book. (fn. 32) Each document is interesting in itself, providing useful insights into everyday life as well as the administration of the parish. Taken together, however, they provide a fascinating account of the work that an ordinary justice of the peace was expected to undertake outside of sessions.

The justicing notebook

The cases recorded by Norris in his justicing notebook were probably all heard in his home at Grove Street. Although the entries or recognizances occasionally reveal the presence of another justice (30, 38, 48, 228, 333, 341), it is not usually possible to tell whether anyone else was present. It is thus particularly interesting to discover (from the account of the committal of Faxton and Smith in the Old Bailey Proceedings) that on that occasion at least, Norris's court room was crowded with people, most of whom were probably curious bystanders rather than witnesses (35). The capture of highwaymen (and the high reward that would ensue) was however a somewhat unusual and exciting event; it is unlikely that Norris's court customarily provided the kind of entertainment that attracted sightseers to the courts of more active metropolitan justices, but it is nevertheless important to stress both the informality of the proceedings and the possible presence of a number of extraneous persons.

It is perhaps important to realise that the notebook was only part of a series of documents, such as recognizances, entries in gaol calendars, affidavits, confessions and informations, that could be generated by criminal cases. The Old Bailey Proceedings reveal, for example, that the reference in entry 35 to a confession is not to an oral one but to a sworn document taken before Norris and returned to the sessions for use at the trial. Since the survival of sessions papers in Middlesex is very poor, and since proceedings at quarter/general sessions were rarely reported in the press, Norris's notebook often supplies the only details of a case beyond that which can be gleaned from the formal record. It also gives information about cases that were dismissed which it would be impossible to reconstruct from any other source. It is an added bonus that Norris included so much detail about the evidence given, with the result that his notebook is far more informative than justicing notebooks (notably that of William Hunt of Wiltshire and Richard Wyatt of Surrey) (fn. 33) that have been published hitherto.

Norris was probably the most active justice in Hackney, but except for a brief period during the later 1740s he was not the only one: recognizances and committals relating to Hackney residents were also made by his colleagues at the petty sessions. To read through the entries in his notebook, in the knowledge that what appears there represents no more than a sizeable fraction of the totality of petty crime in Hackney, is to be left in no doubt of the unrelenting tedium of a justice's criminal business, made up as it was of an apparently interminable succession of assaults, occasionally enlivened by a few broken windows, the theft of the washerwoman's laundry or the arrival of an unlicensed pedlar.

Over two-thirds of the offences brought before Norris involved some form of assault, ranging from simple threats to an alleged homicide (318). Most of these assaults appear to have taken place outside the family, though a number of incidents of domestic violence are also recorded. In over eighty per cent of these cases no further process is recorded, the possession of a justice's warrant probably being enough to force some sort of settlement. The remainder were mostly settled, sometimes even before the parties had come to Norris's house, and sometimes during the hearing itself, a process that could be somewhat time-consuming (26, 267). Only a handful of cases (not necessarily the most serious) went any further, with the offenders bound over to appear at the general/quarter sessions, gaoled for lack of sureties, or indicted. With only two exceptions (110, 279), all those who were indicted at the general/quarter sessions confessed and were fined ls. Such a verdict usually indicates that the parties concerned had reached some prior agreement (probably involving monetary compensation).

Allegations of theft or damage to property form the second largest category of offences. Most were comparatively trivial and amenable therefore either to mediation (22, 86, 287), or to a short term of imprisonment under that useful early eighteenth-century formula of being 'idle and disorderly and of dishonest conversation' (29, 56, 130, 337). Many of these cases demonstrate clearly the essential characteristics of summary jurisdiction. Justice was swift, but it was also rough. Defendants, denied legal representation and the right to present their case to a jury, were at an obvious disadvantage. In effect they were at the mercy of the justice, who might or might not be sympathetic to their plight.

Much of the material presented here suggests that Norris had little sympathy with the plight of the poor. In this, his administration of summary justice offers a striking contrast to that of the Wiltshire justice William Hunt, whose virtually contemporaneous notebook shows that persons taken before him accused of pilfering from orchards or gardens (offences likely to be associated with high-spirited youth or with poverty and hunger) were likely to be treated with leniency. Where statute law gave an alternative to imprisonment, Hunt ensured that damages and fines were adjusted to the means of the offender so that the punishment for failure to pay (whipping) was rarely administered. (fn. 34) Norris's treatment of those brought before him was very different. He may well have believed that proximity to London made Hackney's farms and market gardens too vulnerable a target for the poor and/or criminally inclined. He was undoubtedly also aware of the peculiar difficulty involved in deterring such crimes, since at common law the theft of growing crops could not be larceny no matter how valuable the produce stolen. (fn. 35) His determination to protect local growers led him to impose high fines (amounting to the equivalent of at least two weeks' average wages) (fn. 36) which the offenders were unlikely to be able to pay, and he appears to have had no hesitation at all in ordering them to be whipped instead (353, 354). He readily imprisoned those found pilfering crops (338, 339, 346), even when they were obviously poor and in want (338, 346). The one case in which he and the prosecutor appear to have shown some degree of leniency, was one in which the prosecution case was unsound: it being doubtful whether taking windfalls was an offence at all (336). (fn. 37)

A very small number of offences brought to Norris involved major felonies: highway robbery, theft in a dwelling house, grand larceny. Such cases are particularly informative. They reveal a great deal about the wealth (in terms of both money and goods) of comparatively ordinary people: the case of Mary South, for example, establishes that the victualler, Edward Batty, had over £50 in money (a small fortune by the standards of the day) simply lying around the house, while Francis Trumble's apparently humble victim nevertheless owned a watch worth 30s. (at least two weeks' average wages even for a skilled artisan) (60, 606, 302).

They also demonstrate what contemporary critics termed 'pious perjury' in action. Thus Mary South, accused of stealing 33 gold guineas and a further £25 2s. 0d. in other coins, was found guilty of stealing to the value of 39s. only (60, 606), and Jane Grew accused of stealing clothing worth 2s. 9d. was convicted of stealing goods to the value of 10d. (45). The difference in both cases was literally one of life or death. Theft from a dwelling house of 40s. or more, or theft from the person of 12d. or more were both capital offences. By downvaluing the goods stolen, the jury ensured that neither woman would hang, but would instead be transported to the American colonies. Male juries committed 'pious perjury' on behalf of their own sex too, but they were rather more likely to do so for women, presumably for the simple reason that even the most hardened of proponents of capital punishment were likely to be revolted by the thought of a woman on the gallows. (fn. 38) In other cases, the jury returned what was known as 'a partial verdict' and so reduced the gravity of the charge. James Darlington, for example, was saved from the gallows when he was found guilty of theft but not of breaking and entering (298). 'Pious perjury' and partial verdicts formed a central element of the administration of the contemporary criminal justice system, saving thousands from execution for relatively trivial offences. (fn. 39)

These cases show just how quickly the contemporary criminal justice system worked. Isaac Dennis had to wait six weeks for his trial (143) but this was unusual: Faxton and Smith, Jane Grew and Francis Trumble were all tried within a month (35, 45, 302). Others were processed even more quickly: John Seagrave and Mary South and Esther Hewson were tried within a week of their alleged offences (111, 60, 606).

They also reveal a great deal about the factors that affected an individual's progress through the courts. The eighteenth-century legal system was built on a system of private prosecution, so that any failure on the part of the prosecutor was fatal to the success of his or her case. The account of William Tilly's case in the Old Bailey Proceedings, indicates that he was acquitted because of the failure of his prosecutor to turn up at the trial (8). This was by no means impossible, although the accuracy of this particular report may be questionable. Poor persons may in general, however, have been reluctant to prosecute simply because of the expense. It was not until 1752 that any statutory provision was made for assistance towards costs. (fn. 40) The difficulties facing poor persons who might not fully understand the legal process or who might lack the financial resources necessary to prosecute were recognized by the vestry which would on occasion permit prosecutions to be carried on at parish expense (8, 241). (fn. 41)

The state attempted to encourage certain types of prosecution by providing rewards, which in the case of highway robbery and burglary amounted to £40 per conviction. At times of particular concern about the level of violent crime in the London area, an additional £100 was provided by royal proclamation. Just such a proclamation was in force in 1732, so that those responsible for the capture and conviction of Thomas Smith and Thomas Faxton received a total of £280 for their night's work. It was alleged at their trial that Faxton's confession had been obtained by holding out the hope that he would be admitted as an evidence for the crown (thus enabling him not only to escape the gallows but also to entitle himself to part of the reward). Norris denied that any incentive had been offered, but such an offer could easily have been made whilst the men had been imprisoned overnight or even in the room in which they were examined, which was so crowded that Norris may not have heard or seen everything that went on. Such tactics were commonplace, and the amount of money involved certainly arouses some suspicion. If nothing else, the prospect of a share in £280 might well have been enough to turn an uncertain eyewitness identification into a very positive one. (fn. 42)

A rather kinder side of the contemporary judicial process is shown in the case of Francis Trumble (302). Captured after what now seems like an almost classic Hollywood chase across the lanes and fields of Hackney, Trumble was clearly a desperate and potentially very violent man. His defence consisted entirely of a parade of witnesses testifying to a family history of mental instability and to his own 'melancholic' and suicidal tendencies. Although convicted Trumble did not hang. Like almost fifty per cent of those condemned to death under the contemporary 'bloody code', Trumble received a royal pardon.

Legal technicalities could also protect an accused person. One notes in these entries for example the attempt by Isaac Dennis to defend himself (unsuccessfully) on a charge of highway robbery by claiming that he had merely asked for charity (143) and the acquittal of Esther Hewson (60, 606) because the jury were not convinced that she knew that Mary South had stolen the coins in question, although it is difficult to envisage quite how else a servant girl could have come into possession of such a large sum of money. Details of a rather more interesting legal debate are preserved in the Hackney Archives. In January 1751, the brothers John and Miles Nutbrown (fn. 43) were accused of burgling the house of Joseph Faikney (a capital offence). The house was Faikney's summer residence; at the time of the crime it was empty and Faikney had not decided whether to renew his lease. The judge directed the jury that since Faikney had no settled intention to return to the house, it could not be held to be a dwelling house within the meaning of the statute and that consequently the crime did not amount to burglary. The Nutbrowns were found guilty on a lesser charge, and sentenced to transportation. (fn. 44)

On a number of occasions, the notebook records that search warrants were issued following complaints of theft (17, 169, 174, 202, 236, 248, 322, 347, 351). Contemporary legal textbooks contain much information about the ways in which search warrants could be executed but very little about the circumstances in which it was proper to issue one, beyond a broad statement to the effect that general search warrants were improper. The Norris notebook suggests that there were few safeguards. It records a return to the warrant or further process in only three cases (174, 248, 347), only one of which resulted in sufficient evidence to continue the prosecution. Although it is always possible that the others were processed via another justice, a search of indictment and recognizance files strongly suggests that no further action was taken in any of these cases. It seems likely therefore that these search warrants were issued on very little evidence. Indeed one notes that on three occasions warrants were issued to search a number of houses (17, 169, 236). In practice, the difference between this sort of indiscriminate 'fishing expedition' and one authorized by a general warrant seems minimal.

A less dramatic part of the justices' business related to burials in woollen. Under 30 Car. II c3 an affidavit to the effect that a corpse had been buried in woollen (unless the cause of death was plague), taken before a justice of the peace, had to be delivered to the minister of the parish within 8 days of the burial. The penalty for default was £5, of which half went to the poor of the parish and half to the informer. To be buried in anything other than a woollen shroud at this time was as ostentatious a mark of conspicuous consumption as could be imagined. Those who did not wish to be buried in woollen (at least one Hackney resident was buried in velvet instead) (fn. 45) may well have arranged to pay an amount equivalent to a moiety of the fine directly to the churchwardens.

By the later eighteenth century this act had largely (but not entirely) fallen into disuse, but it is clear from these documents that it was being enforced in early eighteenth century Hackney, to the extent that the vicar was prepared to lay an information for non-compliance (837). (fn. 46) One parish searcher (Ann Fisher) who was foolish enough to believe that no-one would notice if she collected the appropriate fees without actually bothering to swear the affidavits, was dismissed from office in 1736. (fn. 47) Occasionally, the affidavits were sworn at the petty sessions, but it was not necessary to do so, and it was more usual for them to be taken before a single justice. Checklists containing extremely brief notes of such affidavits appear at intervals throughout the Norris notebook and have been removed for the convenience of the reader to the end of the notebook entries (356–60).

The petty sessions minute book

The Hackney petty sessions met roughly once a fortnight. For most of the period covered here it met at the Mermaid Tavern (later the Old Mermaid) on the east side of Church Street (now Mare Street). (fn. 48) In the 1750s it met at the Blue Posts Tavern, formerly Templars House, a more substantial establishment, which had been used occasionally for vestry meetings. (fn. 49)

A recurrent theme of applications to the Lord Lieutenant by and on behalf of those wishing to be selected as justices of the peace was the need to have sufficient local magistrates to transact parochial business. (fn. 50) To have what was, as in Hackney, virtually a parochial petty sessions was certainly convenient, but it was also important in other ways. Almost all aspects of parochial administration involved extremely sensitive issues (the fairness or otherwise of rating assessments, the vigour with which the settlement laws were applied, the criteria adopted in granting or refusing alehouse licences, even the appointment of parochial officials) which depended to a large extent on the justices' sympathetic use of their discretionary powers. A justice who was involved in the local community, and even better, one who was involved in the vestry, was more likely to ensure the smooth running of parochial affairs and, perhaps more importantly, to protect the parish, than one who was not.

The justices out of sessions were responsible for swearing in a number of local officials. In January, they had to meet to appoint surveyors of the highways, selected from a shortlist of names submitted by the vestries. In Middlesex this appears to have been one of the functions of the divisional sessions rather than of a parochial petty sessions (Hackney was in the Tower division, which had a court house in Whitechapel). The petty sessions was more concerned with the appointment of overseers of the poor, constables, headboroughs and ale-conners. Overseers of the poor had to be appointed within a month of Easter, from a shortlist of candidates submitted by the vestry. The offices of constable, headborough, and ale-conner were technically manorial offices and it was only when the Court Leet failed to appoint or to swear such officers or when a serving officer died or left the parish that the justices were empowered to step in. (fn. 51) A number of those sworn into office by the justices were substitutes, and it is important to note that although such men were likely to be of lower social status than the person they replaced, they nevertheless still had to fulfil all the normal criteria for appointment to office.

Settlement examinations, taken for the purpose of assigning individuals to the parishes which would relieve them if they became indigent, comprised a very large part of the business of justices out of sessions. Historians have usually assumed that such examinations were intricately bound up with applications for poor relief. More recently it has been argued that a substantial proportion of examinations taken during this period stemmed from attempts to regulate migration. (fn. 52) It is clearly inappropriate to enter fully into the Hackney evidence here, but it should be noted that bringing in a list of new inhabitants was one of the duties of the beadle (361) and that individuals were regularly summoned en masse, sometimes more than twenty at a time (990, 994, 1048), to be examined as to settlement, usually in the autumn. Preliminary analysis confirms that more than one pattern was in operation. Some of those examined were in need of relief (425, 456, 701, 727), but most were neither indigent nor in imminent danger of becoming so. Some, on the contrary, seem to have been quite comfortably established. (fn. 53) Many of them were given time to obtain a certificate: that is a sworn document granted by the officers of the parish of settlement, certifying their rights of settlement. Once an individual had been made to obtain such a document neither (s)he nor his/her dependants were likely ever to obtain rights of settlement elsewhere. Significantly, the petty sessions was largely concerned with examining individuals not settled in Hackney. Very few came for the purpose of obtaining a certificate from Hackney to another parish (546, 626, 722, 734, 745, 1005), suggesting that there was high net inflow of migrant workers.

In Hackney, it was customary for examinations to be taken at the petty sessions rather than before a single justice. The notebook contains only two examinations before a single justice. Margaret Baldry and James Bishop (6, 53) were both indigent. It is likely that they were taken before Norris as a mere formality to the granting of relief and that the parish officers were satisfied that they were settled in Hackney. The case of James Bishop, however, demonstrates just why parish officers usually preferred to wait for a petty sessions meeting. For in the course of his examination, Norris decided (incorrectly) that Bishop was settled elsewhere. It was therefore necessary for Bishop to be re-examined, since an order to remove him to his parish of settlement required the signature of two justices.

The overseers of the poor could give emergency relief as and when necessary but longer-term assistance was given only to those whose names were enrolled on the list of parish poor. (fn. 54) Only the justices could authorise medium or long-term relief to those not on the list, or could overrule the overseers' refusal of emergency relief. Instructions to the overseers to relieve necessitous individuals (some of whom are known to have had no settlement in Hackney) are regularly minuted here.

Those who were deemed to be in need of assistance because of their own failure to work or refusal to maintain their families ran the risk of summary imprisonment. As in any form of summary process, the individuals concerned were at a considerable disadvantage. The petty sessions minutes refer to three individuals who were committed to gaol for refusing to maintain their families: Richard Evans, Grace Chandler and Lionel Theed (2, 363, 615); another, John Curtis, appears in the notebook (211). Theed seems to have had a long history of illness (411), but the parochial officials were perhaps distracted by the fact that his incapacity failed to prevent his wife's regular pregnancies. In the cases of Evans and Chandler, the subsequent pattern of relief suggests that both overseers and justices had, in their zeal to protect the parish purse, confused fecklessness with the onset of some chronic illness. Ablebodied individuals who wished to abandon their families did not usually stay around long enough to be arrested (582, 740, 805, 942, 996,1087).

A similar desire to protect the ratepayer lies behind the treatment accorded to unmarried mothers. Single, pregnant women were called before the justices and asked to identify the father. Customarily, he would be made to enter into a recognizance for good behaviour which would be returned to the Middlesex sessions and continued until after the birth of the child. Steps would then be taken to ensure that the parish was reimbursed for any expenses attendant on the actual delivery and to secure some sort of maintenance agreement (usually by means of a bond of indemnity to the parish). Whether women did identify the true fathers or, as contemporary legend suggests, falsely accused the man they thought most able to shoulder the financial burden, remains an open question but Elizabeth Brace (who claimed to be unable to identify the father of her child) and Phoebe Hams (who told the justices it was none of their business) seem to have been unusually independent (1063, 1137). Single mothers almost always named someone. Putative fathers who refused to maintain their illegitimate children were liable to imprisonment on summary process, even if they were too poor, or, as in the case of Samuel Bayly, too ill to do otherwise (566).

Another regular feature of petty sessions work was the binding out of pauper children as apprentices. With very few exceptions, such children were bound to masters (or mistresses) in other parishes. Since Hackney never paid more than 40s. as a premium for the apprenticeships, (fn. 55) one can be fairly certain that these children were not going to be taught particularly marketable skills and that they would always exist perilously close to the margin between poverty and indigence. Apprenticeship was unlikely therefore to secure the children's future, and may on the contrary have exposed them to exploitation and danger; it did however confer rights of settlement, thus freeing Hackney from any subsequent demand for poor relief. The desire to be rid of paupers probably underlies the treatment afforded to former pauper apprentice, Sarah Crew, and her family. (fn. 56) Having once foisted her onto another parish, there was no point in allowing her to give birth to her illegitimate child in Hackney (623, 641). The whole purpose of binding out apprentices to another parish was that Hackney rid itself not just of one generation of paupers but of future generations as well.

From 1729, alehouse licences were renewable annually in September at a special (Brewster) sessions held for that purpose. In later years, it became usual for the Brewster sessions to be adjourned rather than closed so that applications could be made throughout the year. In the the early eighteenth century, however, local magistrates continued the pre-1729 custom of granting permissive licences under the signature of two justices at any time during the year to run until the annual renewal date. When, as in Hackney, the petty sessions was closely tied into the local government structure, it became possible for the justices to exercise a tight control over licensing. The criteria by which licences were granted or withheld in Hackney were fairly standard ones: the wish to restrict the number of alehouses in order to discourage excessive consumption of alcohol, (fn. 57) coupled with the need to ensure that landlords were persons of good character.

From the point of view of the élite such criteria were both acceptable and desirable. In practice, however, the justices' decisions often seem to be somewhat arbitrary. One notes in these entries for example the way in which a licence was initially granted to Stephen Carr and then withdrawn a mere two weeks later on grounds of misbehaviour, although no such punishment was given to his opponent John Price, who seems to have been equally guilty (488, 489, 498). Some applications were refused 'there not being any vacancy', (420, 661, 768, 927), others were granted seemingly with no reference to the number of vacancies at all (812, 824, 987, 988, 1086), and with just a hint of suspicion that influential connections could be useful (953). Part of the explanation lies in the way in which additional factors were taken into account. One notes in particular the refusal of licences to those who were not settled in the parish (488, 489, 697), and the decision to grant a licence to Thomas Hilliard on the grounds that he was unable to earn his living in any other way, although the terms of this successful application were little different from those of the application which had been refused a year earlier (661, 743).

From the point of view of the justices, one can understand why these decisions were made, but for the ordinary individual who found his livelihood under threat or the value of his property suddenly altered by a decision outside his control, many of the justices' decisions must have seemed both arbitrary and capricious. Little wonder that Morgan Bynon carefully cleared the matter of the licence before disposing of his property (784). Strict control of licensing could, however, confer a certain amount of power on the licensees. For the licence appertained to the individual rather than to the property and this fact could be used to good effect in any dispute with the property owner. Thus Nathaniel Roberts, thrown out of his ale-house on Stamford Hill, was able (albeit briefly) to make trouble for his successor who had no licence (1080, 1086), whilst a Mr Hannand, whose tenant simply moved next door, found that he was unable to obtain a licence for his new tenant (768), and Markham Spearing discovered too late that his licensee had arranged a transfer without his knowledge (921, 927).

Lesser offences dealt with at the petty sessions included sabbath breaking and swearing. Neither figure very prominently, although prosecutions for sabbath breaking are more common in the section dealing with the early 1750s, perhaps because that was a period when heightened awareness about crime rates fuelled a demand for moral reform. Although some of those summoned for sabbath breaking were described as being in 'indifferent' or 'bad' circumstances and excused (1103, 1105), it seems likely that most of those prosecuted were relatively prosperous individuals and that the justices chose to make an example of them as a warning to others. The Greyhound in Homerton (kept by Joseph Sowter) is, for example, identified by William Robinson as a tavern and tea gardens which 'was the resort of most of the Newmarket and sporting men of the time: there was a cock pit and regular cock fights' (1093, 1102, 1108). (fn. 58) Likewise the Shoulder of Mutton and Cat (sometimes Cat and Shoulder of Mutton and sometimes merely the Shoulder of Mutton) was a substantial establishment adjoining London Fields (1091, 1103). Similar considerations may also apply to convictions for swearing or cursing: certainly for the justices to convict their own coachmen (men of high standing in contemporary domestic establishments) was to serve notice about the limits of tolerable behaviour in an ostentatious, and perhaps humiliating, manner (209, 819).

Vexatious and malicious prosecutions

Its dependence on private prosecution meant that vexatious actions were endemic to the eighteenth-century legal system. These entries demonstrate clearly that this was true even at the lowest levels of the criminal justice system, for many of these comparatively minor cases appear to have been brought for purely vexatious reasons. On 18 August 1736, Ann Folliot was accused of assaulting Mary Kingsland; the very next day her husband accused Mary Kingsland's husband of the same offence (193, 194). John Price and Stephen Carr both accused each other of assault (37, 38). It is surely more than coincidence that William Hewson's accusations against Edward Batty were virtually contemporaneous with Batty's unsuccessful prosecution of Hewson's wife (60, 606, 63). Such examples could be multiplied virtually ad infinitum.

The notebook even contains one case of a prosecution that was malicious in the strict legal sense of the word. (fn. 59) It includes two accounts of accusations of theft involving Matthew Walter or Walters. In 1731, Walters accused Jacob Hales of stealing fruit; the affair was compromised (22). A year later Hales accused Walters of stealing several pots of myrtles, whose value meant that the offence amounted to grand larceny (52). Norris threw the charge out. The prosecutors then arrested Walters on a warrant from justice Thomas Robe and he was again taken before Norris. Hales failed to attend, no doubt because he thought (correctly) that Norris would dismiss the charge. Undeterred, Hales then had Walters arrested yet again and took him before Sir William Billers, possibly altering his evidence to make the case more convincing. (fn. 60) Walters was subsequently acquitted at the Old Bailey and was allowed a copy of his indictment, a form of process, rarely granted by the judges, that was the essential preliminary to commencing an action for malicious prosecution. (fn. 61)

The burden of judicial duties

It is perhaps necessary to stress what a considerable commitment these justices were making. One doubts that any of them had received a high standard of education. If they had, it would have been, at best, a narrowly classical one; they were certainly not trained as lawyers. Yet the notebook volume, kept as it is almost entirely in Norris's own hand, (fn. 62) suggests very strongly that single justices customarily acted without benefit of legal advice. This would not be surprising, as there is evidence to suggest that even the most active of metropolitan justices sometimes had to call in local attornies as and when they were needed. (fn. 63)

Norris and his colleagues probably relied on a justices' manual to guide them through the complexities of the legal process. (fn. 64) And one should not underestimate just how complex the legal process could be. Many apparently straightforward entries actually raised quite difficult legal issues. The most obvious one was the classification of an offence. It was the justices' duty to effect reconciliation wherever possible, except in cases of felony, for compounding a felony was, in itself, a serious crime. Unfortunately, the difference between a felony and a misdemeanour was not always obvious. In at least two cases, Norris was uncertain enough note to that an alleged theft could be compounded 'it not appearing to be a felony' (22, 135). (fn. 65)

There are at least three felony cases (four, if one counts his dismissal, against the wishes of the prosecutor, of the accusations against Walters) in which Norris's actions may have been technically incorrect. In 1731, he discharged three men accused of horse-stealing (a capital felony) 'finding no cause upon ye whole to commit them'; it is not clear whether the prosecutor wished to pursue the charge further (14). In 1738, Norris judged the case against Sarah Thompson, also accused of a capital felony, to be weak and was clearly instrumental in persuading the prosecutor to drop charges (274). To modern eyes, accustomed to a system of prosecution in which the state plays a major role and to the idea that pre-trial committal proceedings take place before a magistrate, this may seem unexceptional. But as has been pointed out, the eighteenth century legal system was based on private prosecution. Once a sworn allegation of felony had been made, it was up to the grand jury to decide whether the evidence was sufficient to support an indictment. It was not the function of a justice to sift out bad cases. It is significant that Norris's note of the Thompson case refers to the prosecutor's willingness to drop the charge, but it also records that the prosecutor had sworn to the truth of the allegations. Technically, Norris had no option but to process the case further, that he did not illustrates the very wide discretion customarily exercised by justices and prosecutors alike.

A far more serious case was that arising from the arrest of George Scipio (218). Scipio, described in the notebook entry as a chapman of Shoreditch, was accused by Anne Godfrey of having been involved in stealing her washing. The offence concerned is clearly stated to have been felonious. Scipio had been arrested because a black man had been seen in the vicinity of the crime and he was self-evidently the only black known to the complainant. The evidence against him was poor and it seems unlikely that a grand jury would have been willing to process an indictment against him. Nevertheless, Anne Godfrey swore to an information against him and Scipio was made to enter into a recognizance to answer the accusation. But the charge was subsequently withdrawn, and it must have been withdrawn with Norris's full knowledge and consent because the recognizance was not certified to the general/quarter sessions. Again, the only correct course of action was to proceed. Indeed it is possible that in dropping the case, both Norris and the prosecutor laid themselves open to a charge of compounding a felony. Equally, in saving the court the bother of dealing with a possibly frivolous allegation, Norris was exercising his discretion in a manner that would almost certainly be applauded rather than condemned by his colleagues on the bench.

Legal technicalities were even more important in the conduct of noncriminal cases, although it is probable that in these at least the justices were able to call on the expertise and advice of their clerk who was almost certainly an attorney. (fn. 66) There were occasionally difficulties even in apparently straightforward matters such as compelling payment of the rates (1096, 1100). The major area of difficulty however was probably that created by the application of the settlement laws. The law established very simple categories of entitlement to settlement: birth, servitude, apprenticeship, and payment of parochial taxes. The lives of individuals however were not always ordered quite so neatly, with the result that a vast body of case law had been built up. The majority of Hackney settlement examinations (which survive in a separate volume) (fn. 67) reveal complex histories of movement and employment, from which it is often extremely difficult to attribute the correct parish of settlement.

Any mistake on the part of the justice might lead to further legal action, either in the form of an appeal or in the form of a civil or criminal prosecution. In reality, such actions were extremely rare, but it seems likely that conscientious justices took the possibility extremely seriously. Certainly, the fear of litigation was cited by Sir Thomas de Veil as one of the reasons why it was so difficult to persuade men to become active magistrates. (fn. 68) One of the defences he suggested was that justices should keep a detailed account of the business they transacted so that a court could see that they had acted without any malicious or evil intent. As can be seen from these pages, this was advice that Norris had clearly taken to heart.

The work of a justice also required a considerable commitment in terms of time. None of the justices who appear regularly within these pages could be said to have been exceptionally active, especially in terms of criminal business. During the period considered here some half dozen justices shouldered the burden of criminal cases in urban Middlesex. In 1732, over 2000 recognizances were returned to the general/ quarter sessions by 78 justices: just under half of them by six exceptionally active justices (Gifford, Hilder, Manley, Mercer, Philips and Robe). Over seventy per cent of the justices returned less than twentyfive recognizances each; twenty-one justices (just over a quarter) returned only one. Henry Norris returned three, Samuel Tyssen none, Alexander Garrett 15, John Oakey 11; Norris, Tyssen and Garrett also co-signed one. In the period covered by these entries, Henry Norris regularly returned between two and six recognizances a year; when he returned more (in 1738 and 1739 there were eight) the figures are distorted by a single case producing multiple recognizances. (fn. 69) Yet his notebook shows that even apparently inactive justices might be dealing with complainants at least once a fortnight (and sometimes twice a day), and that he had to reserve one day a week simply for dealing with the parish searcher's affidavits about burials in woollen. (fn. 70)

The Hackney petty sessions met at least once a fortnight. It dealt mainly with Hackney business but also occasionally with business arising from neighbouring parishes such as Mile End and Bethnal Green. Although Norris, Ram, Tyssen and Dekewer all lived in Hackney, Robert Paul's principal residence was in Hatton Garden, Mussell lived in Bethnal Green, Alexander and George Garrett in Spitalfields. It is not unreasonable to suppose that just as they were prepared to travel to Hackney, so some of the Hackney justices may also have regularly attended petty sessions elsewhere.

It is likely that Norris and his colleagues were also heavily involved in the work of the divisional sessions: the few surviving records of the local Brewster Sessions suggest that they were indeed extremely active there. They would also attend the quarter/general sessions of the peace, and Alexander Garrett was assiduous in his attendance at the commission of oyer and terminer. All in all, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that these men would have been spending between one and a half and three full days a week purely on justicing business. Nor would this have been the only call on their services: Norris, for example, was also a vestryman, treasurer of the 'unappropriated monies' of the parish, one of the trustees of Dr. Spurstowe's bequest, and a commissioner of the Tower Hamlets Court of Requests. Like his colleagues John Dekewer and George Garrett, he was also a Governor of the London Hospital, a position that was undemanding in terms of committees and meetings but which probably ensured a constant stream of applicants for patronage.

Corruption and partiality

The justices of urban Middlesex and Westminster were renowned for their corruption, but the justices whose activities are chronicled here appear to have been the epitome of magisterial rectitude: indeed, when George Garrett applied to join the Middlesex commission, the chairman of the Bench specifically stated that 'his father and brother (now dead) always behaved well'. (fn. 71) Norris's notebook makes it clear that he accepted fees for justicing work: it would have been unusual if he did not. But his level of involvement in criminal business was so low that the amounts involved would have been far too small to arouse suspicion of his motives. (fn. 72)

Cross checks to other records confirm that Norris (and, by implication, his colleagues at petty sessions) were scrupulous about the transaction of justicing business. With the one exception of the Scipio case, recognizances were properly certified to the sessions, unless the matter had been agreed, when, in accordance with contemporary practice, they were cancelled. Fines levied for the use of the poor were promptly paid over to the parish. (fn. 73)

The way in which Norris processed complaints would also have helped to convince contemporaries of his integrity. His main concern, as has already been pointed out, was to persuade the parties concerned to make up their quarrel or to compound the offence. Discouraging litigation in this way was one of the hallmarks of correct magisterial conduct: one of the reasons that the eighteenth century was one of historically low rates of recorded crime was that justices saw it as their duty to divert minor cases from the courts rather than to facilitate their progress through the legal system.

Yet to suggest that Norris and his colleagues were not corrupt in the eyes of their contemporaries is not to excuse them from all accusations of partiality. For whatever else they did, these men most certainly did not administer justice impartially. We can learn a great deal about the prejudices and social values they shared simply from the wording of some of the entries. Ordinary people were summoned to appear, whilst those of higher social status were treated rather more politely (640). The resolution of an alleged case of horsestealing (a capital felony) depended entirely upon the parish clerk's judgment of the respective characters of plaintiff and defendant (14). (fn. 74)

Perhaps too we should attempt to see Norris through the eyes of those ordinary individuals who sought to use him to gain access to the legal system. For it must be recognised that Norris's attempts to reconcile disputes often amounted to a denial of such access. And it was a denial with a clear class bias. Norris regularly committed poor men and women to gaol on the flimsiest of evidence, yet when poor people came to him for the protection of the law, he did his best to discourage them, offering them a form of dispute arbitration in its place and forcing those who did wish to take their cases further to enter into extremely high recognizances. (fn. 75) What these entries show us more clearly than anything else, is that for Norris, and probably also for most of his colleagues on the bench, there really was one law for the rich and another for the poor.

Note on editorial method

The originals of both documents are held in the Greater London Record Office. The notebook (M79/X/1) formed part of a deposit of Hackney manorial records made in 1961 by Lawrence, Messer and Co., solicitors, on behalf of the then Lord Amherst; it is a stray, and has no connection with the manorial records. The petty sessions book (P79/JN1/214) forms part of a collection of parish records deposited in 1955 by the rector of St. John at Hackney. It includes a number of loose documents, mostly draft settlement examinations and draft minutes. Notebook entries were made in chronological order but Norris left himself sufficient space to fill in details of any subsequent action taken. Occasionally he doubled back to fill large blank spaces, and these entries although out of order have been left in their original positions.

The notebook and petty sessions book have been transcribed in full, except that in the petty sessions entries the signature of the clerk has been removed and the opening rubric has been replaced by a shorter format of place, date and attendance. Additional information has been inserted, where appropriate, from the draft minutes. For the sake of clarity and to save space, all entries (including lists in tabular form) have been rearranged into paragraphs; sub-headings in long lists have been italicized. For the convenience of the reader entries have been numbered.

Surnames and place-names have been left in their original form in the text but for the index place-names have been modernized and surnames are entered in their most frequently used form with variations in parentheses. The names of acting justices have been indexed only where they are mentioned in the body of the text; that is, attendance lists and signatures on informations and recognizances are not indexed. Punctuation, capitalization and abbreviations have been preserved except where adjustments were necessary to facilitate rearrangement.

Dates have been altered to accord with the modern convention of beginning a new year on 1 January; they have also been extended to indicate the day of the week. Repetitions of the date have been uniformly rendered as 'same day'. Unless otherwise indicated, words enclosed in square brackets indicate supplied words or probable readings where the original text is difficult to interpret. Editorial interpolations are additionally indicated by the use of italics. An asterisk represents a marginal tick in the original manuscript.

Both the petty sessions and the notebook volumes appear to have been entered virtually contemporaneously with the events described. They therefore include a large number of alterations and deletions which sometimes indicate an attempt to correct obvious errors, sometimes reflect a more felicitous choice of words, but which also show the development of attitudes and changes of mind on the part of the presiding justices. In order to preserve something of the flavour of the original, such deletions and alterations have been noted in the text. Unless otherwise stated, all manuscript references are to documents in the Greater London Record Office.

The editor would like to thank all those who have helped her in the course of preparing the text for publication. A particular debt of gratitude is owed to the British Academy who financed the project, to Douglas Hay, and to Norma Landau for her generous assistance and advice. The task of working on Hackney is not helped by the somewhat arbitrary division of records between the London Borough of Hackney Archives Department and the Greater London Record Office, and the editor would like to thank the staff of both, particularly Richard Samways and David Mander, for their help in overcoming these problems. She would also like to thank Tim Baker, Norma Landau, David Mander, John Styles and Isobel Watson for their kindness in reading and commenting on the draft introduction. Thanks are also due to Derek Barlow and Malcolm Brown. Last, but most certainly not least, she would like to thank her husband and her mother-in-law, Mary Thompson, for the endless hours of babysitting that freed her to complete the project.


  • 1. Over half of the settlement examinations taken during the period covered by these documents (1730–1753) reveal that the individuals concerned were settled by service. Most of those who appear in the following pages are described as labourers, gardeners or victuallers.
  • 2. The largest group (Portuguese Jews) had been settled in Hackney as early as the 1670s, and were largely concentrated near the Triangle area of Mare Street. I am indebted for this information to David Mander.
  • 3. With the notable exception of Stephen Ram, it is likely that the majority of the Hackney Irish were extremely poor.
  • 4. For this (and for the Jewish community in Hackney in general) see Malcolm Brown, 'The Jews of Hackney before 1840' in Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, 30 (1987–8), pp. 71–87.
  • 5. In 1741, the standard fines were: surveyor of the highways £5; overseer of the poor £10; churchwarden £15. A discount rate of £25 was allowed to those who fined for all three offices at once. It had previously been £20. G.L.R.O., P79/JN1/142/38.
  • 6. See particularly the collection of press cuttings relating to serious crimes in and around Hackney in the Tyssen collection. H.A.D., H/LD/7/2.
  • 7. Notably John Maslin or Masling (landlord of the Rising Sun in Church Street), Mary Theed (wife of the Hackney pauper Lionel Theed), Dyson Green, Francis Francis and Nicholas Graves (see index).
  • 8. Derek Barlow, Dick Turpin and the Gregory Gang (Chichester, 1973).
  • 9. John and Thomasin Wheeler were married in June 1712. Their son John was baptised the following April. G.L.R.O., P79/JN1/24.
  • 10. H.A.D., D/F/TYS/12/1.
  • 11. It has not been possible to trace a contemporary account of the arguments involved, but it is likely that the townsmen blamed the poor state of the roads on the increase of wheeled traffic (of and for the wealthier sections of the community) and on the failure of the gentlemen of the parish (in their capacity as magistrates) to enforce existing laws concerning road repair. They may also have seen the tolls as a sort of new tax, one which would fall disproportionately on the middling and lower orders. Robert W. Malcolmson, 'A set of ungovernable people': the Kingswood colliers in the eighteenth century' in John Brewer and John Styles (eds), An ungovernable people. The English and their law in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (1980), pp. 95–96.
  • 12. Francis John Tyssen (1717–1781), who was, incidentally, one of the few gentlemen of the parish who supported the opposition to the turnpike.
  • 13. See the various catalogues of his Curious and valuable library, Curious coins, medals and medallions, and Roman and Egyptian Antiquities in the British Library.
  • 14. The venture was shortlived. His widow remarried and her new husband cleared the site for redevelopment. Tower Hamlets local history library, 460, 587, 890, 3190.
  • 15. I am indebted to David Mander for assistance with this section and also to Tim Baker for the opportunity of seeing the as yet unpublished entry in the V.C.H. from which much of this information is drawn.
  • 16. It is perhaps unfair to draw too many conclusions about his personal life from his will. One cannot always expect so formal a document to reveal the kind of pain and distress at family estrangements that is so poignantly portrayed in the will of Ebenezer Mussell, and hinted at in that of Robert Paul. It is nevertheless striking that Norris's will contains no religious sentiments and no personal bequests, other than mourning money to his immediate relatives. Nor are there any charitable ones. The wills of his colleagues at the petty sessions abound with expressions of piety, and with directions for the disposal of personal keepsakes (like Samuel Tyssen's 'largest and best diamond ring' to his son William), for bequests to a wide circle of relatives and even to servants (Alexander Garrett, Stephen Ram). Stephen Ram, Alexander Garrett and John Dekewer also made a number of bequests to charity. P.R.O., PROB 11/878 (Henry Norris); PROB 11/767 (Samuel Tyssen); PROB 11/751 (Stephen Ram); PROB 11/766 (Alexander Garrett); PROB 11/654 (John Oakey); PROB 11/881 (John Dekewer); PROB 11/903 (Ebenezer Mussell); PROB 11/877 (Robert Paul); PROB 11/915 (William Caslon).
  • 17. L. Hanson, Government and the Press 1695–1763 (1936), p. 68; Gentlemen's Magazine 1, p. 538.
  • 18. The drawing is reproduced in Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society 22 (1968), p. 28, and also in Isobel Watson, Hackney and Stoke Newington Past (1990), p. 28.
  • 19. The terms of Ainsworth's lease strongly suggest that the house was unsound. H. A.D., D/F/NOR/4/4. I am indebted to David Mander and Isobel Watson for drawing my attention to this document.
  • 20. I am indebted to Isobel Watson for this information. For Robert Ainsworth (16601743), see D.N.B.
  • 21. A sketch of the house, which was demolished in the 1860s to make way for development, is reproduced in Isobel Watson, Gentlemen in the building line (1989), p. 21.
  • 22. H.A.D., D/F/NOR/3/1. Isobel Watson describes it as 'A very early example of a highly developed form of building contract', Gentlemen, p. 116.
  • 23. G.L.R.O., P79/JN1/141.
  • 24. Cf. Landau's study of Kent justices which shows that in urban/urbanizing areas, it was the justices with least status who were most likely to act. Norma Landau, The justices of the peace, 1679–1760 (Berkeley, 1984), pp. 324–6.
  • 25. Thus it was Norris himself who was responsible for nominating John Dekewer to the Commission. B.L., Hardwicke Papers, Add. MS. 35603, ff. 229–232 (undated but c. 1751).
  • 26. H.A.D., D/F/TYS/12/1.
  • 27. For a more detailed picture of the work of these courts in this period, see J. M. Beattie, Crime and the Courts in England 1660–1800 (Oxford, 1986).
  • 28. B.L., Hardwicke Papers, Add. MS. 35603, ff. 229–232.
  • 29. Thus the Hackney petty sessions book occasionally minutes business relating to Bethnal Green (936), Bromley St. Leonard (919), Mile End (176, 885, 886, 890, 897, 937) and Stratford Bow (670, 702, 749, 811, 812, 859, 874, 899, 900, 907, 929).
  • 30. Thus in the autumn of 1740, Edward Batty (see index) commenced a prosecution in the King's Bench against John David Barbutt and William Crispe for an assault committed in Clapton. P.R.O., KB 10/25/1, Michaelmas 14 Geo. II, indt. 38.
  • 31. I am indebted for this information to John Styles.
  • 32. In the only other example known to the writer, that of the Kent justice Paul D'Aranda, the documents cover a single year; the Norris notebook and Hackney petty sessions minutes cover twelve. Two other Kent justices, Sir Wyndham Knatchbull and William Brockman, have also left justicing diaries together with brief notes of other sessions that they attended, but these notes do not amount to a full record of business transacted. Kent Archives Office, U442/045, U951/03, U951/04; B.L., Add. MSS. 42598, 42599. I am indebted to Norma Landau for these references.
  • 33. Elizabeth Crittall (ed), The justicing notebook of William Hunt 1744–1749 (Wiltshire Record Society, 1982). Elizabeth Silverthorne (ed), Deposition book of Richard Wyatt, JP, 1767–1776 (Surrey Record Society, 1978).
  • 34. The justicing notebook of William Hunt, p. 14.
  • 35. At common law, the theft of things annexed to the freehold (such as growing crops) was merely trespass. Only when the crop had been picked or harvested did the theft become larceny, the gravity of the offence then deriving, as in all larcenies, from the value of the goods stolen.
  • 36. A male labourer might earn between 9s. and 12s. a week at this time; even a skilled worker would only get between 10s. and 15s. a week. Women's wages, of course, would be even lower. George Rudé, Hanoverian London: 1714–1808 (1971), p. 88.
  • 37. It is difficult to believe that any charge for the theft of windfalls would have been sustainable, windfalls by definition being of little or no value. Some contemporaries may even have seen the taking of windfalls (like gleaning) as one of the legitimate perquisites of the poor.
  • 38. On the leniency commonly shown to female offenders both before and after conviction, see Beattie, Crime and the Courts, pp. 436–9.
  • 39. Ibid., pp. 424–8.
  • 40. Ibid., pp. 42–48.
  • 41. A number of other prosecutions (including one for murder) carried out at parish expense are also noted in the vestry minutes. The attorney used was Samuel Sadleir. P79/JN1/142, pp. 65, 122.
  • 42. On thieftaking conspiracies generally see Ruth Paley, 'Thieftakers in London in the age of the McDaniel gang' in Douglas Hay and Francis Snyder (eds) Policing and prosecution in Britain 1750–1850 (Oxford, 1989), pp. 301–341.
  • 43. Probably a generation younger than the Miles Nutbrown who appears in this volume on charges of assault and failing to maintain his family (127, 343, 996).
  • 44. The case is interesting, not just for the legal argument concerning the definition of a dwelling house, but because it illustrates some of the deficiencies of the Old Bailey Proceedings, which appears to give a full account of the evidence before recording the verdict but which gives no indication whatsoever that such a technicality was ever considered. H.A.D., H/LD/7/1, f. 35; O. B. Proc., January 1751, R v Nutbrown.
  • 45. G.L.R.O., P79/JN1/218.
  • 46. The vicar's memorandum book (which relates to a slightly earlier period), shows that he kept careful records of such affidavits. H.A.D., D/F/TYS/18.
  • 47. She was replaced by Mary Wasley (199). G.L.R.O., P79/JN1/141/180.
  • 48. Not to be confused with the more substantial Mermaid Tavern, with its own assembly rooms, bowling greens and extensive gardens, which was established on the opposite side of the road at some stage in the mid-eighteenth century. I am indebted to Isobel Watson for this information.
  • 49. William Robinson, The history and antiquities of the parish of Hackney, 2 vols. (London, 1842), vol. 1, pp. 78, 149; Benjamin Clarke, Glimpses of Ancient Hackney and Stoke Newington (London, 1894, reprinted 1986), p. 111.
  • 50. Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, MS. Y/IV/6/a.
  • 51. Hackney was something of an exception in the metropolitan area in that its court leet continued to meet. In practice, most constables and headboroughs elsewhere in urban Middlesex were appointed by the vestry and sworn in at petty sessions.
  • 52. Norma Landau, 'The laws of settlement and the surveillance of immigration in eighteenth-century Kent' in Continuity and Change, 3 (1988), pp. 391–420, and 'Regulation of immigration, economic structures, and definitions of the poor' in Historical Journal, 33, 3 (1990), pp. 541–572.
  • 53. Some were rated to the highways (payment of which did not confer rights of settlement). George Fox, summoned in 1731, is known to have had an apprentice (188, 233, 400, 464, 480, 731). Two of those nominated to the office of overseer of the poor in 1736 (a position only open to 'substantial householders') were certificated men (873). One of them, William Stokes, later rented lands to the value of £80 a year, and had served as surveyor of the highways (920, 684). I intend to write more fully about the use of the settlement laws in Hackney elsewhere.
  • 54. Such individuals were required to identify themselves by means of a pauper's badge, and since the churchwardens' accounts for this period include disbursements for the purchase of such badges, it is clear that they were worn in Hackney.
  • 55. It is perhaps instructive to compare this sum to the £500 left by Alexander Garrett for the apprenticeship of his own son. P.R.O., PROB 11/766.
  • 56. Her settlement examination reveals that she had been apprenticed by the parish to a hog butcher, and had subsequently worked as a servant. H.A.D., P/J/P/68.
  • 57. Thomas Hilliard's petition to the general/quarter sessions in 1733 makes it clear that the Hackney justices were imposing an arbitrary upper limit on the number of alehouse licenses to be granted. G.L.R.O., MSP/1733/Oct/78.
  • 58. William Robinson, The history and antiquities of the parish of Hackney (1842), p. 226.
  • 59. A prosecution brought for reasons of spite is, in the strict legal sense, merely vexatious. Only if the prosecution is pursued for reasons of spite in the full knowledge that the accusations are without foundation, does it become malicious.
  • 60. Note that Norris's account of the case draws attention to discrepancies in the prosecution evidence as given to him and as stated at the Old Bailey trial.
  • 61. On malicious prosecution, in general, and the obstacles to redress (particularly the refusal of a copy of indictment), see Douglas Hay, 'Prosecution and power, Malicious prosecution in the English courts, 1750–1850' in Hay and Snyder, Policing and prosecution, pp. 343–395.
  • 62. Occasional entries are in other hands (possibly two). One appears to be that of Samuel Sadleir, clerk of the petty sessions.
  • 63. Thus in 1748, John Poulson described how depositions were sometimes taken by himself, sometimes by his clerk and sometimes by attornies summoned for the purpose. It is not clear whether his clerk was an attorney or the clerk that he used in the course of his normal business transactions. P.R.O., KB1/9/2, Mich. 22 Geo. II, R v. Poulson and others, affdt. John Poulson 27 June 1748, re-sworn 24 October 1748.
  • 64. Perhaps W. Nelson, The office and authority of a justice of peace, which had reached its eleventh edition by 1736, or that by their colleague on the Middlesex bench, Nathaniel Blackerby, The justice of peace his companion, first published 1723.
  • 65. In neither case does the entry contain enough information from which to judge the correctness of his decision. The theft of fruit (22) would have been a felony if it had been stolen on an occasion subsequent to the picking; the value of the stolen tools (135), which was crucial to the distinction between felony and misdemeanour, is not given.
  • 66. For the greater part of the petty sessions book, this was Samuel Sadleir. The later entries (that is, all those from 1751) are by Richard Dann.
  • 67. H.A.D., P/J/P/68.
  • 68. Sir Thomas de Veil, Observations on the practice of a justice of the peace intended for such gentlemen as design to act for Middlesex and Westminster (London, 1747). Norris may well have been familiar with the content of the pamphlet, since it had apparently been circulating in manuscript form for many years before publication.
  • 69. On both occasions a single case produced five recognizances (279, 284).
  • 70. Landau's study of Kent justices similarly shows that documents resulting from returns to the sessions or assizes provide an imprecise and potentially extremely misleading picture of judicial activity. Landau, Justices, pp. 177–9, 183.
  • 71. B.L., Hardwicke papers, Add. MS. 35603, ff. 229–232.
  • 72. In 1732 they would have amounted to something in the region of 40s. for the work detailed in the notebook. A further £6-£7 would have been paid for all the petty sessions activities. These sums, of course, were technically payable to the clerk rather than to the justice.
  • 73. Some justices (including William Hunt) distributed such sums personally, or permitted the complainant to do so, but Norris ensured that the penalties were paid over to the churchwardens. Crittall (ed), The justicing notebook of William Hunt, entries 514, 516, 518, 519, 521, 523–9, 531–2, 534, 537, 540–2, 550, 567, 569; G.L.R.O., P79/JN1/218.
  • 74. No one seems to have thought it relevant to ask why the defendant should have been doing business with a man of known bad character in the first place.
  • 75. In most cases, including those destined for the Old Bailey, principals were usually bound in £20 with two additional sureties of £10. It will be noted that although Norris occasionally bound individuals for a lesser sum (1, 84, 193, 203, 315), his standard recognizance was £40 rather than £20 (30, 41, 43, 48, 63, 100, 110, 123, 143, 218, 228, 235, 241, 250, 256, 273, 279, 281, 305, 316, 333, 348) and in serious cases rose to £50 (35, 76), £80 (606), or even £100 (45, 302).