Book 2, Ch. 2: Summary of civil government

Pages 533-541

A New History of London Including Westminster and Southwark. Originally published by R Baldwin, London, 1773.

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In this section


Containing a summary view of the civil government of the city of London.

From the particulars contained in the preceding history, and from the charters and other public acts in the Appendix, the reader will be able to form a general idea of the constitution of the corporation of London: but as it may be more satisfactory to see the whole under one connected view, the corporate government of this great and opulent city in its present state, is briefly as follows. The liberties, or those parts of this city which are subject to its jurisdiction, and lie without the walls of London, are bounded on the east, in Whitechapel, the Minories, and Bishopsgate, by bars; which were formerly posts and chains: on the north they are bounded in the same manner in Pickaxstreet, at the end of Fan-alley, and in St. John's-street: on the west, by bars in Holborn, at the east end of Middle-row; and at the west end of Fleet-street by the gate called Temple-bar: on the south we may include the jurisdiction which the city holds on the river Thames and over the borough of Southwark; to which the city of London has an undoubted right by charter.

Bounds of the city liberties.

Corporation government; Court of common council.

The city is divided into 26 wards, each of them under the jurisdiction of an alderman, chosen by the free inhabitants at large, in assemblies termed wardmotes; out of which body of aldermen, one is annually elected to be the supream magistrate over the whole city on Michaelmas-day, and who enters on his high office the 9th of November following (fn. 1). The government of the city bears a general resemblance to that of the nation; the lord-mayor and aldermen being, in their corporate capacity, answerable to the king and house of lords: the common-council consists of 236 deputies from the several wards, chosen annually by wardmotes on St. Thomas's-day (fn. 2). The resemblance indeed fails in one particular, as the common-council do not like the house of commons fit and transact business as a separate body, but together with the lord-mayor and aldermen; these three authorities uniting to compose the full court of commoncouncil, or legislative body of the corporation. They assemble in Guildhall, and annually appoint committees out of their body for the management of several departments of the city affairs: the lord-mayor may call courts whenever he pleases, but he is obliged to call four in a year; and their general business is to make bye laws for the due government of the city, to the observance of which every citizen is bound. The commissioners of sewers, the town clerk, with some other officers, are in the appointment of this court.

Lord Mayor.

Though the office of lord-mayor is elective, yet it may in some measure be said to be perpetual; for his authority ceaseth not on the demise of the king, as that of all commission-officers do: in such cases, the lord-mayor of London is said to be the principal officer of the kingdom, and takes his place in the privycouncil until the new king is proclaimed. His powers are very extensive; he is the king's representative in the civil government of the city; first commissioner of the lieutenancy; perpetual coroner and escheator within the city and liberties of London and borough of Southwark; chief justice of oyer and terminer and gaol delivery of Newgate; judge of the courts of wardmote at the election of aldermen; conservator of the rivers Thames and Medway; perpetual commissioner in all affairs relating to the river Lea; and chief butler of the kingdom at all coronations.

Lord-Mayor's court.

The lord-mayor's court is a court of record, held before the lord-mayor, aldermen and recorder, every Tuesday in Guildhall; wherein actions of debt, trespass, attachments, covenants, &c. arising within the city and liberties, of any value may be tried, and actions from the sheriffs' court removed hither, before the jury be sworn. It is also a court of chancery or equity, respecting affairs transacted in the city and liberties; and gives relief when judgment is obtained in the sheriffs' court, for more than the just debt. Foreign attachments are tried in this court; for by the custom of London, if any plaint in London be affirmed against a man, and he is returned nibil; if the plaintiff can find any man within the city, who is indebted to the defendant, this debt may be attached in his hands (fn. 3). It is so far a recommendation of this court that an action may be entered here for four pence, and brought to trial in 14 days time for 30 shillings. In short, this is the most extensive court of the kingdom; for all that is cognizable in the several courts of England are so here.

The juries for trying causes in this, and the sheriffs-courts, are by the several courts of wardmote annually returned at Christmas, when each ward, according to custom, appoint a sufficient number of persons to serve on the said juries for certain months in rotation through the year.


The title of dignity, alderman, is of Saxon original, answering to that of earl; and from hence we may account for the reason why the aldermen and commonalty of London were called barons after the conquest. These magistrates are properly the subordinate governors of their respective wards under the lordmayor's jurisdiction: and they originally held their aldermanries either by inheritance or purchase; at which time the wards changed their names as often as their governors or aldermen. The oppressions, to which the citizens were subject from such a government, put them upon means to abolish the perpetuity of that office; and they brought it to an annual election. But that manner of election being attended with inconveniencies, and becoming a continual source of contention among the citizens; the parliament, 17 Rich. II. enacted, that the aldermen of London should continue in their several offices during life, or good behaviour: and so it still continues, though the manner of election has several times varied. These high officers constitute a second part of the city legislature when assembled in a corporate capacity; and exercise an executive power in their respective wards. The aldermen who have past the chair, or served the office of lord-mayor, are justices of the quorum, and all the other aldermen are justices of the peace.

Court of Aldermen.

The court of lord-mayor and aldermen is a court of record, wherein is lodged a great part of the executive power: all leases and other instruments that pass the city seal are executed by them; the assize of bread ascertained, contests relating to water-courses, lights, and party-walls, adjusted; and the city officers suspended or punished according to the notoriety of their offences. This court has not only a right of fixing their several taxes, with the approbation of the privy council; but also a power of disposing of most of the places belonging to the city officers: and of electing annually eleven overseers, or rulers of the fraternity of watermen.

Sheriffs.; Sheriffs court.

The office of sheriff, i. e. shire reeve, governor of the shire or county, is an office of great antiquity, trust and authority. The lord-mayor and citizens of London have the shrievalty of London and Middlesex in fee by charter; and two sheriffs are annually elected by them, for whom they are to be answerable. According to Lord Coke, a sheriff is said to have triplicem custodiam, viz. vitæ justiciæ, vitæ legis, & vitæ reipublicæ. Vitæ justiciæ, to serve process, and to return indifferent juries for the trial of mens lives, liberties, lands and goods; vitæ legis to execute process and make execution, which is the life of the law; and vitæ reipublicæ to keep the peace. If one of the sheriffs of London die, the survivor cannot act until another is appointed; for there must be two sheriffs for London, which is a city and a county, though they make but one sheriff for the county of Middlesex (fn. 4). Any citizen may be chosen alderman, before he has served the office of sheriff; but he must pass through that office before he can be lord-mayor: the sheriffs are chosen on Midsummer-day, and enter into the office on Michaelmas-day. They hold a court at Guildhall every Wednesday and Friday, for actions entered at Wood-street compter; and on Thursdays and Saturdays for those entered at the Poultry compter; of which the sheriffs being judges, each has his assistant, or deputy, who are called the judges of those courts; before whom are tried actions of debt, trespass, covenant, &c.

There are several officers of great trust and dignity under the corporation; the principal of which are these.


The recorder is a counsellor experienced in the law, chosen by the lord-mayor and aldermen for their instruction and assistance in matters of justice and proceedings according to law; he sits at the right hand of the lord-mayor in the court of common-council and all other courts, taking place of all the aldermen below the mayoralty. The recorder is the mouth of the city, pronouncing the sentences and judgments of the courts therein; he delivers all addresses to the king from the corporation, and is the first officer in precedence that is paid a salary. He is one of the justices of Oyer and Terminer, and a justice of peace of the quorum (fn. 5); for putting the laws in execution to preserve the peace and government of the city.

Chamberlain.; Chamberlain's court.

The office of Chamberlain, is an appointment of great trust; he is chosen annually on Midsummer-day, though he is never displaced unless some great cause of complaint appear against him. He is the city treasurer; he receives and pays all the money belonging to the corporation, for which he annually accounts to the proper auditors; and has the keeping of all bonds and securities taken by the city, with the counter parts of city leases: at his first election therefore he gives large security for the fidelity of his conduct. The chamberlain attends every morning at his office in Guildhall, to enroll and turn over apprentices, to decide all differences between them and their masters, and to admit all persons duly qualified into the freedom of the city. It has been usual for the crown to appoint the chamberlain of London receiver of the land tax in the city; but for some reasons not easy to assign, it was withdrawn when Sir Stephen Theodore Janssen was appointed to the office: though this gentleman's well known scrupulous integrity and honour give sufficient cause to suspect, no very good reason can be given for the slight passed on him.

Common serjeant.

The common serjeant is to attend the lord-mayor and court of aldermen on court-days, and to be in council with them, on all occasions, within and without the liberties of the city. He is to take care of orphans' estates, and to sign their indentures, before their passing the lord-mayor and court of aldermen.


The town clerk, or common clerk, has the custody of the original charters and other records of the city, wherein he registers the acts and proceedings of the corporation. He attends the lord-mayor and aldermen at their courts, and signs all their public instruments. The town clerk and the common-serjeant take place or rank according to their seniority.

City remembrancer.

The city remembrancer is a kind of nomenclator; his duty being to attend the lord-mayor and put him in mind of the rotation of his business, with the days of public appearance, &c. he also waits at the parliament house during the sessions, and reports their proceedings to the lord-mayor.

Sword bearer.; Common hunt.; Common crier.; Water bailiss.

The lord-mayor has four esquires belonging to his houshold: 1. the sword bearer, who carries the city sword before him on all public occasions; 2. the common hunt, who has the care of the pack of hounds belonging to the lordmayor and citizens, and attends them in hunting in those grounds, to which they are authorised by charter; 3. the common-crier, to whom and the serjeant at arms, it belongs to summon all executors and administrators of freemen to appear, and to bring in inventories of the personal estates of freemen, within two months after their decease: and he is to have notice of the appraisements. He is also to attend the lord-mayor on set days, and at the courts held by the mayor and aldermen. 4. The water-bailiff; whose office is to look after the preservation of the river Thames, against all encroachments; and to look after the fishermen for the preservation of the young fry. For that end there are juries for each county, that hath any part of it lying on the sides or shores of the said river; which juries, summoned by the water-bailiff at certain times, inquire into all offences relating to the river and the fish; and make their presentments accordingly.

These four officers, with the common-serjeant and city remembrancer, purchase their places: the subordinate officers under the lord-mayor, with the servants allotted him, are suitable to the dignity of the chief magistrate of so opulent a city; but are too many in number, as well as of too little importance in a general view, to be enumerated here.

Beside the courts already mentioned there are others held in the city of London as under.

Court of Hustings.

The court of hustings is the supream court of judicature in the city of London; as that of the common-council is of its legislature. It is a very antient court of record, being of Saxon original (fn. 6); where all lands and tenements, rents and services, within the city and liberties of London, are pleadable, in two hustings; the one called husting of a plea of land, the other husting of common-pleas, which are held distinctly. The judges of this court are the lordmayor and sheriffs for the time being, who are assisted by the recorder in all cases of consequence: the judges sit on the Monday and Tuesday every week; and the pleas are held distinctly, one week for pleas meerly real, and the next week for actions mixed.

Common Halls.

In this court on Midsummer-day the livery of the respective companies chuse their sheriffs, chamberlain, two auditors of the chamber and bridge house accounts, two bridge masters, and four ale conners. Here also the livery on Michaelmas-day return two aldermen to the court of lord-mayor and aldermen, for them to chuse a lord-mayor, for the year following (fn. 7). For the forms of these elections see Appendix No. LIII. and p. 282 ante.

Court of Orphans.

The court of orphans is held before the lord-mayor and aldermen of the city of London; who are guardians to the children of all freemen of London, that are under the age of twenty one at the time of the decease of their fathers. The common-serjeant of the city is the only person intrusted by the court of aldermen to take accounts and inventories of freemen's estates; and the youngest attorney of the mayor's court, being clerk to that of the orphans, is appointed to take securities for their several portions, in the name of the chamberlain of London; who for this purpose is a sole corporation of himself, for the service of the said orphans. A recognizance or bond, therefore, made to him upon the account of an orphan, shall, by the custom of London, descend to his successor; which is hardly known elsewhere.

The custom of orphanage is one of the most important of the customs of London; and it has been resolved that there has been a court of orphans time out of mind in London (fn. 8). By the custom of London a freeman's widow may require a third part of his personal estate, after all incumbrances are discharged; his children are intitled to another third part thereof; and he may dispose of the remaining third part by his will. If he leaves no children, his widow may require a moiety of his personal estate. If a citizen dies without a will, administration shall be granted to his wife, who may claim one third part by the custom; one third part must be divided among the children; and the remaining third part between the wife and children: in this case the widow is generally allowed two thirds of this last third part.

When a freeman of London dies, and leaves children in their minority, the clerk of the parish is to give in their names to the common-crier, who is thereupon immediately to summon the widow, or executor, to appear before the court of lord-mayor and aldermen, to bring in an inventory of, and give security for, the testator's estate; for which, two months time is commonly allowed: in case of non-appearance, or refusal of security, the lord-mayor may commit the contumacious executor to Newgate; and the courts at Westminster will not release such person (fn. 9).

Justice hall court at the Old-Bailey.

The justice hall court is held by the king's commission of Oyer and Terminer, at Justice-hall in the Old-Bailey, eight times a year, for trying criminals, for crimes committed within the city of London and county of Middlesex. The judges of this court are, the lord-mayor, aldermen that are past the chair, and the recorder; who on all such occasions are attended by both the sheriffs, and generally by one or more of the national judges. All offences committed in the city are tried by a jury of citizens; and those committed in the county, by one of the county.

Court of Conscience.

The court of requests, or court of conscience, is a court to determine all disputes between citizens where the debt is under 40 s. This court is of great use to persons who have small debts owing to them, which they could not otherwise recover without entering into expensive proceedings; and in this point of view it would be still more serviceable if its cognizance were inlarged: it is also of great assistance to such poor persons who are not able to pay a small debt at once, as a latitude is in such case given of paying it into the court in portions suitable to the debtor's circumstances. The lord-mayor and court of aldermen appoint monthly such aldermen and commoners to sit as commissioners in this court as they think fit, any three of whom compose a court, kept in Guildhall every Wednesday and Saturday, from eleven till two o'clock, to hear and determine such cases as are brought before them.

In this court a cause may be brought and determined for the value of tenpence, viz. sixpence for the plaint and summons, and four-pence for the order: if the defendant does not appear the second court day after the summons, an attachment may be awarded against him; on neglect or refusal then to appear, he will be committed to prison.

Court of Escheator

The court of escheator is held before the lord-mayor, he being perpetual escheator within the city; or before his deputy: to him all original writs of Diem clausit extremum, Mandamus Devenerunt, Melius inquirend', &c. are directed to find an office for the king, after the death of his tenant who held by knight's service. The escheator may also find an office for treason, felony, &c.

Coroner's court.

The lord-mayor being perpetual coroner of the city, his court is held before him, or his deputy, who is to enquire into the cause of the death of any person, that is supposed to have come to an untimely end: as he is likewise into the escape of the murderer; and concerning found treasure, diamonds, and wrecks at sea.

Court of conservancy.

The court of conservancy is yearly held eight times before the lord-mayor, at such places and times as he shall appoint within the respective counties of Middlesex, Essex, Kent and Surry: in which several counties he has a power of summoning juries, who for the better preservation of the fishery of the river Thames, and regulation of the fishermen therein, are upon oath to make inquisition of all offences committed in and upon the said river from Staines-bridge in the West, to Yenfleet in the East.

Court of wardmote.

A wardmote answers to folkmote among the Saxons, or plebiscitum among the Romans; and is defined to be an assembly of the whole people, i. e. free citizens of one ward, duly summoned by the lord-mayor, and held before the aldermen of the ward or his deputy; to correct disorders, remove annoyances, and to promote the common interest of the ward. In this city, parishes are as towns, and wards as hundreds; wherefore this court resembles that of the Leet in the county: for, as the latter derives its authority from the county court, so does the former from that of the lord-mayor (fn. 10); as is manifest by the annual precept issued by the lord-mayor to the several aldermen, for holding their respective wardmotes on St. Thomas's-day, for the election of proper officers in each ward.

Court of hallmote.

The hallmote is that court which each of the city companies keep in their respective halls for the transaction of their private affairs.


Pie-powder-court, is the vulgar name of a court, properly, pipoudre, from pied and poudreux, which is held by the lord-mayor and the steward during Bartholomew-fair in the city of London, to administer justice between buyers and sellers; and for the redress of disorders committed there. It is so called from the dusty feet of the suitors, or according to Sir Edward Coke, because justice there is done as speedily as dust can fall from the foot: but another ingenious etymology is given, from pied puldreaux, a pedlar in old French, and therefore signifying a court held for such petty chapmen as resort to fairs and markets; to which places this court is incident (fn. 11).

To the above which are properly city courts, may be added two other courts held within the city, though exempt from its jurisdiction; as under.

St.Martin le Grand court.

The court of St Martin le grand belonging to the liberty of that name, and subject to the dean and chapter of Westminster. It is a court of record, held weekly on Wednesdays, for the trial of all personal actions whatsoever; the leading process is a capias against the body, or an attachment against the goods; so that a man's goods may be seized upon in his own house, if his person is not secured before; which is according to the practice of all antient liberties or franchises.

Tower court.

The court of the Tower; which is a court of record held by prescription within the verge of the city, on Great Tower-hill, by a steward appointed by the constable of the Tower of London: by whom are tried actions of debt for any sum, damage, and trespass.

As a conclusion to this chapter it will be proper to give the oath every person is obliged to take on his admission to the freedom of London; as it was al ered by the 11 Geo. I. c. 18 §. 19. for which alterations see the Appendix No. LIII.

Freeman's oath.

"Ye shall swear, that ye shall be good and true to our Sovereign Lord King George, and to the heirs of our said Sovereign Lord the king. Obeisant and obedient ye shall be to the mayor and ministers of this city; the franchises and customs thereof ye shall maintain, and this city keep harmless in that which in you is. Ye shall be contributory to all manner of charges within the city, as summons, watches, contributions, taxes, tallages, lot and scot, and to all other charges, bearing your part, as a freeman ought to do. Ye shall colour no foreigners goods under or in your name, whereby the king, or this city might or may lose their customs or advantages. Ye shall take none apprentice for any less term than for seven years, without fraud or deceit: and within the first year ye shall cause him to be enrolled, or else pay such fine as shall be reasonably imposed upon you for omitting the same; and after his term's end, within convenient time (being required) ye shall make him free of this city, if he have well and truly served you. Ye shall also keep the king's peace in your own person. Ye shall know no gatherings, conventicles, or conspiracies made against the king's peace, but ye shall warn the mayor thereof, or let it to your power. All these points and articles ye shall well and truly keep, according to the laws and customs of this city to your power. So God you help."


  • 1. For the manner of electing the lord-mayor of London; see p. 283, ante.
  • 2. The common-council men of each ward are allotted according to the following proportions.
    Aldersgate 8
    Aldgate 6
    Bassishaw 4
    Billingsgate 10
    Bishopsgate 14
    Breadstreet 12
    Bridge within 15
    Bridge without 0
    Broad-street 10
    Candlewick 8
    Castle-Baynard 10
    Cheap 12
    Coleman-street 6
    Cordwainer 8
    Cornhill 6
    Cripplegate 12
    Dowgate 8
    Farringdon within 17
    Farringdon without 16
    Langbourn 10
    Lime-street 4
    Portsoken 5
    Queenhithe 6
    Tower 12
    Vintry 9
    Walbrook 8
    Total 236
  • 3. Bohun's Privilegia Londini, in loco.
  • 4. Jacob. For the manner of electing sheriffs vid. p. 283 ante.
  • 5. Jacob.
  • 6. Vid. p. 19, ante.
  • 7. Bohun's Privilegia Londini, in loco.
  • 8. Vid. p. 83, and 133, ante.
  • 9. Bohun's Privilegia Londini, in loco.
  • 10. Bohun's Privilegia, Londini, in loco.
  • 11. Jacob, in voce.