Newcastle-under-Lyme: Administration of justice

Pages 39-42

A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 8. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1963.

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Administration of Justice

During the medieval period the preservation of the public peace within the borough was based on the system of frankpledge; in the 1590 charter specific reference is made to the ancient standing of the view of frankpledge. (fn. 1) The body responsible for holding the view seems to have been, in the 15th century at least, the great and small inquest, whose activities are occasionally recorded in the borough minutes. (fn. 2)

Under the 1590 charter the mayor was appointed a justice of the peace (fn. 3) and at the court of record then set up all trespasses committed within the borough or its precincts 'by force and arms' were dealt with at its three-weekly meetings. (fn. 4) At the same time the continuance of the leet jurisdiction or view of frankpledge was provided for, (fn. 5) so that there seems to have been some overlapping of the functions of the two courts. However, the court of record appears to have soon become a court for the recovery of debts and it is probable that misdemeanours and minor criminal offences were dealt with by the court leet which was still in existence in 1655. (fn. 6) As late as 1710 the borough council appointed a steward to preside at a meeting of the court. (fn. 7)

In 1594 the borough council set up courts of trial. (fn. 8) They were held four times yearly, were presided over by the mayor, and attended by the steward and all the aldermen, and thus appear to have been quarterly sessions of the peace. These arrangements were carried a step further by the 1664 charter which appointed the mayor and two capital burgesses as justices and thus gave a formal basis to the borough commission of the peace. (fn. 9) The capital burgesses were in practice chosen by the borough council and they with the mayor formed the borough court of Quarter Sessions, which was normally afforced by the recorder or steward as assessor. (fn. 10) It was held in 1835 that the county magistrates had concurrent jurisdiction with the borough magistrates but did not in practice exercise it. (fn. 11) By the same date petty sessions were being held every Monday. (fn. 12) The Municipal Corporation Commissioners considered that three magistrates were insufficient. They also recorded a current suspicion that the magistracy was animated by political bias. (fn. 13)

The Municipal Corporations Act (1835) preserved the borough commission of the peace and gave it a statutory basis. It was to consist of the mayor and his predecessor in office for one year after the termination of his mayoralty. (fn. 14) The borough council, however, thought two justices insufficient and in 1836 appointed three additional ones. (fn. 15) In 1958 there were six or seven magistrates who sat in turn, under the mayor, every week-day if necessary. They acted as licensing justices both for public houses and public entertainments. (fn. 16)

The Municipal Corporations Act did not empower the magistrates to sit as a court of Quarter Sessions and the old court met for the last time in April 1836. (fn. 17) It authorized the council, however, to petition for the re-establishment of the court and the council took advantage of this opportunity. Its petition to the King in Council was lodged in 1836 (fn. 18) and granted by patent in 1837, (fn. 19) when the new court sat for the first time under the recorder. (fn. 20) Thenceforth it has sat regularly except when lack of business has led to cancellation; in 1914, for example, it was reported that no meetings had been held for two and a half years. (fn. 21)

In the mid-19th century petty sessional courts were being held at the police office in High Street. (fn. 22) Quarter Sessions met at the Guildhall until 1953. Since then both Petty and Quarter Sessions have met at the court house next to the police station in Water Street. (fn. 23)

A borough coroner was appointed in 1837 under the Municipal Corporations Act. (fn. 24) The office survives.

In the sphere of civil actions, the court of record set up by the 1590 charter was empowered to determine actions for debt and contract up to £40 (fn. 25) (increased to £50 by the 1664 charter). (fn. 26) Small debts of less than 40s. were, however, at the first meeting of the town council after the receipt of the 1590 charter, transferred to the jurisdiction of a monthly court of conscience set up 'to hear and determine the causes of poor burgesses', though the charter apparently gave no authority for the creation of additional courts. (fn. 27) That may have been the reason why the existence of this court was brief, for in 1594 it was abolished by ordinance of the town council, (fn. 28) and actions for debts under 40s. were to be tried by a court of wager of law 'in the same manner and form as the same court was holden in this borough before our last grant [i.e. the 1590 charter] or confirmation'. (fn. 29) There exists apparently no other reference to this somewhat antiquated type of court with its archaic use of the oaths of compurgators in place of the usual forms of legal evidence.

The steward under the 1590 charter who, with the mayor and bailiffs, presided over the court of record received a fee of 40s. yearly for his attendance at the meetings of the court. (fn. 30) The person, often referred to as the learned steward, chosen for this office, would normally possess a legal qualification and in fact he was sometimes consulted by the council on matters calling for a knowledge of the law. (fn. 31) Although it appears that the creation of the office of steward was consequential upon the establishment of the court of record, there is mention of an official bearing that title in earlier records though his status and function are doubtful. In the early minute book, in 1556–7, there is reference to a steward of the mayor's court. (fn. 32) From 1590 the steward was chosen by the mayor, bailiffs, and burgesses, though their rights in this respect were later challenged by the Crown. (fn. 33)

By the beginning of the 19th century the court of record was falling into disuse, (fn. 34) and in 1835 it was reported that in the preceding six years only 27 actions had been instituted. (fn. 35) Under the Municipal Corporations Act of that year specific provision was made for the continuance of the court of which the judge was to be the recorder or such officer of the borough as had been designated in the granting charter. (fn. 36) The court was to be held under the same conditions and at the same times as before. (fn. 37)

Early in 1836 the borough council decided on the continuance of the court, as constituted by the 1590 charter, and to that end appointed two bailiffs who with the mayor and steward (or recorder)—or any two of them, the mayor or steward being one—should hold and be judges of the court. (fn. 38) With the reconstitution of the Quarter Sessions court in 1837 (fn. 39) under the presidency of the recorder, it was natural that that officer should be regarded as the presiding judge of the court of record. Nevertheless, the attempt to revive the ancient court was short-lived and in 1839, on the ground that the recorder was non-resident and could not be expected to attend to hear every petty case, the borough council decided against its continued existence. (fn. 40)

In 1847 a county court for Newcastle and the surrounding district was formed (fn. 41) and by 1851 was sitting monthly at the Guildhall. (fn. 42)

A town prison is first mentioned in 1490–1 and the serjeant was then its keeper. (fn. 43) In 1524–5 one of the serjeants (for by that time there were two) was still the keeper (fn. 44) and so it was in 1558–9. (fn. 45) In 1590 the bailiffs were declared to be responsible for the imprisonment, presumably in the borough gaol, of debtors. (fn. 46) The prison house, in 1612, was stated to be under the hall. In 1617 it is called the Stone House. (fn. 47) The Stone House apparently stood in High Street on the north side of its junction with the Ironmarket (fn. 48) and may have been so called in contrast to the brick or wooden buildings in the rest of the town. By 1628 the use of the Stone House as a prison seems to have ended as in that year the corporation leased the premises to Thomas Hunt, (fn. 49) but references to a common gaol or prison, of unspecified location, and its keeper are frequent in the late 17th century. (fn. 50) In 1612 a 'Cage', presumably a temporary lock-up for misdemeanants, is mentioned. (fn. 51)

Nothing further is known about a prison until 1799 when it was decided to erect a prison for offenders in the workhouse garden in the Higherland (fn. 52) and this had been built by 1802 when it was referred to as a house of correction. (fn. 53) In 1809, when the workhouse had been leased to the vestry, (fn. 54) the governor of the workhouse was given charge of a prison for debtors. Criminals and all other prisoners were to be in the charge of the constables, who were to have no access to the workhouse. (fn. 55) In 1811 a plan for the erection of a wall to enclose the prison courtyard was approved and also for the building of an additional room and two cells, the cost of the work amounting to £164. (fn. 56) In 1817 William Whitaker, master of the workhouse, was appointed keeper of the prison at a yearly salary of £5, which in 1826 the borough was asking the county treasurer to pay. (fn. 57)

The situation of the prison in the Higherland had one serious disadvantage. In order to reach it from many parts of the borough it was necessary to pass through an isolated part of Stoke parish, (fn. 58) where the borough constables had no power to act, with the result that rescues of prisoners on their way to prison took place. (fn. 59)

The prison consisted of four cells described in 1819 as accommodating 8 prisoners (fn. 60) and in 1833 16. (fn. 61) The room for debtors was seldom required; there were only 2 in 1818, 1 in 1830, none in 1831, and 2 in 1832. (fn. 62) An allowance of 6d. a day for the maintenance of the prisoners was received from the county treasurer. (fn. 63) In the early 19th century the prison seems to have been nothing more than a place of temporary confinement pending trial by Quarter Sessions or the magistrates. (fn. 64)

In 1835 the Report on Municipal Corporations animadverted upon the state of the two prisons. (fn. 65) The prison for criminal offenders, attached to the workhouse, was described as small and inconvenient; it consisted of four small rooms with unglazed windows and without fire-places or means of heating. The building was so insecure that constables had to be placed outside to prevent escapes and instances were known of prisoners breaking out through the roof. This lack of security probably accounted for the committal of prisoners before and after trial to the county gaol. (fn. 66) The debtors' prison, also attached to the workhouse, was in somewhat better condition, having fire-places and glazed windows in its two rooms, and a yard for exercise. (fn. 67)

Although in 1838, as a result possibly of the report, a revolving chevaux de frise was ordered to be put up around the interior of the prison yard, (fn. 68) the prison was probably still ineffective. (fn. 69) In 1840, on receipt of a memorial from the magistrates on the insufficiency of the prison accommodation, the council agreed to the provision of an adequate prison with twenty cells, as well as temporary lock-ups. (fn. 70) In the same year it was decided to acquire from the Duke of Sutherland land in Friars' Wood on which to erect a new gaol. Government sanction for its building was refused in 1842 (fn. 71) and, although in 1843–4 £58 was spent on the gaol and the maintenance of the prisoners, (fn. 72) it may be surmised that shortly afterwards the borough ceased to be responsible for the custody of offenders apart from those accommodated in the lock-up attached to the police office in the High Street.

From the time when the minute books begin a serjeant was annually elected, (fn. 73) and, although his duties were not particularized, his function was no doubt that of executing the judicial orders of the great and small inquest. He was required to find pledges for his good conduct, and in 1490–1 he was placed under oath to guard the prisoners and gaol under penalty of £5. (fn. 74) In the same year the practice of appointing two constables began. (fn. 75) From 1501–2 two serjeants were regularly selected, known, from 1507, as the town serjeant and the mayor's serjeant, (fn. 76) and it was to the former in 1524–5 that the custody of the town gaol was assigned. (fn. 77)

In 1596 the borough council settled the form of oath to be administered to the serjeants and constables and this is informative of the duties to be performed by these officers. The serjeants were responsible for levying distraints, serving court orders, and guarding the prisoners. (fn. 78) The constables, besides being required to collect subsidies and to provide post horses for royal messengers, were to assist in the preservation of the peace by raising the hue and cry against, and making search for, felons, and by setting the watch. (fn. 79) By 1599, however, the custody of prisoners seems to have been removed from the serjeants and transferred to the bailiffs. (fn. 80) In addition to the part played by these officers in the maintenance of law and order, the age-old obligation of the burgesses to give their aid when required remained. Thus in 1607 every burgess was required to provide himself with a club 'or good balke staffe' and to be ready upon all occasions to assist the authorities in maintaining the king's peace. (fn. 81)

During the 18th century the duty of maintaining order remained with the serjeants and constables who, as elected part-time officers, progressively found the task beyond them. It is true that in 1734 (fn. 82) the borough council relieved their burden to a limited extent by adding to the bellman's duties the taking up of vagrants, and that by 1736 (fn. 83) there existed a night bellman, but it was not until 1819 that the Improvement Commissioners, then appointed, were empowered to employ watchmen. (fn. 84) They do not seem to have taken speedy advantage of the power thus given, and it was not until 1831 that four night patrols, furnished with staves, lanterns, and rattles were appointed. These operated, with some intermission, until 1834. (fn. 85)

In that year the first step towards the establishment of a permanent police force was taken with the appointment of a full-time constable at a salary of £150 yearly and of two under-constables at £1 weekly. (fn. 86) Even so, the town clerk stated in the following year that the police were too few and incompetent. (fn. 87)

The Watch Committee, (fn. 88) set up under the Municipal Corporations Act, (fn. 89) reappointed the existing police officer, Isaac Cottrill, and two constables. (fn. 90) Cottrill actively assisted in the suppressing of the Chartist riots in 1842, (fn. 91) but was subsequently found to have misapplied funds voted for the fire brigade, and in 1849 was dismissed for drunkenness. (fn. 92)

In 1858 the force, which had been threatened with extinction in 1843, (fn. 93) consisted of a superintendent and four constables, (fn. 94) which was criticized then (fn. 95) and later (fn. 96) by the Home Office as inadequate. By 1874 it numbered 15, (fn. 97) by 1881 17, (fn. 98) and by the beginning of the present century 18. (fn. 99) The extension of the borough in 1932 called for an expansion of the force which had risen to 58 in 1938. (fn. 100) In 1947 the county council became the police authority. (fn. 101)

In the mid-19th century the police office stood in High Street. (fn. 102) A new police station was opened in 1936 in Merrial Street, (fn. 103) and the old building pulled down soon after to make way for Lancaster Building. In 1939 a new station at Chesterton was approved, on the completion of which the police were to vacate Chesterton Hall, previously used as a police station. (fn. 104)


  • 1. Pape, Tudor and Stuart Newcastle, 63.
  • 2. Pape, Med. Newcastle, 176, 180, 183, 184, 187–9.
  • 3. Ibid. 62.
  • 4. Ibid. 63.
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. Ibid. 327.
  • 7. Corp. Order Bk. 1669–1712, f. 151b.
  • 8. Pape, Tudor and Stuart Newcastle, 216, 225.
  • 9. C 66/3069, no. 5. The min. bks. of the court and of its successor from 1664 to 1890 are in the custody of the Boro. Mus.
  • 10. Rep. Com. Mun. Corps. H.C. 116, p. 1954 (1835), xxv.
  • 11. Ibid.
  • 12. Changed to Thursday by 1851: White, Dir. Staffs. (1851).
  • 13. Rep. Com. Mun. Corps. pp. 1954, 1959.
  • 14. 5 & 6 Wm. IV, c. 76; Mun. Corps. (Consolidation) Act, 45 & 46 Vic. c. 50.
  • 15. Boro. Counc. Min. Bk. 1835–44, p. 35.
  • 16. Counc. Year Bk. (1957–8).
  • 17. Q.S. Min. Bk. 1834–46.
  • 18. Boro. Counc. Min. Bk. 1835–44, p. 76.
  • 19. C 66/4509/4/17.
  • 20. Staffs. Advertiser, 18 Nov. 1837.
  • 21. Ibid. 31 Oct. 1914.
  • 22. P.O. Dir. Staffs. (1850).
  • 23. Ex inf. the town clerk; Q.S. Min. Bks.
  • 24. Boro. Counc. Min. Bk. 1835–44, p. 114.
  • 25. Pape, Tudor and Stuart Newcastle, 62–63.
  • 26. Pape, Restoration Govt. and the Corp. of Newcastleunder-Lyme, 27.
  • 27. Pape, Tudor and Stuart Newcastle, 208.
  • 28. Ibid. 216.
  • 29. Ibid.
  • 30. Ibid. 216, 284. Pape's statement (p. 73) that the steward was to have 40s. travelling expenses is probably due to a misconception of the word 'travell' (meaning travail) in the 1594 minute (p. 216). When a steward lived outside the borough, as in the case of the regicide John Bradshaw of Congleton, the council agreed to defray his travelling expenses (p. 324).
  • 31. Ibid. 288, 292.
  • 32. Ibid. 193.
  • 33. See p. 26.
  • 34. The min. bks. of the court from 1715 to 1830 are in the Boro. Mus. Four folios of minutes for the year 1635 have been inserted at the beginning of Corp. Order Bk. 1669–1712.
  • 35. Rep. Com. Mun. Corps. p. 1954.
  • 36. 5 & 6 Wm. IV, c. 76, S. 118.
  • 37. Ibid.
  • 38. Boro. Counc. Min. Bk. 1835–44, p. 22.
  • 39. See p. 39.
  • 40. N. Staffs. Mercury, 7 Dec. 1839.
  • 41. Lond. Gaz. 1847, p. 1012.
  • 42. White, Dir. Staffs. (1851).
  • 43. Pape, Med. Newcastle, 176.
  • 44. Pape, Tudor and Stuart Newcastle, 182.
  • 45. Ibid. 194.
  • 46. Ibid. 209.
  • 47. Ibid. 248, 255.
  • 48. Ibid. 312; and see 18th-cent. print in Boro. Mus.
  • 49. Pape, Tudor and Stuart Newcastle, 279.
  • 50. Q.S. Min. Bk. 1664–1717, ff. 36a, 51b, et passim.
  • 51. Pape, Tudor and Stuart Newcastle, 248.
  • 52. Corp. Order Bk. 1768–1800, f. 185a.
  • 53. Q.S. Min. Bk. 1718–1811, f. 231a.
  • 54. See p. 33.
  • 55. Corp. Order Bk. 1800–25, p. 128.
  • 56. Ibid. pp. 141, 142, 144.
  • 57. Q.S. Min. Bk. 1811–27, ff. 22a, 69a.
  • 58. See plate facing p. 5.
  • 59. Boro. Counc. Min. Bk. 1785–1833, p. 107.
  • 60. Returns of Gaols, 1818, H.C. 135, pp. 42–43 (1819), xvii.
  • 61. Returns of several Places of Confinement, H.C. 484, p. 39 (1833), xxviii.
  • 62. Returns of Gaols, 1818, 42–43; Returns of Places of Confinement which do not come under the Gaol Act, H.C. 485, p. 70 (1833), xxviii, which contains a plan of the prison.
  • 63. Returns of Places of Confinement, 70.
  • 64. Ibid.
  • 65. Rep. Com. Mun. Corps, p. 1955.
  • 66. Ibid.
  • 67. Ibid.
  • 68. Boro. Counc. Min. Bk. 1835–44, p. 149.
  • 69. 3rd Rep. of Inspectors of Prisons, H.C. 141, p. 317 (1837–8), xxx, showing no prisoners. In subsequent reports the prison is not mentioned.
  • 70. Boro. Counc. Min. Bk. 1835–44, p. 206.
  • 71. Ibid. pp. 236, 291, 292, 301.
  • 72. Rep. Sel. Cttee. on Burdens affecting Real Property, appendix to mins. of evidence, H.C. 411–xi, p. 99 (1846), vi (2).
  • 73. Pape, Med. Newcastle, passim.
  • 74. Ibid. 176.
  • 75. Ibid.
  • 76. Ibid. 187, 188.
  • 77. Pape, Tudor and Stuart Newcastle, 182.
  • 78. Ibid. 221.
  • 79. Ibid. 220.
  • 80. Ibid. 225.
  • 81. Ibid. 234.
  • 82. Corp. Order Bk. 1712–67, f. 103a.
  • 83. Ibid. f. 110a.
  • 84. 59 Geo. III, c. 71 (local and personal).
  • 85. Boro. Mus., Improvement Commrs.' Min. Bk.
  • 86. Boro. Counc. Min. Bk. 1825–35, p. 197.
  • 87. Rep. Com. Mun. Corps, p. 1954
  • 88. See p. 28.
  • 89. 5 & 6 Wm. IV, c. 76.
  • 90. Staffs. Advertiser, 9 Jan. 1836.
  • 91. Boro. Mus., Watch Cttee. Min. Bk.
  • 92. Ibid.
  • 93. Boro. Counc. Min. Bk. 1835-44, pp. 322, 323; N. Staffs. Mercury, 21 Jan. 1843.
  • 94. Watch Cttee. Min. Bk.
  • 95. Ibid.
  • 96. Ibid.
  • 97. Return of Expenditure on Police, H.C. p. 370 (1822), liv.
  • 98. Newcastle Guardian, 10 Dec. 1881.
  • 99. Repn. to Local Govt. Bd. (1901), p. 11.
  • 100. Evening Sentinel, 19 Oct. 1937.
  • 101. Police Act, 1946, 9 & 10 Geo. VI, c. 46.
  • 102. White, Dir. Staffs. (1851); R. Malabar, Plan of Newcastle, c. 1860.
  • 103. Watch Cttee. Min. Bk.
  • 104. Evening Sentinel, 12 Aug. 1939.