Wareham Court Leet




Prepared by T R Holland, Chimney Peeper, on behalf of the Court Leet of the Manor of Wareham; using material supplied by Mr Harry J S Clark, former Steward to the said Court and information from 'Dorset Customs, Curiosities & Country Lore' by Mary Brown, Ensign Publications 1990.  Picture; from the collection of Mr Hugh Elmes, Bailiff to the Court Leet.  Reproduced on the OPC site with the kind permission of the author.


The Court Leet of the Manor of Wareham is one of the few surviving remains of a once powerful feudal court system.  The word 'leet' is an ancient one and possibly derives from the Anglo-French word 'litte' meaning a list and the word is still in use in Scotland for a list of candidates for office.  The court leet would have dealt with everything within the Manor of Wareham concerned with local government and the maintenance of law and order.  Such courts originated in the century following the Norman Conquest some 800 years ago and in those days, two forms of this system of local government were in force:

Courts Baron were the automatic right of a Lord to settle disputes etc. and to aid in the administration of his estate, but they had no right to deal with crimes or punish offenders;

Courts Leet were the more powerful courts of criminal jurisdiction, granted by the King to one of his trusted Tenants-in-chief.

In those days, law and order was also self-administered by the 'Frankpledge' system, where people were responsible for the conduct of one another in groups of ten householders (hence the word 'tithe' meaning a tenth); if one offended then the other nine were held responsible.  When necessary, the 'Hue and Cry' system aided in the speedy apprehension of offenders.  With the establishment of democratic Parliament and local government control, the court leet system gradually lost its powers:

The court leet of Wareham convenes at the end of November and consists of the office-holders listed below; many of whom, in recent years, have followed in the footsteps of their forefathers as members of the court. 

The Lord of the Manor:  Mr J.D.C.Ryder who succeeded to the title in 1986, following his father, who had held title for 58 years.

The Steward:  Appointed by the Lord as his right-hand-man; quite literally the 'sty-ward', with the word sty in this case meaning 'hall'.

The Hayward:  Appointed by the Lord as responsible for 'enclosures and fences'; that is the so-called 'common land'. 

The Bailiff:  Appointed by the Lord to administer 'arrests and summonses' and, in practice, to supervise court matters. 

The Officers:  Appointed annually by the Jury as follows:

     Constables, to ensure law and order during court sessions. 

Aletasters, to check that a true pint and true quart are offered and to taste the quality of the ale. 

     Carniter, to check the freshness of the meat and poultry. 

Bread Weighers, to check the freshness and weight of the bread and to ensure a consistent two-pound loaf throughout the manor. 

Surveyors of Chimneys and Mantles (otherwise know as ‘chimney peepers’), to check that chimneys are swept clean; a measure introduced after the fire of Wareham in 1762, when a large part of the town was destroyed. 

     Scavengers, to ensure standards of hygiene within the ‘lanes and privies’ of the town, to guard against the spread of infectious disease. 

     Leather Sealer, to maintain the quality of leather goods. 


In addition to the above are the Foreman of the Jury and his Deputy, presiding over the nominal twelve Jurymen who are appointed by the Bailiff.

The current official functions of the court are the appointment of officers, the swearing in of the jury, the taking of presentments with respect to the common land, the town walls, the town pound and other matters of local concern, and, perhaps more importantly, maintaining the ancient and time-honoured traditions of the court.

The picture below shows a night in November from many years ago, with activities in full swing.  The aletaster holds one of the two ancient tankards used by the court, whilst the breadweigher on the right carries the scales.  Front centre sits one of the chimney peepers, complete with sweep's brush.  And a good time was had by all!




 Wareham Court Leet


During the latter part of November, nightly in Wareham and just after dark, a quaint band of men can be seen gathering outside of a hostelry.  Some are in top hats, some in bowlers, most are in some form of archaic dress and all are wearing a highly-polished brass medal suspended from a red ribbon.  Once inside the pub they merrily start their work, under the supervision of a tall man in a plus-four suit, whom they refer to as ‘Mr Bailiff’.  They check the quality of leathergoods, weigh a sample of the local bread, taste and report on the quality of the ale, sweep the pub chimney and so on; often levying fines to the Landlord for failing to maintain suitable standards.

These men are the Officers and Jury of the Wareham Court Leet; a present day survival of an ancient local court, which existed long before the current parallel systems of local and central government.  They are carrying out a ceremony handed down through the generations, in some cases from father to son, since the time of the Norman Conquest.

These courts were once held in most towns and villages in the country, presided over by the Lord of the Manor and dealt exclusively with local matters.  In particular, they addressed local government and policing issues such as trading standards and breaches of local rules. 

Sadly, most of these courts are now long-gone and most are not even remembered, although some 30-odd courts still exist in England today.  The survivors each take a very different form, as they are so ancient that there is no common organisation capable of enjoining some form of standardisation between them.  Even so, most courts have lost the majority of their powers, although the Royal Manors, such as the Royal Manor of Portland Court Leet and the New Forest Verderers still retain most of theirs. 

Wareham Court Leet follows a regular format, the origins of which are lost in the 'mists of time'. The Court meets nightly during the last week in November, from Monday to Thursday, and two pubs are inspected each night.  In the 'good old days' (we younger members are told!), the court dealt with three pubs on some nights.  That was when the 'Pure Drop' in West Street and the 'Lord Nelson' by St Martin's Church were still open.  What was it like in the 'good, good' old days when there were many more pubs in the town?!!  Even the olduns don't know the answer to that one!

On the Friday of the Court Leet week, the more serious business takes place when the Court sits in the Town Hall to assess the week's events and take 'presentments' from the Jury. 

The court adjourns at midday to the 'Black Bear' for lunch; generously provided by the Lord of the Manor in gratitude to his Officers and Jury for their faithful service throughout the year. 

And so another court year ends - although during that year other events are held, such as the Commons Inspection when members of the court are conveyed by tractor and trailer around the common-land before departing to a local hostelry for discussions and refreshments.  Various evenings also take place throughout the year, presenting awards to the landlords for achieving high standards in their public houses.  A Ladies Night takes place in January, when members of the Court thank their ladies for their support during the year and a Court Leet church service is held in October, when thanks are given to the Creator for the unrivalled gift of friendship and brotherhood afforded by such an association as ours. 

 The eight public houses in Wareham will be inspected during the last full week in November, from 7 p.m. nightly.  On the Monday night, the Horse and Groom and the Quay Inn are inspected, followed by the Antelope and the Duke of Wellington on the Tuesday, the King's Arms and the Railway Tavern on Wednesday and, finally, the Red Lion and Black Bear on the Thursday night.  The court sits on the Friday in the Council Chamber of the Town Hall at twelve o’clock noon (when the clock strikes thirteen!) and members of the public are welcome to attend.


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