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
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 1880s courts leet no longer imposed fines;
1925 the 'Law of Property Act' abolished many manorial rights; and, finally
in 1977 court leet functions were further
reduced to their current level during local government reorganisation.
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:
J.D.C.Ryder who succeeded to the title in 1986, following his father, who had
held title for 58 years.
Appointed by the Lord as his right-hand-man; quite literally the 'sty-ward',
with the word sty in this case meaning 'hall'.
Appointed by the Lord as responsible for 'enclosures and fences';
that is the so-called 'common land'.
Appointed by the Lord to administer 'arrests and summonses' and,
in practice, to supervise court matters.
Appointed annually by the Jury as follows:
to ensure law and order during court sessions.
to check that a true pint and true quart are offered and to taste the quality of
Carniter, to check the
freshness of the meat and poultry.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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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