FOR hundreds of years, individuals – all male, unpaid and with no requirement for legal training – were rubber-stamped as JPs onto the Commission of the Peace, to run local government and sit in judgement in the lower courts. The only condition was that they owned freehold land of a certain value (latterly £100), and had the approval of the Chancellor (in practice the Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire) who awarded a dedimus potestatem writ (meaning ‘we have given the power’).

Lists of hundreds of JPs who were appointed to the Commission are held in the Hampshire Record Office under headings such as ‘Our most dear Cousins and Councillors’. The one for 1836 covers seven large sheets and represents the great and the good of the county.

On the list were a number of clerical magistrates, including a rector of Itchen Abbas, the Rev Robert Wright, who had sworn the dedimus before two fellow JPs in the Fleur de Lys pub (now the Wickham Arms) in December 1808. He was a man of his time – the holder of five different church livings that he served by means of poorly paid curates.

Over a period of more than 40 years until his death in 1850 Wright proved to be one of the most active – and hardline – magistrates on the bench at a time when the country was being dragged from an essentially medieval style of local government towards one that looked more like today’s.

The work of Hampshire magistrates during this period has been meticulously researched by historian David Taylor, who recently presented a virtual talk in the Hands-On Local History series organised by the Hampshire Archives Trust and the Hampshire Field Club. It was based on his book, The Life and Times of the Rev. Robert Wright (1772-1850), available from

In 1820 the ‘victor of Waterloo’, the Duke of Wellington, was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire. His papers are archived at the University of Southampton. As the monarch’s representative he had authority over JPs. He reviled clergymen magistrates and actively deterred them – he preferred aristocrats and would only accept churchmen if they ‘had [substantial] landed property’.

There were good reasons: at the Peterloo massacre in the previous year, it was clergymen JPs who had read the Riot Act which led to the cavalry charge. Despite Wellington’s views, David’s research has come up with some extraordinary findings which show that without clergymen the Commission of the Peace might never have functioned.

For relatively minor issues, they operated either on their own ‘at home’, or with one or more other magistrates in fortnightly Petty Sessions – often held in a hostelry in a local town. More serious matters were dealt with at the Quarter Sessions before a jury, held four times a year in Winchester. There were similar sessions in Portsmouth and Southampton.

There are virtually no records of Petty Sessions until after 1850, but the QS Order Books exist and, together with Calendars of Prisoners, have enabled David to compile a huge database on the activities of JPs over the period 1809-1849

Before the trials took place there were routine sessions to raise the county rate, set the budget and carry out other business, concerning gaols, asylums, inns and playhouses. Also, to regulate wages and fairs, manage roads and bridges and administer the poor law, as well as hearing appeals against bastardy orders and measures to ‘remove’ people from one parish to another.

Detailed analysis shows that over a period of 40 years Robert Wright attended 96% of all Quarter Sessions. This remarkable performance was matched only by William Hill Newbolt DD, rector of Morestead, closely followed by Dr Daniel Quarrier from Gosport, Surgeon to the Royal Marine Service. In contrast, Sir Thomas Baring of Stratton Park, only managed to attend 65%.

Even so, these were all creditable attendances, compared to the 32% overall rate of all JPs between 1810 and 1850, though there were considerable differences year by year. There was a trough in January 1814, when only 14 JPs attended, and a peak in January 1843 with 127.

Analysis of the Calendars of Prisoners shows that more than a third of all offences were for theft – sometimes most trivial – about 15% were for poaching, whilst vagrancy, misdemeanours (such as drunkenness) and assault were less frequent.

As might be expected, there is considerable evidence of ‘fiddling the system’! In 1821, at Newtown near Newbury, Wright saw ‘a wretched object sitting by ye turnpike road’. She told him that she was waiting for the ‘pass cart’ to take her into Dorset. It was part of a lengthy removal process that had started in Shropshire and went from parish to parish. What angered Wright was that the carter had been paid but had failed to take her on.

A much bigger issue came to light in 1823. It was discovered that public money intended for the county coffers was finding its way into the private account of George Hollis, a long-standing county treasurer. Despite denials of innocence, he was dismissed. But more than that, it left some magistrates red-faced, as they had signed off the accounts as accurate.

As the 19th century went on, the ‘overflowing in-tray’ of magistrates was progressively eased by the creation of several county institutions that look like their modern equivalents – a police force in 1839, a new gaol in Romsey Road, Winchester, in the 1840s, and an asylum at Knowle in 1853.

David’s research suggests that the process was hastened by ‘forward-looking men’ like William Sturges Bourne, Charles Shaw-Lefevre, Sir William Heathcote and Sir Thomas Baring, but was vigorously opposed as ‘too costly’ by traditional JPs like Wright.

Amongst other things, the mould had been broken by the well-documented Swing Riots of 1830. These were fostered by the poverty of farm labourers, though many blamed them on the Beerhouse Act. This had been passed in the same year to reduce the drinking of gin so that anyone who paid two guineas for a licence could set up a place to drink. Wright thought the Act was a huge mistake, but used it to his own advantage.

The whole business was examined in 1833 by a parliamentary Select Committee chaired by the Marquis of Chandos, who owned Avington Park . Cross-examined, Wright revealed that following the Swing Riots he had set up his own spy system: “I have had a kind of petty system of police at my own expense, which has every week gone regularly round the villages, so that I have had correct information of everything that has proceeded in those houses.”

The life of JPs would never be the same after the Swing Riots. A hundred and nine of the poor were transported, 79 imprisoned and 5 hanged, including the Micheldever teenager Henry Cooke. But it was the last great sweep of magisterial power.

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