Court in the act

WE were in Wareham a week or so ago when we spotted a group of mayors – a gathering that a friend of ours calls “the chain gang,” because when they are on civic and official duties they all wear their gilt mayoral chains, which make a collective clinking as they walk along the pavement.

This particular chain gang came from all over Dorset and was on a walkabout with their Wareham host. We noticed that among the suits and summer frocks there were a couple of men in archaic costume and tall hats.

Curiosity may kill the cat but it is the journalist’s stock-in-trade, so of course we stopped to ask what was going on. It was a Civic Day, but it was combined with an outing of the Court Leet, explained the photographer who was accompanying the party. He revealed that he was also the town gravedigger, and that he hoped that this might be a step towards greater things, such as admission to one of the Court Leet offices!

My co-editor, Gay, was born and brought up in The Old Courthouse, the oldest house in Christchurch. Tradition has it that the Court Leet met in the first floor “court room”– while the smugglers carried brandy and rum through a secret tunnel from the harbour which was said to come up somewhere under the back room of the ancient house. Certainly the house was haunted, although it was not clear whether it was the spirit of court officers died and gone to heaven or of smugglers pickled in their own illicit liquor and gone  to hell!

Wareham’s Court Leet is one of only a handful that survive from the many hundreds that existed in the early Middle Ages. The Wareham court carries out its main business in November, when the officers of the court gather in one of the town’s many pubs, supervised by the senior officer, a bailiff. Their official duties include checking the quality of leather goods, weighing a sample of local bread (and making sure it doesn’t have too many bubbles in it). and tasting and reporting on the quality of the ale. Over successive nights they visit all the pubs in the town. It is a traditional ceremony that has been handed down through many generations, often from father to son, since the time of the Norman Conquest.

The Court Leet, historically, was held in most towns and villages, presided over by the Lord of the Manor and it dealt with local matters including local government, trading standards, sales of food and drink and breaches of local rules. It was a court of record, and its duty was not only to view the pledges, which were the freemen’s oaths of peacekeeping and good practice in trade, but also to try by jury, and punish, all crimes committed within the jurisdiction. Penalties were fines or imprisonment and the most serious crimes were committed to the King’s Justices.

The Court Leet system began to decline in the 14th century, with the introduction of county Justices of the Peace and later magistrates’ courts, but the ancient courts continued in many areas into the 19th century.

The 30 or so Courts Leet that survive all operate differently. They are so ancient and their origins so lost in the mists of time that there is no formal organisation or structure, but most have little or no real power.  There are a few notable exceptions, including the Royal Manors, such as the Royal Manor of Portland Court Leet and the New Forest Verderers, whose power still holds sway over the administration of the New Forest, the management of the New Forest ponies and other livestock, and the exercising of commoners’ rights.

The Wareham Court Leet upholds the tradition with great dedication. It has several officers, including the Lord of the Manor (since 1986 Mr JDC Ryder, who succeeded his father, who held the title for 58 years)  the  steward (the Lord of the Manor’s right hand man), the hayward (responsible for enclosures and fences, and the common land), ale tasters, bread weighers, carniters (who are responsible for the quality of meat in the butchers) and constables (in the tall hats – who ensure law and order during the court sessions).

The court’s duties include appointing officers, swearing in the jury, taking “presentments “with respect to the common land, the town walls, the town pound and other matters of local concern – and, perhaps most importantly, maintaining the ancient and time-honored traditions of the court.

There are those for whom these archaic customs are a waste of time – and therefore money. But they are a part of the rich panoply of our cultural heritage, the criss-crossing of ancient traditions with innovation that make up the complex patterns of local distinctiveness. We should value them for the contribution they make to our understanding of who we are and how our communities evolved.

The Dorset chain gang will visit many other towns during their year in office, but few will be as memorable as the Wareham day when they visited some of the old pubs and learned about the traditions and practices of the Court Leet.

Fanny Charles