In the eighteenth century the county of Middlesex included all of London north of the Thames, with the exception of the independent City of London, as well as rural areas to the east, north and west of the metropolis. While geographically the county was predominantly rural, its population, concentrated in the London area, was predominantly urban. Although Westminster was governed by separate institutions of local government, it was part of the county.
The crescent of metropolitan London which surrounded the City of London and fell under the jurisdiction of the county had a varied social composition. Westminster and the inner suburban parishes west of the City had socially mixed populations, composed largely of the households of the gentry and nobility together with the servants, shopkeepers and craftsmen who serviced them. This social mix could generate social tensions, particularly in the downwardly mobile parishes just outside the western boundary of the City such as St Giles in the Fields, where conflicts over disorderly houses, Irish immigrants and rapidly rising poverty resulted in the parish having the highest crime prosecution rate in the metropolis. In contrast, the parishes east of the City were more socially homogeneous, with sailors, porters, coalheavers, victuallers and others who serviced shipping concentrated along the Thames, and weavers, butchers, brewers and other craftsmen living in parishes including Spitalfields and St Botolph Aldgate further north. The social character of parishes north of the City was also relatively homogeneous.
The county was governed by the traditional officers of county government: a lord lieutenant, sheriff, Justices of the Peace, and high constables. Most of the business of county government was conducted at the meetings of Justices in their sessions. The county was divided into six hundreds, of which one, Ossulstone Hundred, covered the metropolitan area. Owing to its huge population, Ossulstone Hundred was divided into four divisions. The County of Middlesex was abolished as a unit of local government in 1965.
The Justices of the Peace assembled in sessions provided local government for the county. The Justices appointed a chairman, and in the late eighteenth century this office was held by only two individuals, who acquired greater powers for the office. John Hawkins served as chairman between 1765 and 1780, and William Mainwaring held the office between 1781 and 1816. Mainwaring was accused of corrupt practices such as extorting money in exchange for the granting of alehouse licenses.
The Middlesex sessions met eight times a year, in contrast to quarter sessions in other counties, which met four times a year. The frequency of their meetings allowed the Justices to adopt new mechanisms, some of which were extra-legal, to meet the challenges of adapting a form of government essentially designed for a rural environment to the rapidly changing needs of a modern city. In 1716 they started recording their decisions on policy in a special book, the Orders of the Court (GO). They established special or standing committees for specific purposes, such as to discuss methods for removing nuisances in the metropolis or to oversee county finances. Housed in a purpose built sessions house, Hicks Hall on St John's Street in Clerkenwell, from 1612, the sessions moved to a far grander sessions house on Clerkenwell Green in 1782, with separate court rooms, prison cells, and accommodation for the Justices. Although the sessions moved to a new location in 1921, the building is still standing.
The Justices meeting in sessions found it difficult, however, to compel their colleagues to conform to their resolutions, since only a small minority of the more than one hundred Justices on the commission actually attended sessions. In order to prevent Justices from interfering in each other's business, they attempted to restrict Justices to acting only within their own divisions, but these orders were of questionable legality. Similarly, the court invented procedures for punishing delinquent Justices, by conducting hearings and, if the case was serious, making formal representations to the Lord Chancellor (who had the power to remove Justices from the commission).1
Ultimately, the Middlesex Justices struggled to cope with the challenge of governing the largest metropolitan area in the country using institutions intended for a rural context, and they were not paid for their efforts. Frequently accused of corruption, many chose not to serve at all, while others introduced innovative practices, such as turning the office into a business by acting as Trading Justices, and conducting pre-trial judicial business in public offices. In 1792, these pressures and innovations led to the passage of the Middlesex Justices Act, which created for the first time stipendiary magistrates, with the duty of conducting their business from one of eight public offices.
Under commissions of the peace and oyer and terminer, the Middlesex sessions had the power to try both misdemeanour (petty) and felony (serious) offences, but most felony cases were tried under the separate commission of gaol delivery, directed to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London and some Middlesex Justices, at the Old Bailey. Although the vast majority of the judicial business of the sessions was reactive, in response to prosecutions initiated by private individuals or parish officials, the Justices were occasionally proactive in their efforts to combat certain types of crime, notably vice. In the 1690s and early 1700s several were active in the reformation of manners campaign against profane swearing and cursing, working on the Sabbath, and prostitution; and in the 1720s and 1730s several Justices conducted campaigns to suppress gaming and other disorderly houses. On a number of occasions the Justices petitioned parliament or a secretary of state seeking new legislation against perceived social problems, such as gin, or to improve the night watch.
Although the sessions did hear direct applications for poor relief, most poor law business (applications for relief, settlement, bastardy and vagrancy examinations) was dealt with by parish officers and Justices of the Peace outside sessions. Appeals to such decisions were heard by sessions, which usually referred the appeal to two Justices for a review of the case. In addition, the Justices heard disputes between apprentices and masters, where one party alleged the other had broken the terms of the indenture. That such business was significant is suggested by the fact that in 1752 the court ordered that no petitions from apprentices should be received after the second day of the sessions, as they hindered other business.
The Justices also issued orders to be enforced by the high constables or constables, for example closing down fairs which were deemed to be disorderly, and suppressing public nuisances, such as the practice of selling oysters, oranges and other items from wheelbarrows.
Two of the most important series of documents which record the work of the sessions are included on the London Lives website. These are the Sessions Papers (PS), which include all the documents created in advance of the sessions and rough drafts of decisions taken, and the formal Orders of the Court (GO), which record the Justices' decisions on non-criminal business. Other records, including the formal documents which record the outcomes of criminal prosecutions, can be found at the London Metropolitan Archives. For printed editions of selections from the sessions rolls and the Middlesex sessions books, see the bibliography.
A separate commission of the peace was issued for the Liberty of the Tower, and there is evidence that a separate sessions was held there, but unfortunately no records of this sessions have survived.
- Dowdell, E. G. A Hundred Years of Quarter Sessions. Cambridge, 1932.
- Shoemaker, Robert B. Prosecution and Punishment: Petty Crime and the Law in London and Rural Middlesex. Cambridge, 1991.
For further reading on this subject see the London Lives Bibliography
1 Norma Landau, ed., The Trading Justice's Trade, in Norma Landau, ed., Law, Crime and English Society, 1660-1830 (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 46-64. ⇑