68 - The Civic Courts of the City of London | London Metropolitan Archives

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68 - The Civic Courts of the City of London

Introduction

The Crown by a series of charters had granted considerable judicial privileges to the City of London. No citizen was required to plead outside the city. The City of London developed its own courts where the Mayor and Aldermen could settle disputes about urban property, goods and chattels, wills and debts. During the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries the powers of the king's justices in relation to pleas relating to the possession of land in the City were on several occasions in dispute. The archives of the City of London include rolls of pleas held before the Itinerant Justices at the Tower (Iter Rolls) in 1244-1246 and 1276 (CLA/040/01/001-002). These have been published as The London Eyre of 1244 ed. Helena Chew and Martin Weinbaum (London Record Society, 1970) and The London Eyre of 1276 ed. Martin Weinbaum (London Record Society, 1976) 60.9 LRS, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/place.aspx?gid=49&region=1 However after 1341 there was no further session of the itinerant royal justices at the Tower, and the City's jurisdiction in questions of possession of land and other property was henceforward independent of external interference and control. This leaflet details the civic courts which developed to exercise this jurisdiction.

From 1444 the Mayor and Aldermen served as Justices of the Peace responsible for criminal trials in the City. From 1327 the Justices of Gaol Delivery for Newgate included the Lord Mayor. Petty Sessions were held before the Lord Mayor, originally at Guildhall but from the mid 18th century in the Justice Room at the new Mansion House. In 1737 a second Justice Room was set up at Guildhall where regular sittings were held before one of the other Aldermen. For more details see Information Leaflet 40 'Sessions Records for the City of London and Southwark'.

In 1478 the City gained the right to appoint the Coroner for the City of London and in 1550 the Coroner for the Borough of Southwark. See Information Leaflet 41 'Coroners' Records for London and Middlesex'.
The royal courts also sat on occasion in the City at Guildhall as the citizens of London could not be compelled to plead outside the boundaries of the City of London. However, these sittings were wholly independent of the civic authorities and their records are held by The National Archives.

Court of Husting CLA/023

The Court of Husting was the supreme court of the medieval and later City of London. It is the oldest court in the City of London and, at one time, was the only court for settling disputes between citizen and citizen. The more efficient and popular forms of law practised by other courts which had initially been set up to take some of its work-load were eventually to result in its demise.

Origins

In the 11th century the Court of Husting in London was a general-purpose, governing assembly which dealt collectively with all kinds of administrative and judicial work like the shire and hundred courts. The Aldermen met weekly in the Court of Husting and it is generally considered that the Court of Aldermen developed from the administrative side of this Court.

As it evolved more recognisably into a county court, with Mayor, Sheriffs and Aldermen acting as judges, its business was divisible into:

  • Pleas of Land
  • Common Pleas
  • Enrolment of Deeds and Wills

As judicial business increased in the 13th century, the Court was increasingly hampered by the fact that it sat only weekly and the sittings were alternately for Pleas of Land and for Common Pleas. Cases relating to mercantile law, personal actions and debt were transferred to the Sheriffs' Courts and the Mayor's Court. However, the Court of Husting then dealt almost exclusively with real and mixed actions, and actions started by writ, which subsequently declined as other, more popular forms of actions developed. A few actions were still heard until the beginning of the 18th century, but by this time the Court of Husting was only really functioning as a registry for the enrolment of deeds and wills within the City of London.

The enrolment of deeds in the Court of Husting however also suffered from competition. By the time the advantages of a system of registration of the transfer of title to land were recognised, the Court of Husting was virtually moribund, and was by-passed by new Land Registries.

The Court's probate jurisdiction, claimed for beneficiaries of property within the City of London since 1230, also declined. The last recorded enrolment of a will was in 1688, but enrolments had been in decline for some years prior to this.

The Court of Husting now only meets occasionally for the enrolment of the Corporation of London's own trust deeds, but has not met since 1978.

Records

There are 3 main series of Husting Court rolls:

  • Court Rolls (Deeds and Wills) 1252-1965 - CLA/023/DW/01/001-390
  • Court rolls (Pleas of Land) 1272-1724 - CLA/023/PL/01/001-216
  • Court rolls (Common Pleas) 1272-1662 - CLA/023/CP/01/001-172

Husting Books contain brief details of cases heard week by week and include both Pleas of Land and Common Pleas 1448-1484; 1506-1723; 1838-1978 - CLA/023/CT/01/001-017.

Finding aids

  • Manuscript calendars of deeds and wills 1252-1896 (compiled 19th century) - CLA/023/DW/02/001-009
  • Indexes of names and places on the Calendars of Deeds and Wills (compiled 1885-1908) - CLA/023/DW/02/010-014.
  • R.R. Sharpe's Calendar of Wills Proved and Enrolled in the Court of Husting 1258-1688 (2 volumes, 60.1 LON on open access in Information Area, available on British History Online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/place.aspx?gid=73&region=1)
  • Index of names and types of actions appearing within the Court rolls (Pleas of Land), 1272-15th century (1 ring binder available on request)
  • Index of names and types of actions appearing within the Court rolls (Common Pleas), 1272-15th century (1 ring binder available on request)

Assizes of Novel Disseisin, Mort d'Ancestor and Fresh Force CLA/040/06

These Assizes held before the Coroner and Sheriffs of the City of London heard pleas from those who claimed to be wrongly dispossessed from land in the City.

Records

  • Rolls of assizes of Novel Disseisin, Mort d'Ancestor and Fresh Force held before the Coroner and Sheriffs of the City of London 1340-1451, 1583, 1588, 1591 - CLA/040/06/003-022
  • They have been published as London Possessory Assizes: a calendar ed. Helena M Chew (London Record Society, 1965) 60.9 LRS on open access in Information Area, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/source.aspx?pubid=569

Assize of Nuisance CLA/040/02/001-004

The assize of nuisance originally concerned the making or removal of ditches, pools, hedges, the diversion of watercourses and the obstruction of ways. After a series of major fires, the City authorities drew up regulations known as the Assize of Building for settling disputes between neighbours concerning boundaries and other matters, and for encouraging the use of stone in building. This was the basis for the medieval London assize of nuisance which mainly heard disputes between neighbours. It sometimes sought to correct public nuisances, but these were normally dealt with by wardmotes. An action was initiated in full Husting, or, if the Husting was not sitting, at a congregation of the mayor and aldermen. The Assize provided for the election of twelve aldermen in full Husting; the greater part of those so elected was to be present with the Mayor in holding assizes. The Mayor nearly always presided.

Records

  • Pleas of Nuisance: Miscellaneous Rolls 1301- c.1431 – CLA/040/02/001-003

Finding Aids

  • Calendar to the Rolls of Assize of Nuisance - CLA/040/02/004
  • The rolls have been published as London assize of nuisance 1301-1431: A calendar ed. Helena M. Chew & William Kellaway (London Record Society, 1973) 60.9 LRS on open access in Information Area, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/source.aspx?pubid=155

Viewers' Reports COL/SJ/463-475

The Assize of Buildings prescribed a view by the Mayor and 12 elected men of land and tenements for which the assize of nuisance had been demanded; and, more specifically, to deal with party and boundary walls, gutters, windows overlooking a neighbour's land, and cess-pits about which complaint had been made. The 12 elected men were originally aldermen, but sworn masons and carpenters, seem to have been associated with the assize of nuisance from at least the beginning of the 14th century and, joined by tilers in the 16th century, acted as viewers for the City. By the 16th century the court in which the certificates were presented, and any further action taken may have been the Mayor's Court. Alternatively the certificates may have been presented in the Court of Aldermen.

After the Great Fire of London in 1666 the City viewers were not abolished, but the work of rebuilding London was not under their supervision; the surveyors and the Fire Court set up under the Rebuilding Act of 1667 were responsible for both settling disputes and policing compliance with the Act. Viewers continued to be appointed and to function. However in 1774 the London Building Act provided for the appointment of sworn district surveyors.

Records

  • Viewers' reports on property in dispute 1508-1558, 1623-1636, 1659-1690, 1718-1796 – COL/SJ/463-475

Finding Aids

  • Index to Viewers' Reports 1659-1704 - COL/SJ/27/472
  • The Viewers' Reports for 1508-1558 have been published as London viewers and their certificates, 1508-1558: Certificates of the sworn viewers of the City of London ed. Janet Senderowitz Loengard (London Record Society, 1989) 60.9 LRS on open access in Information Area, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/source.aspx?pubid=158

Mayor's Court CLA/024

Origins

The Mayor's Court originated out of business over-flowing from the Court of Husting, which by charter could only sit every Monday. To remedy this, in the early 13th century the Mayor and Sheriffs, and 2 or 3 Aldermen, were allowed to hear cases immediately from day to day, if the Court of Husting was not sitting. The Mayor sat as the judge of the Mayor's Court, assisted by the Sheriffs and Aldermen, unlike the Court of Husting where they joined him as judges. Initially this applied only to disputes involving foreign merchants, but by 1259 complaints arising over delays in obtaining judgements in debt cases led to these also being transferred to the Sheriffs' and Mayor's Courts. Also in 13th century, the Court of Husting delegated to the Mayor's Court the right to hear cases relating to non-compliance with City ordinances (eg, fraudulent bakers, tavern-brawlers, night-walkers, gamblers and other disorderly persons).

The Mayor's Court became the pre-eminent court in the City, as there was no monetary limit on actions that could be heard there, whereas the Sheriffs' Courts were confined to the recovery of small debts. It was popular because of this, because of the speed with which suits could be dealt with in comparison to other courts of the time, and was far cheaper than recourse to the royal courts at Westminster.

In 1921 the City of London Court (formerly the Sheriffs' Courts) amalgamated with the Mayor's Court to form the Mayor and City of London Court, which still exists.

Survival of the records

Some Mayor's Court records especially those for 18th and early 19th centuries were destroyed in the fire at the Royal Exchange in 1838. Other 19th century records were destroyed with the Registrar's permission in c.1941. It is likely that there was also serious loss during the Great Fire, as the Court of Aldermen was informed as such afterwards. But despite this, their poor survival is inconsistent with the survival of other City records such as the Repertories, Journals and Roll of the Court of Husting. As the business of the Mayor's Court grew in distinctness from the Court of Husting, the Mayor's personal responsibility, apart from the City, was accentuated. The Plea & Memoranda Rolls make mention of the 'Mayor's Bag' in which his correspondence and legal documents were kept, and it is likely that he retained this after his year in office, after the clerks had made copies of document which they deemed necessary.

Records

  • Early Mayor's Court Rolls 1298-1307 - CLA/024/01/01/001-009
    The early records of the court are incomplete, but occasionally some proceedings are preserved amongst the series of Letter Books (COL/AD/01/001-050) which have been calendared and published. They are however valuable as a source on an important period of the City's development, and throw considerable light on ancient municipal law and legal custom.
  • Plea & Memoranda Rolls, 1327-1484 - CLA/024/01/02/001-102
    These contain records of such actions in the Mayor's Court as seemed worthy of preservation as legal precedents or as illustrations of the rights, privileges and pre-eminence of the City.
  • Files of Original Bills, 1327-1733 - CLA/024/02/001-321
    From the reign of Edward III onwards, files of actions or cases, heard in the Mayor's Court were kept, giving the declarations of plaintiff, with short notes of the proceedings, judgements and executions. Very few rolls survive prior to reign of Elizabeth I, but they are numerous for the 16th and 17th centuries. They are of particular interest owing to the full inventories of goods and chattels on which executions were made.
  • Minutes and Actions 1679-1723 - CLA/024/03/01/001-042
  • Books of Precedent 1603-1740 - CLA/024/03/03/001-008
  • Files of Actions, 1666-1705 - CLA/024/04/001-040
  • Interrogatories and answers, 1628; 1646-1710 - CLA/024/05/001-016
  • Depositions 1640-1835 - CLA/024/06/001-065
  • Bills of complaint and answers, 1654-1721 - CLA/024/07/001-091
  • Papers relating to cases undertaken by James Gibson, attorney of the Mayor's Court. They include briefs, correspondence, and exhibita 1691 and 1705 – CLA/024/10/001-535

Finding Aids

  • Calendar of Early Mayor's Court Rolls of the City of London, 1298-1307 ed. A H Thomas (1924) 60.1 LON on open access in Information Area, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/source.aspx?pubid=175
  • Calendars of Plea & Memoranda Rolls, 1327-1484 - CLA/024/01/02/103-108
  • Calendars of the Plea and Memoranda Rolls, 1323-1484, 7 vols; ed. A H Thomas and P E Jones (1924-1961) 60.12 CIT on open access in Information Area. The first 3 volumes 1323-1412 are available on http://www.british-history.ac.uk/place.aspx?gid=60&region=1
  • Mayor's Court Original Bills: Manuscript List of the schedules of goods among the common law original bills of the Mayor's Court (kept in Enquiry Office)
  • Mayor's Court Original Bills: Index to Persons (plaintiff, defendants and garnishees) appearing in the Mayor's Court Original Bills A-J (1 vol.) K-Z (1 vol.) (kept in Enquiry Office)
  • Most of the original bills dating from before 1560 (CLA/024/02/001-0001-004,007) have been calendared on index cards which can be made available by request.
  • Calendar of Mayor's Court Interrogatories, 1628; 1641-1710 - CLA/024/011/001

Sheriffs' Courts CLA/025

London had two Sheriffs who each held a court at his compter which also served as a prison for debtors and other prisoners. The Sheriffs' Courts handled cases of small debts and personal actions arising within the City. An Act of Parliament in 1785 empowered the City of London Corporation to pull down the Poultry and Wood Street Compters and to build a new compter in Giltspur Street. Prisoners were moved from Poultry to Giltspur Street Compter in about 1791 where separate sections were known as the Poultry and Wood Street Compters and the courts held by the two Sheriffs continued to be known as the Poultry Compter and Wood Street Compter. These courts were later transferred to the Guildhall and united into the City of London Court in 1867, finally being amalgamated with the Mayor's Court in 1921 to form the Mayor's and City of London Court. The survival of the records of the Sheriffs' Courts is poor, probably because the Sheriffs retained custody of the rolls of the court during their year of office when they left office as they could be personally accountable if the administration of justice was called into question.

Records include:

  • Court rolls 1318-1849 (many gaps) - CLA/025/CT/01/001-105
  • Plaints, accounts, proceedings, rolls of daily entries and issues tried 1653-1867 (many gaps) – CLA/CT/02/001-029
  • Poultry Compter: Commitment books 1792-1796, 1800-1815 - CLA/030/01/018-022
  • Poultry Compter: Minutes of actions 1769-1830 - CLA/025/PC/01/001-025
  • Poultry Compter: Rolls 1832-1857 - CLA/025/PC/02/001-008
  • Wood Street Compter: Lists of prisoners handed over by the Sheriffs to their successors on 28 Sept. annually (Indexed) 1741-1815 - CLA/028/01/001-042
  • Wood Street Compter: Minutes of actions 1760-1833 – CLA/025/WS/01/001-051
  • Giltspur Street Compter: Rolls 1823-1849 – CLA/025/WS/02/001-003

Finding Aids

  • Poultry Compter: Index to minutes of actions and rolls 1798-1841 – CLA/025/PC/03/001-009
  • Wood Street and Giltspur Street Compters: Index to minutes of actions and rolls 1760-1841 – CLA/025/WS/03/001-035
  • Court of Requests CLA/038

    This court was constituted by an Act of Common Council in 1518 under which commissioners were appointed to hear cases for the recovery of small debts not exceeding 40 shillings. It was also known as the Court of Conscience. Its jurisdiction was confirmed by Acts of Parliament which by the late 18th century extended its jurisdiction to disputes under £10. Use of the Court declined in the 1830s and 1840s and in 1847 it was abolished, its jurisdiction being transferred to the Sheriffs' Courts.

    Records include:

    • Bonds and promissory notes 1613-1659 (many are unfit) – CLA/038/03/046-049
    • Index to names of debtors and creditors in above 1613-1659 – CLA/038/01/011
    • Ledgers recording amounts to be paid into court in each suit, indexed 1698-1700, 1755-1786 (many gaps) – CLA/038/02/001-010
    • Court registers 1770-1790 (many gaps) – CLA/038/03/023-035
    • Alphabets or indexes to names of plaintiffs in court registers 1773-4, 1781-2, 1787-8 – CLA/038/03/036-038
    • Summons books 1778-1796 (many gaps) – CLA/038/03/001-014
    • Warrant books 1776-1783, 1786-1794 – CLA/03/016-019
    • Execution direction books 1789-1794 – CLA/038/040-043

    City of London Court CLA/026

    The City of London Court was formed when all Sheriff's Courts were united in 1867. The court handled actions of debt and other personal actions arising within the City. The court was amalgamated with the Mayor's Court in 1921 to form the Mayor's and City of London Court.

    Records include:

    • Suits and proceedings in equity 1867-1919 – CLA/026/01/001-003
    • Workmen's Compensation Act 1897 minute book 1898-1908 - CLA/026/01/004

    Mayor's and City of London Court CLA/027

    The Mayor's and City of London Court was created in 1921 by the amalgamation of the Mayor's Court and the City of London Court. Under the Courts Act, 1971 it was designated a county court. The City of London Court acquired admiralty jurisdiction under the powers of the County Courts Admiralty Jurisdiction Act of 1868.

    Records include:

    • Admiralty suits 1898-1959 – CLA/027/01/001-019
    • Judge's notebooks 1932-1971 - CLA/027/05/01/001 –CLA/027/05/04/013
    • Registrar's notebooks 1934-1968 - CLA/027/05/05/001-016
    • Summonses 1950-1965 - CLA/027/02/02/001-016
    • Workmen's Compensation Act minutes 1907-1962 - CLA/027/04/001-047

    Court of Orphans CLA/002

    From the 13th century, the Court of Aldermen assumed custody of orphans (fatherless children) of freemen and supervised the administration of the personal estate of the deceased. Through their wardship the Mayor and Aldermen were responsible for ensuring that a child was properly fed, housed, clothed and educated and that the guardian paid the inheritance on coming of age. Executors of deceased freemen leaving orphans were bound over to produce an inventory of the estate, which were entered on parchment and rolled. The inventories cover personal estate, such as domestic wares, merchandise, ready money and debts, rather than real estate, such as property. Two copies were drawn up, one for the court and one for the executor, by four freemen appointed by the Common Crier. They are an invaluable source for historians interested in domestic life and trade in the City.

    Records

    Early material relating to orphans can be found in the Letter Books, Repertories and Journals. In the 16th century, the Common Serjeant, who presided over the Court of Orphans, developed his own series of records.

    • Common Serjeant's books, 1586-1614, 1662-1773 - CLA/002/01/001-006
      Contain details of the gross worth of an estate, deduction of debts and division of the remainder between widow, orphans and other recipients of bequests made by the testator. It may be possible to find an entry to an orphan here, even if an inventory (for which, see below) does not survive, but it is only a summary and does not give the same detail. They are also indexed (see below).
    • Orphans' Inventories, 1622-1760 - CLA/002/02/01/001-3393
      This series are the fair copy, parchment rolls which were exhibited in the Orphans' Court. They are catalogued individually by the name of the deceased citizen. Dates given are approximate dates of death.
    • Draft Orphans' Inventories and accounts, 1678-1773 - CLA/002/02/02/058-063
      This series contains inventories or partial inventories signed by the appraisers; draft inventories; lists of debts; memoranda and calculations; notes addressed to the Common Serjeant's office, etc., Often these papers will merely duplicate what is already known from the other sources, but occasionally there may be additional details. They have not been catalogued in detail, but the existence of papers in this series has been annotated in the Common Serjeants' Books (see below).
    • Orphanage Bonds and Deeds, 1587-1730 - CLA/002/04.
      Contain bonds and deeds relating to orphans' estates. Listed alphabetically under the surname of the deceased freeman.

    Finding Aids

    The Court of Orphans by Charles Carlton (1974) 21.52 CAR on open access in the Information Area.

    The inventories and bonds and deeds are listed by the name of the deceased citizen and can be searched in our online catalogue.

    Index to the Common Serjeant's Books 1586-1773 compiled in c.1926-27 - CLA/002/03/001. (A photocopy is available in the lobby next to the Information Area.) This index provides the following:

    • Folio number relates to an entry in the relevant Common Serjeants' Books;
    • The roll number (underlined in green) of any extant inventories related to the entry;
    • The roll number, and asterisk (where appropriate) to denote the existence of paper/draft inventories & accounts;
    • The index has also been annotated with index references, underlined in red, to Boyd's London Citizens Index, which is held at the Society of Genealogists.

    Inventories CLA/002/02/002-0260 are not summarised in the Common Serjeant's Books, but are indexed at the back of the Index to the Common Serjeant's Books.

    Court of Judicature or Fire Court CLA/039

    The Court of Judicature or 'Fire Court' was created by statute to settle disputes as to boundaries, old foundations, encroachments etc. in connection with the rebuilding of the City after the Great Fire of 1666.

    Records

    • Fire decrees 1667-1673, indexed – CLA/039/01/001-009

    Finding Aids

    • Index – CLA/039/01/010
    • A partial calendar of the fire decrees, indexed for persons and places, has been published by the City of London as The Fire Court ed. P E Jones ( 2 vols, 1966 and 1970) 60.1 LON on open access in the Information Area.

    Southwark Court of Judicature CLA/040/02/005-006

    This was set up after a fire in Southwark on 26 May 1676.

    Records include

    • Fire decrees (indexed) June-July 1677 – CLA/040/02/006

    Thames Conservancy Courts CLA/036

    The conservation of the River Thames was entrusted to the citizens of London by a charter of 1197 and was exercised by the City of London Corporation until 1857. Their jurisdiction extended from the River Colne near Staines to Yantlett Creek, Kent and included parts of the Rivers Medway and Lea and all streams and creeks of tidal waters within these bounds. In 1857 jurisdiction was transferred to the Thames Conservators. The records of the Courts of Conservancy 1646-1857 include sessions held in London, Essex, Middlesex, Kent and Surrey for breaches of regulations covering encroachments, wharves, fishing, obstructing or fouling the river and similar offences.

    Records

    • Case books 1667-1857 - CLA/036/01/001-010
    • Papers including grand jury presentments, writs, court minutes, court notes and orders 1646-1829 – CLA/036/021646-1829

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