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Response to Review no. 976

I am grateful for Greg Smith’s generally kind words in his review but would like to respond to some of his specific points in a little detail. As he himself knows only too well the surviving minute books of the City’s two summary courts are frustratingly limited. While the records that exist encompass a period of approximately 70 years it is rare that we have volumes from both courts. Thus any attempt to compare the work of the two courts in any detail is fraught with difficulty. I therefore bounded my attempt within the one period when the Mansion House and Guildhall records do overlap and, as is hopefully clear from Table 2.1 (p. 20), while the lord mayor is the busier of the magistrates on duty the nature of their business is proportionally very similar.(1) From this observation I would suggest that the courts operated along very similar lines and while geography may have affected the sorts of property offences that came before them (e.g. theft from the quayside) in most other respects we would expect to find the same sorts of offenders and prosecutors appearing before each.

Dr Smith also questions whether the policing agents of the City were actively engaged in detecting crime and suggests that the minute books do not ‘uniformly’ support this. He is right, of course, that the records of summary hearings on their own are not sufficient evidence for my suggestion. However, when combined with the newspaper reports (both positive and negative) of the actions of watchmen, marshals and constables and the published accounts of trials at the Old Bailey it is certainly possible to argue that the City’s ‘police’ (broadly defined) were much more proactive than some historians and many contemporaries have given them credit for. As for the work of the constables of quays and other agents working on the docks this is really a research project in its own right. However, given the recent availability of the London Lives project (2) and the Old Bailey Online it is now possible for a new scholar to build on D’Sena’s work on the policing of the Thames.(3)

Smith also poses two valid questions about the magistracy: was the lord mayor a different sort of JP to his aldermanic colleagues and did some magistrates have reputations for severity or indeed leniency? I found some suggestion, but no conclusive evidence, that the lord mayor could act as a ‘double’ justice (in other words he could sit on his own at hearings that normally required two magistrates). If this was the indeed the case then it would have invested the lord mayor with more power than his colleagues (particularly in dealing with poor law or master/servant disputes). As for reputations this is a difficult question to answer. In the 19th century the London press frequently offered their opinion of the character of the magistrates that served the various police courts of the capital. However, the 18th-century press is less forthcoming. It may be that a dedicated survey of crime reporting in the capital would provide a clue here. However, given the nature of the courts and the fact that justices sat in rotation at the Guildhall while the lord mayor presided at Mansion House, prosecutors would have had limited opportunities to pick and choose which justice to take their complaints to so the question is not perhaps as relevant in the City as it would be in the rural or wider London context.

Smith’s final substantive question also requires some consideration. I certainly had no reluctance to ‘explore the class dimensions’ of my arguments but the sources do not really allow for this. The minute books rarely record details of occupation in any systematic way and mostly reserve this information for property cases. The alderman magistracy was a close-knit body of mercantile men that probably closed ranks against the labouring sorts when it felt it was necessary to do so. However, the numbers of poorer Londoners that used these courts to prosecute each other, and sometimes those of a higher social status, indicates that ‘these were courts that all of the people could use’ (p. 174). If I am reluctant to go further than this it is because the evidence is far from conclusive here. My ongoing work is focussed on the summary process outside of the capital – in rural Northamptonshire – and I hope that as we better understand the nature of summary hearings we will be able to offer a more forthright answer to some of these important questions.


  1. At Guildhall the justices dealt with business in the following percentages: property (36.3 per cent), violence (30.3 per cent) and regulation (33.3 per cent). The corresponding figures for Mansion house were property (35.5 per cent), violence (33.2 per cent) and regulation (31.4 per cent).Back to (1)
  2. <> [accessed 23 August 2010]; <> [accessed 23 August 2010].Back to (2)
  3. P. S’Sena, ‘Perquisites and Pilfering in the London Docks’, MPhil thesis (Open University, 1986).Back to (3)