Law and Order in Great Linford
Great Linford is like any other place where people live, gather, trade and rub up against each other, a microcosm of the disputes, misfortunes and misunderstanding of wider society, so naturally we find that all manner of misdemeanour and crime have been committed over the centuries, from drunkenness and petty theft, to poaching and burglary, and yes, even murder. The dramas played out in Great Linford reflect shifting changes in attitude to crime and often shine a light on the conflict between different classes of society, frequently and unsurprisingly for a rural village, between those who owned the land, and those who struggled to scratch a living from it. Equally the presumption that poverty and crime go hand in hand is belied by the abundant evidence that criminality can blight all classes of society and be committed for many reasons. For some, the crimes committed were ones of passion, greed or arrogance, for others, we might now look upon their actions with sympathy and understanding.
The punishments meted out range from a session in the stocks, to whipping, imprisonment (often with hard labour), transportation to Australia or in at least one case, a sentence of execution. Mingled in with the cases of genuine criminality and the more mundane disputes over goods and property are the tragedies that beset any community, which often required the coroner’s jury to pronounce judgement on the details of an accidental death or deliberate on the causes of a suicide, of which there are a surprisingly tragic number. Coroners often convened their hearings as near to the event in question as possible, so we find the Nag’s Head pub on Great Linford High Street often serving as a venue, and a temporary morgue.
The lowest courts in the feudal period (9th to 15th centuries) were the Manorial Courts, and as the name implies, these cases fell under the jurisdiction of the local Lord of the Manor, commonly alongside 12 men appointed as the so called “homage of the jury.” Generally there were two types of Manorial Court. The Court Leet (the meaning of the word Leet is uncertain) dealt with public matters such as maintenance of the highways; you might for instance be fined for leaving dung or other obstacles on a road, or letting livestock run out of control. Also under the jurisdiction of the Court Leet was the checking of weights and measures and the detection and prevention of the adulteration of food. The Court Baron (literally “The Baron’s Court”) dealt mainly with disputes between the Lord’s subjects, enforced the duties owed to the Lord (such as working a certain number of days per year in his fields) and admitted new tenants to the manor. Great Linford was no exception in having a Manorial Court, and there are surviving records dating from the early 1400s held at the Buckinghamshire Archives.
Dealing with more serious crimes were the Quarter Sessions. Established in 1362, these courts were held as the name suggests four times a year, becoming known as the Epiphany, Easter, Midsummer, and Michaelmas sessions, respectively sitting in January, April, July and October. They dealt with a variety of criminal matters, but also extended their remit to cover what effectively became the running of local government, hence over time becoming responsible for such things as issuing licences to publicans, regulating wages and prices and overseeing the upkeep of highways and bridges. The Quarter Sessions for the county were held at Aylesbury, with records surviving back to 1678. Surprisingly, the Quarter Sessions were only abolished in 1972, but had lost their local government role in 1868 with the introduction of County Councils.
The growing workload faced by the Quarter Session judges brought about the establishment of an additional court known as the Petty Sessions to take on the lesser cases; those Petty Sessions in which we generally find residents of Great Linford mentioned were held in various public houses in Newport Pagnell from the 1830s.
The judges who presided over the Sessions were drawn from the ranks of the gentry, and until 1919 were the sole preserve of men. They were unpaid and needed little in the way of qualification; in fact they simply had to be the holder of land worth £20, increased to £100 in 1731. Astoundingly, thus remained the same until 1906. Men who were lawyers or men learned in the law were not required to meet the financial qualification.
Particularly serious or difficult cases would be passed up to the Court of Assizes. The presiding justices would be amongst the highest in the land and would visit from London twice a year. Galfredus de Gibbewin, who was the first recorded rector of Great Linford has been identified as having likely presided over Assizes in 1240 and 1249, dates ascribed by Matilda Kessler J.P in her treatise on the history of the local Magistrates' courts. The Courts of Assize for the Newport Hundred which included Great Linford were conducted in Little Brickhill, where public executions also took place.
There is another significant point of interest to law and order that connects to the history of Great Linford, and perhaps not surprisingly, it relates to the Lords of the Manor, the Uthwatts. Uthwatts have occupied the post of High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire on 3 occasions, the first in 1726, when Thomas Uthwatt (1696-1754) was appointed. This was followed in 1757 with the appointment of Henry Uthwatt (1728-1757) who appears to have died in office, and finally by Henry Andrewes Uthwatt (1787-1855) in 1831. The post of Sheriff predates the Norman Conquest, and required the incumbent to keep the King’s peace and as famously related in the tale of Robin Hood, tax the general population. By the 16th century, the role was devolving into a more ceremonial one, so the Uthwatts, perhaps with the exception of Thomas, would not have had much power to excise in the role, though one important function that continued to be overseen by the Sheriffs was the management, oversight and tallying of election returns, hence we find the 1831 election overseen by Henry Andrewes Uthwatt.
The Uthwatt family did continue to be involved in law and order however, as in the 1860s we find the Reverend William Uthwatt sitting as a judge at the Petty Sessions, where for instance we find him passing judgement in August of 1863 on a poacher apprehended on his land. Arguably we would now call that a conflict of interests. Indeed, Gerard Uthwatt was parish constable in 1898 and it should also of course be acknowledged that as Lords of the Manor, they would have enjoyed considerable power over the general population of the parish and their behaviour, many of whom would have been beholden to the Uthwatts for work and housing.