The real history behind ‘Poldark’ series three: episode four
In the fourth instalment of a new Poldark series for History Extra, historian Hannah Greig explores the bigger historical picture of the 18th-century's complex criminal justice system
Did you miss the history behind episode three? Read it here.
The temperature has been rising in Cornwall. For those already living on the margins in late 18th-century England, a combination of poor harvests, rising food prices and the economic ramifications of war with France was pushing them to the brink. Riots and disorder flared across the country as communities took action to assert their rights and express their grievances.
It is at this moment of pronounced social tension and unrest that George Warleggan achieves his long-held ambition to exert power and influence as a Justice of the Peace (JP), a local magistrate who sat at the heart of 18th-century local government and the country’s complex criminal justice system.
The role of a magistrate was unpaid and was traditionally taken on by a landed gentleman of standing in the community. He was expected to manage local law and order by arbitrating on a whole range of disputes, from pub brawls and swearing in the street to disagreements between employers and servants. Minor misdemeanours might be dealt with by a local JP from the comfort of his private parlour. Fines, flogging and even imprisonment could be issued on the back of whatever evidence could be presented to the magistrate at home.
Many cases, however, would be referred up to a petty sessions court (a less formal meeting of two or more magistrates) or the quarter sessions (a quarterly meeting of the full magistrates’ court). The most serious crimes – particularly capital offences punishable by death – would be passed even further up the chain to the assize court, held twice a year. Here, cases were heard in front of a jury and presided over by a visiting judge appointed by the monarch. It was the JP then, who decided who could be sentenced immediately, who was to be let off at an early stage and which cases were to be tried by judge and jury. Clearly for George, the role of magistrate invests him with a huge amount of discretionary local power. Since being sworn in to office we have seen him issue a sentence of public flogging, favour an aristocrat over a servant and incarcerate rioters until the assizes [courts].
It was not a requirement for JPs to have any formal legal training and there was a huge amount of local and personal variation as to how they dispensed their power. Some were idle; others were conscientious and socially-minded; and a few were corrupt. All, however, would have struggled to master the complexities of a system that had evolved over centuries. The role was so complex and the responsibilities so diverse that the only available handbook – Richard Burn’s Justice of the Peace and Parish Officer (first published in 1755) – ran to over 790 pages of dense guidelines. A house like Trenwith, home to a local gentry family and generations of JPs, would most likely have had a copy of Burn’s guidebook in its library. However, it is not clear that George has yet taken the time to consult it.
Hannah Greig is author of The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (OUP, 2013) and is a historical advisor on the BBC One drama series Poldark.