Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors, and British History

Magistrates Courts in Essex in 1849

Photo of Chelmsford, Shire Hall 1895, ref. 35515
Shire Hall c.1895. Part of which in 1849 was used as a Magistrates Court
Reproduced courtesy of Francis Frith.

A time when courts were held in a castle, town halls, pubs and even a private house.

The lowest level of criminal courts in 19th century Essex were the Petty Sessions also known as County Magistrates Courts. At this time the county of Essex was split into administrative units known as Hundreds. Each Hundred covered a covered a number of parishes. For each Hundred there was a Petty Sessions which dealt with minor criminal offences. For the more serious offences they held held committal proceedings. If there was a case to answer these were then sent to the Quarter Sessions or Assizes for trial.

In 1849 each clerk of the Petty Sessions was required to submit to the government details of where the court was held with a comments on the accommodation. The list reveals an interesting mix of specially designed buildings, a castle, use of the local town hall or police station, and even rented rooms in pubs and private houses. As the century progressed specially designed court buildings were built across the county.

  • Saffron Walden. Town Hall, a brick building consisting of a court and large room.
  • Great Bardfield. The White Hart Inn.
  • Billericay. In a back room at the Market House, a private house.
  • Orsett. A room at the Union House [workhouse] at Orsett, a very small room opening into the yard; very inconvenient, without any place of shelter for persons waiting.
  • Bocking. A large and commodious room, called "The Magistrates Room" and built almost on purpose, at the White Hart Inn.
  • Brentwood. A room upstairs, part of the White Hart Inn. The sum of 5s paid to the inn keeper for every meeting for the use of the room.
  • Castle Hedingham. Bell Inn. Fortnightly meeting.
  • Chelmsford. A portion of Shire Hall, being very cold, uncomfortable, and inconvenient place for the purpose.
  • Chipping Ongar. Two upper rooms of a building called the Town Hall approached by separate staircases, situate in the centre of the market town of Chipping Ongar.
  • Colchester Castle, Hundred of Winstree, and Half Hundred of Lexden. Library room in the Castle.
  • Great Dunmow. A small inconvenient room at the police station, by leave of the chief constable. There is no accommodation for he admission of the public.
  • Epping. Guard room of the police station.
  • Halstead. A spacious new bricked building.
  • Maldon. A room in the Town Hall.
  • Manningtree. Room in Packet Inn Public House, and when sitting Thorpe, a room in Maid's Head Inn.
  • Rochford. Room at the King's Head Inn.
  • Waltham Abbey. Room over the police station built by voluntary contributions of the inhabitants.
  • Witham. The assembly Room at the White Hart Hotel.

Source: Sessional Papers of the House of Lords 1849

Further reading: For more on tracing your criminal ancestors in Essex see our article on Essex Court Cases or find out what was life like in Chelmsford Prison.

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