After Wells Legal Sunday at the end of March the next major public event in the annual ceremonial calendar of the Western Circuit is Exeter Legal Sunday in June. There is one important difference: there is no repetition of the sheriff’s oath of office; the new High Sheriff of Devon has already been sworn in on the last Thursday in March either in his own home or in a local church or town hall. Exeter Legal Sunday is a modern version of the ceremonial pageantry of the old Assizes which disappeared in 1971.
Before 1971 there were two assizes in Exeter, the county assize in the Castle and the city assize in the Guildhall. There were also two sheriffs, the High Sheriff of Devon appointed by the Queen and the Sheriff of Exeter elected by the city council under a Charter of Henry VIII dated 23 August 1537. And there were two courts of Quarter Sessions, one for the county and one for the city. The judge in the city Quarter Sessions was the Recorder of Exeter, an office which goes back at least to 1352. Originally the Recorders were elected by the city council, but after the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 they were appointed by the Crown on the advice of the Lord Chancellor or the Home Secretary.
In 1971 all these courts were swept away and replaced by the modern Crown Court. The High Sheriff of Devon continued as before; but the office of city sheriff became redundant. There was nothing for him to do. City sheriffs were elected in 1972 and 1973 with purely ceremonial functions, but when local government reform in 1974 reduced Exeter to the status of a District in the county of Devon the office disappeared altogether. (There are fifteen towns and cities in England and Wales which have retained the office of sheriff, three of them in the Western Circuit: Gloucester (charter, 1200), Southampton (charter, 1447) and Poole (charters, 1568 and 1974). Their functions are purely ceremonial, often concerned with encouraging tourism, as in the case of the Sheriff of Nottingham.) The office of Recorder also became redundant, but was reinstated in Exeter in 2007 as an honorary title for the resident circuit judge. The Recorder supports the Lord Mayor at civic functions, like Legal Sunday. (In Devon there is also an honorary Recorder in Plymouth, and in the rest of the Western Circuit there are honorary Recorders in Bristol, Portsmouth, Salisbury, Southampton and Winchester.)
From the Middle ages it was the duty of the High Sheriff to meet the assize judges when they arrived, to escort them into the city and to attend on them during their stay. (The first Lord Lieutenant of Devon was Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford, in 1585. The Lords Lieutenant were not involved with the assizes and it was not the practice for them to attend the cathedral service. The Lord Lieutenant does now support Legal Sunday.) Before the arrival of the railways the sheriff met the judges at a distance from the city. Until 1741 the Cornwall assizes, at Launceston or Bodmin, were held before Exeter and the judges arrived from the west. They were met by the sheriff at Little John’s Cross on Dunsford Hill, near Crossmead on the old Okehampton road, and were escorted into the city through St Thomas and up Fore Street to the Castle and then to the Guildhall. The same route was occasionally used later, in 1843 (but without any formality because the judges arrived at 10 pm) and for the last time in 1850. From 1741 Exeter was taken before Cornwall and the judges came in from Dorchester. They were met at Ringswell, near the present Middlemoor Police Headquarters, and were escorted into the city along the Heavitree Road.
The judges travelled by coach and four, followed by the members of the bar in their vehicles, or riding or walking. (They were not allowed to use public transport or to stay in public hotels.) They were met by the High Sheriff in his coach and four, with his escort of javelin men and a cavalcade of friends and neighbours and tenants and tradesmen. In the nineteenth century the sheriff was expected to have a new coach for the occasion and to provide new uniforms for his javelin men and his coachman and footmen. The judges stepped from their coach into his, and an impressive and colourful procession proceeded into the city with the church bells ringing, crowds applauding and cheering, and little boys running alongside shouting.
The railways changed all that. The GWR arrived in Exeter from Paddington on 1 May 1844, but as the judges came in from Dorchester that did not help. (There was an exception in July 1846 when the order of the assize towns was altered: Winchester, Dorchester, Devizes, Exeter, where the judges were met by the sheriff in state and a huge crowd at St David’s Station.The High Sheriff was Sir Walter Palk Carew, Bart, of Haccombe. He did not wear court dess, with bag wig, ruffles and sword, but a suit of plain clothes, at both assizes. He was afraid that the repeal of the corn laws would lead to the ruin of agriculture, and curtailed his expenditure wherever he could, like laying up his yacht and not wearing court dress. The public hardly noticed and the judges did not complain. Very few High Sheriffs of Devon wore court dress in the rest of the nineteenth century – I have only found one: W H Peters, of Harefield, in 1876, and he was a well known eccentric.) It was ten years before the judges came by train again. In 1856 the railway from Yeovil to Taunton was opened, and in July the judges took that route from Dorchester and arrived at St David’s. They did so regularly until 1860. In July 1860 the judges arrived by road for the last time and were met by the High Sheriff at Heavitree gallows and escorted into the city in the traditional way. Meanwhile, on 18 July, the southern line had reached Queen Street station (rebuilt and renamed Central station in 1933). Thereafter the judges regularly travelled by train to St David’s or Queen Street.
In 1864 the High Sheriff was the Hon Mark Rolle. He was by far the largest land owner in the county, with 55,000 acres when no one else had more than 20,000. He had a magnificent new coach built and planned to receive the judges at Queen Street station, wearing the uniform of an officer of the North Devon Mounted Rifles, with a posse of county police (who had replaced the javelin men in 1860) and a cavalcade of some 400 tenants and tradesmen. Almost at the last moment a telegram was received to say that the judges would arrive at St David’s and the whole procession dashed down there to meet them. Baron Martin took his seat in the sheriff’s coach and went to the Castle to open the commission, but the other judge, Baron Bramwell, who disliked all form of ceremony, slipped away in the crowd and walked quietly on his own to the judges’ lodgings, which were then in the Northernhay.
The cavalcade continued every year until 1869, when the High Sheriff was John Garratt, of Bishop’s Court, who was accompanied by 50 tenants, though for the first time the sheriff’s carriage was drawn by two horses only. In 1870 the High Sheriff was J C Moore-Stevens, of Winscott, North Devon, who wore the uniform of a captain in the Royal North Devon Hussars. The ceremony was the most brilliant and picturesque since 1864, but there was no cavalcade. He was fighting his tenants in the courts and was not popular locally. (He was an unsuccessful candidate in the first county council elections in 1888.) The cavalcade was never revived. The distance from Queen Street station to the judges’ lodgings in Northernhay did not justify it, and some judges preferred to walk through the Northernhay gardens.
During the 1850’s and 1860’s, as we have already said, it was expected that the new High Sheriff would have a new coach built for his year of office, at a cost somewhere around £300, and would provide new liveries for his coachman and footmen. This was a heavy burden, particularly after the agricultural depression in 1879, and there were now four assizes a year instead of two. In 1881 the High Sheriff was Charles Troyte, of Huntsham, who wore the uniform of a captain in the Royal First Devon Yeomanry. His income before the depression had been £7,668. There were six children, two sons being educated at Eton, and a large staff to be paid. In April 1880 he wrote to his wife: “How are we to live at Huntsham with our present income diminished by £2,000 a year I don’t see unless we shut up part of the house and keep no horses except your ponies.” As sheriff in 1881, having carefully obtained the permission of the judges in advance, he met them in his own family carriage and with the coachman and footmen in the simple livery of the House. (He was also sent a bill for the services of the police at four assizes but applied successfully to Quarter Sessions for it to be paid by the County, as it had been since 1860.)
Thereafter there was less and less assize pageantry, and when Frederick Hamlyn, of Clovelly Court, was High Sheriff in 1901 there is no report of any assize pageantry at all.
The 1850’s and 1860’s were also a golden age for the Western Circuit bar. For some years they provided both Chief Justices, Cockburn in the Queen’s Bench and Erle in the Common Pleas. And the circuit was dominated by that brilliant quartet of Devon barristers: Montagu Smith from Barnstaple, Robert Collier from Plymouth, John Karslake from King’s Nympton, and John Coleridge from Ottery St Mary, future Solicitors General, Attornies General, judges and, in the case of John Coleridge, Lord Chief Justice of England, so that the Lord Chief Justice was a Western Circuit man from 1860 to 1894. Their names are all recorded on the Exeter Tablet, which used to hang in the Crown Court in the Castle and now hangs in the hall of the new courts in Southernhay.
David Pugsley, Hon Archivist of the Western Circuit.