Western Circuit

Legal Sunday in Wells Cathedral

Part 1

On one of the last Sundays in March every year the Western Circuit converges on Wells in large numbers and formal dress. There are the Presiding Judges and other members of the judiciary, the Leader of the Circuit and other Queen’s Counsel in full bottom wigs, tights and buckled shoes, and other barristers and legal officials. They are met by the High Sheriff, the Lord Lieutenant, the County and Civic dignitaries and the local gentry. There is a procession to the Cathedral, and a reception in the Town Hall afterwards, followed by various luncheon parties. During the service the new High Sheriff, wearing eighteenth century court dress complete with sword (though the House of Lords decided in 1890 that he did not need to do so!), is sworn in after reading a long and detailed oath of office. The oath gives some idea of the extent of the High Sheriff’s responsibilities in the old days; it is not actually appropriate today, but no-one has drafted a new one. It is a great legal occasion for the city. This is the modern version of the ceremonial pageantry of the old Somerset Assizes which disappeared in 1971.

The history of the Western Circuit goes back to the Middle Ages. It consists of the counties of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Bristol, and since 1971 Gloucestershire, which previously belonged to the old Oxford Circuit. For centuries two judges of the Royal Courts in London came on circuit twice a year in March/April and July/August to try civil and criminal cases at the Assizes. They visited Winchester, Salisbury, Dorchester, Exeter, Launceston (and later Bodmin), Taunton in April and Bridgewater (until 1853) and Wells alternately in August, and finally once a year Bristol.

When the assize judges arrived they were met by the High Sheriff in state and conducted to the cathedral (or church in Taunton and Bridgewater) for divine service, including the assize sermon preached by the High Sheriff’s chaplain. Then they went to court to open the Commission, a formal document from the King to his “right trusty and well beloved” judge instructing him to hold the court, and finally to the Judges Lodgings. The courts opened for business the following morning.

Since 1971 we no longer have assize judges, but we still have two Presiding Judges and a Family Liaison Judge. They are all judges of the High Court in London. The Presiding Judges are appointed for four years, two years as Junior Presiding Judge and two years as Senior Presiding Judge. The Family Liaison Judge remains in office longer. The judges are responsible for supervising the judiciary on the circuit and also try some of the most serious cases themselves.

The office of High Sheriff goes back to the time of King Alfred. Originally they were responsible for all local administration in the county, financial, civil and military. Listen to that oath of office. High Sheriffs led their contingents to the Battle of Hastings and at least one died in the battle. The Somerset contingent arrived too late. Over the centuries their responsibilities have decreased. Military duties passed to the Lords Lieutenant when they were appointed in all the southern counties in 1585 to deal with the threat from Spain. (The first Lord Lieutenant of Somerset was Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, 1585-1601.) The High Sheriffs remained responsible for looking after the judges, escorting them, and keeping order in court. For that purpose they had a troop of javelin men during the assize week. In the nineteenth century there were eighteen javelin men and two trumpeters, all mounted and in uniform, and the High Sheriff was responsible for paying for them out of his own pocket. That would have been very expensive. Fortunately in Somerset there was a Sheriffs’ Fund, that is, a fund for the benefit of High Sheriffs, administered by the Under Sheriff. The subscription, for members of the landed gentry who were likely to be appointed, was 5 guineas a year and the Sheriff’s lump sum was £250, provided that he promised to go on paying the annual subscription for the rest of his life. In 1856 the Somerset County Constabulary was established, and in 1860 High Sheriffs were allowed to use the police instead of employing their own javelin men. In most counties the change took place straight away or soon afterwards, but in Somerset the javelin men carried on successfully until the spring assize 1877 when they failed lamentably to keep order in court during a murder trial: Captain William Armstrong, who had been captain of the javelin men for 41 years, was retired and the troop was disbanded. (They were the last javelin men in the Circuit. The change took place in Devon, Gloucestershire, Hampshire and Wiltshire in 1860, in Cornwall in 1862 and in Dorset in 1867.) The Sheriffs’ Fund, which had been established in 1811, was wound up.

High Sheriffs were also responsible for executions, appointing the executioner and deciding the time and place of execution. In 1830 the High Sheriff of Somerset decided that three agricultural labourers who had been convicted at the Wells Assizes of setting fire to several fields of wheat at Kenn Moor should be hanged on site instead of in front of the county prison which was then at Ilchester. In addition to the javelin men a troop of cavalry and 200 constables escorted the convicts from Ilchester to Kenn Moor where they were hanged in front of a crowd of 12,000 to 14,000 people. That was the last scene-of-the-crime hanging in England.

For centuries the barristers on the Western Circuit followed the judges from one assize town to the next. By their own rules they were not allowed to travel by public transport or stage coach. The leaders had their own coach and four, the rest shared a vehicle or rode or walked. In 1814 there were 60 of them. At the end of the summer assize circuit they saluted each other with the words Cras animarum: See you on the morrow of All Souls, which was then the beginning of the legal year. (It was also the date on which High Sheriffs were nominated in the Court of Exchequer until 1752, when it was changed to the morrow of St Martin.) Cras animarum became the Circuit motto. The barristers no longer travel round the circuit, and the assizes have gone, but the Western Circuit continues to flourish as a professional organisation of  barristers with its own elected Leader: it now has more than 1,100 members.

David Pugsley, Hon Archivist of the Western Circuit.
March 2014


Part 2

Wells Legal Sunday is an occasion of historic pageantry. There are two mounted police on guard outside the Cathedral. (At Bristol there are four, also from the Somerset and Avon Constabulary. There are none elsewhere on the Western Circuit.) The horses are black, well trained and smartly turned out, and very impressive. The police took over, after the Assizes at Taunton in April 1877, from the High Sheriff’s mounted javelin men, who had been responsible for ensuring the security of the assize judges, for meeting them on the road outside the city or at the railway station and escorting them to the courts and the lodgings, and for keeping order in court.

At Taunton assizes in March 1875 there was an incident reminiscent of John Gilpin’s famous ride. “The javelin men had mustered near the Castle Hotel, and were presumedly settling down into their saddles, when one of the horses, a high-mettled steed, suddenly bolted, and, in spite of curb or rein, betook himself through East Street and East Reach at a breakneck pace, the rider’s hat being left far behind. Away went the horse and away went the javelin man, one, two, three, four miles out into the country, until somewhere past Thorne railway station the rider managed to bring his nag to a halt, and the animal, being by that time satisfied with his day’s exercise, quietly returned to town, neither man nor horse being the worse for the adventure. The flight down East Reach having been witnessed, quite a crowd collected to see the return journey, and the hero of the ride received an ovation on safely depositing himself again among his companions. The result, however, might have been far different, and it was a matter of congratulation that the equine freak was not attended with fatal, or at least serious, consequences.” (Taunton Courier)

Since the middle ages the judges and the bar had traditionally used horses to travel round the circuit. (And for social purposes during the assize week: at Wells in August 1838, after the Cathedral service on Sunday morning, the judges and the bishop took a ride on horseback to view the Cheddar Cliffs.) When stage coaches appeared, the etiquette of the bar forbade them to use public transport. Gentlemen were expected to use their own horses or to hire them, not to travel with the common herd, not even as inside passengers. There are some interesting accounts of the Western Circuit during the summer assizes in 1827. John Bonham Carter (1788-1838) came from an old and well established Portsmouth family. He was called to the bar and joined the Western Circuit in 1819. In 1826 his fees totalled £927 in London and £922 on circuit. At the end of the year his father’s cousin died and left him a large estate, amounting to several thousand acres, and a majority shareholding in the Pike brewery at Portsmouth, with an annual income of nearly £4,000. He stayed on the circuit for one last year. He had always travelled round the circuit in style and comfort. On 18 August he wrote to his wife from Bridgwater (where the summer assizes were held in odd years until 1853) : “The rain has been incessant with us all the week and has made Bodmin and the Cornish expedition very uncomfortable; but today the sun has shone again, and what with the fine weather, a good ride, and the prospect of home, I have had a most joyous day of it. I was kept at Bodmin till 12 o’clock yesterday, and was forced to separate myself from my party (who left it on Thursday) and find my way to Exeter as I could. I got there however about 10 o’clock last night and rejoined my companions. The horses had been sent on one stage and we overtook them this morning in the carriage, and then had a capital ride of 30 miles to this place, leaving the direct road and turning cross country and over part of the Quantock range of hills. We breakfasted at a public house where there was an excellent fives court, and Tancred and myself distinguished ourselves by beating Erskine and Jones in a very vigorous game.” (The fives wall is still there, next to the Lethbridge Arms, where presumably the party took their breakfast.)

John Taylor Coleridge (1790-1878), a nephew of the poet, had a much more difficult start. He had been called to the bar in 1819 and joined the Western Circuit that summer, one assize later than Bonham Carter. He had financial problems at the beginning. On one occasion in 1825 he was unable to pay his ironmonger and upholsterer; and for some years he frequently walked long distances on the circuit. He recorded in his journal at Bodmin on 5 August 1825: “On Saturday, I started from Exeter on foot, and walked down to Chudleigh … No business here – and I am as poor as a rat.”  In 1827 his fees amounted to £1771, and in July and August for the first time he rode his own horse all round the circuit and kept a record in his journal. Bodmin, 13 August: “My Exeter week jaded me a good deal, and I felt by no means vigorous when I mounted my horse on Sunday morning for Tavistock, and the ride fatigued me a good deal. I have been out of luck in never getting a companion, which has added much to the fatigue of a long journey. I was in better luck as to the weather on this day, which after threatening heavily let me off with a single shower. The ride to Moretonhampstead is beautiful, especially the crossing of the Teign at New Bridge, and the gradual advance into the wild hill country. There is something very fine too in the crossing the moor, though the length of it in the cold (which was rather severe) and solitude was rather wearisome … Yesterday I started with a promise of better weather for Callington … From Callington my journey was in continual rain, and I reached this place perfectly soaking, but have suffered from it far less than I could have expected.”

Bridgwater, 22 August; “I left Bodmin in most threatening weather on Thursday morning, but I managed to get dry to Okehampton, my resting place for the night. The same good luck did not attend me on the next day. Three parts of the way to Exeter I rode in extremely heavy rain – some past the heaviest I almost ever remember. I reached Exeter without a dry thread … I did not feel better for my duckings, or the journey, and was pursuing it the next day pensively enough, my horse seeming sick, and I very uncomfortable, when I was overtaken by an equestrian party, whose society acted like a charm on man and horse. We scampered on as merrily as possible, cross country to Bishop’s Lydeard, and so passing over the beautiful ridge of the Quantocks to this place. I was tired when I reached it, but far better in feelings than when I started in the morning.”

Etiquette prohibited barristers travelling by stage coach to an assize town, but they were allowed to do so to go home and many did so to return to London (two guineas inside, one guinea outside, in the 1830’s). It was not without its risks, as William Hodges found out on his way home after Bodmin assizes in August 1839. (He was born in 1808; called to the bar in 1833, and immediately joined the Western Circuit, the Wiltshire County Sessions and the Salisbury City Sessions; Recorder of Poole, 1846; Chief justice of the Cape Colony from 1858 until his death in 1868.) He boarded the Falmouth mail at Bodmin travelling overnight to Exeter. He was one of three outside passengers, including the Judges’ cook. The regular coachman was ill, and it soon became apparent that his replacement was drunk. The passengers insisted that he should change places with the guard, who was sober but young and inexperienced. Shortly before the Jamaica Inn there is a very steep descent with a sharp turn at the bottom. The young driver intended to drag the wheel down the hill, but when the coachman got down to do so he was so drunk that he fell over. As a result the coach careered down the hill and crashed at the bottom. The inside passengers emerged unscathed, the driver’s knee was badly injured, the cook’s face was dreadfully disfigured, and Hodges had one arm severely fractured. We do not know whether he ever travelled outside on a stage coach after that. He did, however, become an expert on the law of railways, and his Treatise on the law of railways went through seven editions between 1845 and 1888.

The arrival of the railways changed everything. John Coleridge, who had been appointed to the bench in 1835, was the last judge to arrive at Taunton assizes on horseback in March 1845. He came in on the Honiton road, having spent the previous night at home at Ottery St Mary. But there were problems before the railway network was complete. In August 1846 there was a mad dash from Bodmin to Wells. “In consequence of the short time allowed for Bodmin, the officials had the greatest difficulty in getting to Wells in time to save the commission. The horses were all knocked up on the road, and those parties who had been in the habit of having their heavy carriages (some being occupied by five persons and their luggage) drawn by a pair of horses, were compelled to have four, and even then the Clerk of Assize was so late at the station at Exeter that he missed the train and was obliged to have a special one. Some of the counsel were glad to take up their abode for the night at roadside inns, for the horses could convey them no further.” (Taunton Courier)  (There had been a similar mad dash in the opposite direction in 1839. Commission day at Bodmin was Thursday 1 August, and Mr Justice Erskine went on ahead to open the commission. The Times reported: “The business at Exeter, although Mr Justice Coleridge had been sitting for two days from 8 in the morning until 11 at night, did not terminate until 1 o’clock on Thursday, and his Lordship and many of the bar had then to travel 60 miles to Bodmin in the course of the afternoon. Although this would appear a trifling matter near London, or on railways, yet with the Devon and Cornish hills, and 20 mile stages, it is seriously felt, and the inhabitants of Bodmin were kept alive nearly the whole night by the arrival of learned persons from Exeter.”)  After the Bristol assizes in 1846 The Times reported: “This circuit has now concluded. The difficulty of getting from place to place has been very great, as scarcely any post horses are kept, and coaches have gone completely out of fashion.” And there were problems again at Bodmin the following year. “So great has been the alteration in posting in consequence of railways, that the judges were obliged to be contented with a pair of horses each from Liskeard to Bodmin.” (The Times) There were over 50 barristers who actually travelled round the circuit in the 1830’s and 1840’s, and if they all arrived on the same day there simply were not enough horses for all of them.

It was quickly accepted that barristers might travel by train, but it had to be first class. The judges had a separate reserved carriage and sometimes a special train. There was some delay in completing the change-over. The last judge on the Western Circuit to travel in coach and four was Baron Channell in 1860, but after that everyone travelled by train.

The rule against using public transport had its counterpart in the rule against staying in public hotels, and for the same reasons: there was a risk of meeting attornies or solicitors or witnesses. Barristers therefore had lodgings with local tradesmen and often kept the same lodgings from year to year, sometimes for as long as twenty or thirty years. The Taunton Courier published a list of counsel actually present for the spring assizes 1866. It is an impressive list and a good indication of the importance of Somerset assizes in that period. There were 4 leaders: Serjeant John Alexander Kinglake (1805-70), the Leader of the Circuit, MP for Rochester, and Recorder of Bristol (He came from Taunton and was a cousin of Eothen Kinglake); John Burgess Karslake, QC (1821-81), shortly to become Solicitor and then Attorney General under Disraeli (He was also a talented sportsman, opening bat for the Circuit cricket team, a keen stag-hunter and editor of Collyn’s Chase of the wild red deer); John Duke Coleridge, QC, (1820-94), MP for Exeter, a future Solicitor and Attorney General under Gladstone, and Lord Chief Justice of England (He was the son of John Taylor Coleridge, whom we have already mentioned); and John Shapland Stock, QC, (1805-67), Recorder of Exeter. And there were 48 junior counsel, including two future distinguished judges (Bowen and Lopes), two future Indian Chief Justices (Collins and Petheram), four future Recorders of Bristol (Bere, Kingdon, Prideaux and Poole), and a number of future silks and county court judges. It was a very strong list. (By tradition a barrister who was appointed Solicitor or Attorney General could no longer appear on circuit without a special retainer of 300 guineas, so this was one of the last appearances of Karslake and Coleridge at Somerset assizes.)

Since they could not stay in hotels they had lodgings with local tradesmen, the four leaders with a grocer, a stationer, a builder and a chemist respectively. For the junior counsel there were a builder, a draper, a tailor, a perfumer, an ironmonger, a spirit merchant, a silversmith, a plumber, a photographer, a saddler and a druggist. No later lists have survived, but it seems unlikely that the prohibition lasted very long. In Exeter ten years later half of counsel were staying in hotels, but the Rules and Regulations of the Western Circuit in 1940 still said: “Members of the Mess are not allowed to use public rooms in any hotel in the assize town during the assizes. A Mess room is provided in each Bar Hotel.”

Wells and Taunton no longer see High Court judges or the national leaders of the bar, but local barristers still attend Wells Legal Sunday and take part in the procession to the Cathedral.

When members of the Circuit were not in court they could be found at their lodgings or at the Bar Hotel: the Swan at Wells, the Castle at Taunton, the Royal Clarence at Exeter. Samuel Carter was not a member of the Western Circuit, which is why his entry says: Assize Courts, & 17, East Street.

There is a story in Yeatman’s Recollections, repeated in Harwood’s Circuit Ghosts, about Christopher Rawlinson. He had been Wine Treasurer on the circuit from 1883 until 1899, when he was appointed Clerk of Arraigns and a dinner was held in his honour in the Inner Temple. During the assizes Rawlinson was staying at Pople’s New London Hotel, which was the Bar hotel at Exeter at the time. One night there was a fire at the hotel and it was necessary to evacuate all the guests, some of them through an upstairs window. The local paper the next day reported that among the guests seen leaving the hotel because of the fire were Mr Rawlinson, the well known Associate of the Western Circuit, and his wife. Rawlinson, who was a bachelor, immediately demanded a correction and apology. Accordingly in the next issue the following paragraph appeared: “With reference to our report of the recent fire at Pople’s Hotel, we are asked to state that the lady who escaped with Mr Rawlinson in her night attire was not his wife.”

This story is apocryphal. Rawlinson did not stay at Pople’s New London Hotel, and there was no fire there during this period. When Rawlinson joined the circuit in 1874 he had private lodgings, according to tradition and etiquette, first at 23 East Southernhay, then at 3, Dix’s Field, and then, from at least 1885 until 1908, at Mrs Gould’s, 37, Southernhay West. From 1909 until 1914 he stayed at the Rougemont Hotel. He died in 1916.

The idea for the story goes back to the Taunton assizes in February 1891. Rawlinson had lodgings in the house of Mr Minns, piano and organ manufacturer, in North Street. At five o’clock one morning a serious fire broke out, causing enormous damage to the building and Mr Minns’ stock in trade. There were eight occupants at the time: Mr and Mrs Minns, two sons, two daughters, one servant and Rawlinson. They all escaped through the back first floor window. The Exeter & Plymouth Gazette head-lined: A BARRISTER RESCUED IN HIS NIGHT-DRESS, and added that he was not able to save a single article of his property.

The story itself sounds to me like an after-dinner joke, perhaps told by Mr Warry, QC, who presided at the dinner in Rawlinson’s honour in the Inner Temple in May 1900.

David Pugsley, Honorary Circuit Archivist

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