Western Circuit

Winter Assizes 1960

For centuries there were two regular assizes each year, in the spring, March/April, and the summer, July/August, and two judges went to all the assize towns on the circuit trying civil and criminal cases in the traditional clockwise order: Hampshire (Winchester), Wiltshire (Salisbury, or Devizes from 1835), Dorset (Dorchester), Devon (Exeter), Cornwall (Bodmin), Somerset (Taunton or Wells) and Bristol. Only one judge went to Bristol, which had only civil assizes, and indeed until 1858 only one civil assize in the summer, until 1865 when the city recovered the criminal assize from Gloucester, where it had been held since 1835, when the old Bristol criminal assize was abolished after the riots of 1832 against Sir Charles Wetherell, the Recorder of Bristol and sole judge of the court of assize. Occasionally there were winter assizes, as and when and where required, with a single judge for criminal cases. During this period all the counties on the circuit, apart from Bristol, were treated equally.

The change began in 1876, making a distinction between the three major cities and the four minor counties and abandoning the old clockwise circuit of assize towns. In October 1876 a list of new counties was created. Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset were grouped together to form a new county with the imaginative name of Winter Assize County, No. 9, tha assizes to be held in Winchester. Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Bristol were grouped together to form Winter Assize County, No. 10, the assizes to be held in Exeter. In 1879 the list was revised and re-numbered. Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset remained together as Assize County, No. 14; Devon and Cornwall were combined to form Assize County, No. 15; and Somerset and Bristol were combined to form Assize County, No. 16. From 1879 to 1887 there were four assizes a year, two for the new Assize Counties for criminal business only, and two for all the assize towns on the circuit for civil and criminal business in the traditional way. Until 1884 the circuit followed the traditional order of assize towns, but on 26 June 1884 an Order in Council introduced a new order for the assize towns and new arrangements for the number of judges: in the four minor counties there would be a single judge and he would be joined in Exeter by the assize judge from Maidstone and Guildford so that there would be two judges for the three major cities. Lord Coleridge CJ visited Salisbury, Dorchester, Wells and Bodmin on his own, and was joined at Exeter by Field J for Exeter, Bristol and Winchester. And in January 1885 Pollock B visited Devizes, Dorchester, Taunton and Bodmin on his own, and was joined at Exeter by Manisty J for Exeter, Bristol and Winchester. That is the same assize towns in the same order and the same system of one judge and then two that we find in the Winter Assizes, 1960.

In 1888 the Winter Assize Counties were abandoned and the number of assizes was reduced from four to three, two for one judge for the four minor counties and a second judge for the three major cities, and one for a single judge going all round the circuit in the new order for criminal business only.

There is an account of the Western Circuit and its assize towns in J Alderson Foote, Pie-Powder (1911, re-printed by the Western Circuit, 1999), pages 7-12.

In three assizes MacKinnon J went the “Long Western” Circuit, by which he meant all seven assize towns as opposed to the “Short Western” with only three. In January 1929 that included Devizes and Taunton, and Rowlatt J joined him at Exeter. In January 1934 it was the same circuit and Talbot J joined him at Exeter. In July 1936 the circuit included Salisbury and Wells, and MacKinnon was alone for the first four assize towns and joined by Goddard J for the last three. There are extensive accounts in On Circuit, 1924-1937 (CUP, 1940), pages 132-148, 245-251 and 283-290. MacKinnon, who had visited every circuit and all the assize towns apart from Appleby, Bury St Edmunds and Oakham, concluded (p. 251) “there is no circuit so pleasant as the Western.”

There is a later account of the Circuit in Francis D Yeatman, Recollections of the Western Circuit (published by the Western Circuit, 2000), pages 219-230.

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Western Circuit