by David Shavreen
Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 8 (1999)
The records kept by individual vestries (the vestry was the governing body of the parish) and by the local manorial courts provide a rich source for information about the past history of an area. David Shavreen has trawled through the records of New Brentford (which was a narrow strip of land between the River Brent and Half Acre) and here takes us on a chronological tour to illustrate how law and order was maintained.
By 1616, when the Vestry Minutes and Accounts of the Chapel Wardens of St Lawrence, New Brentford begin, the vestry was presided over by the Lord of the Manor, Sir Edward Spencer, ably assisted by the wealthiest family in town, the Hawleys, with rights over the market which dated back to the Middle Ages.
A yearly meeting of the Vestry appointed Chapel Wardens, Overseers of the Poor and Surveyors of the Highways, but the appointment of the High Constable and his minion, the Head Borough, fell to the Manorial Court. The constable served for one year and was usually elected by rotation from among the local farmers and craftsmen – the better-off members of the community. The office was unpaid and no expenses were given for loss of earnings. In dealing with petty law and order the constable was responsible for the stocks, the pillory and the cage or village lock-up. He raised the hue and cry, saw to the whipping of vagrants, secured prisoners and escorted them to the Quarter Sessions or Assizes. He also had to collect the rates, out of which he paid for the House of Correction, for roads and bridges and the national taxes. His military duties included the raising of the militia plus provision for its accommodation and transport. In addition he responsible for the lighting of beacons, for weights and measures and the supervision of ale houses. All these activities are reflected in the pages of the vestry accounts.
There are many intriguing entries. A somewhat unusual one appears in the record for 1634: ‘Paid Robert Warden (a smith by trade) the Constable which he dispurs’d for conveying away the witches 11s. 0d.’
Brentford had long been associated with witches. Falstaff, in the Merry Wives of Windsor, disguised himself as the old fortune-telling Fat Woman of Brentford, whom Master Ford swore was a witch. However, the witches taken away by Robert Warden were no doubt of more humble origin. Typically such women were old and poor and the victims of the gossiping slander of neighbours who accused them of bringing sickness to both men and beasts.
Religion & Riots
During the 17th century, religion was increasingly a subject of contention. Roman Catholics were intensely unpopular and Gunpowder Day was universally observed with much ringing of the church bells and bonfires in the streets. The Established Church, on the other hand, was under threat from all those who, gathered under the umbrella of Puritanism, felt that the Church and the Crown were the great obstacles to freedom of trade and belief. Some people were prepared to defend these freedoms by refusing to attend Church, even though this meant a heavy fine. As early as 1625 fines for non-attendance at St Lawrence’s were imposed on John Coggan, a chandler and his wife Ellen, and on John Gates, yeoman and his wife Susan. By 1640 the list included Lady Mountgarett (widow) and Thomas le Folly (yeoman) and in 1642 John Holloway and John Jennings (cooper) were both reported for not resorting to church on seven consecutive Sundays from 11th October.
In 1656 the minutes record moneys received for ‘disorder and travailing upon the Sabbath Day’ from:
‘Mr Gould for being drunken and swearing an oath, 8s 4d.
Richard Hickson (inn-keeper) for disorders in his house, 10s.
Robert Leaver for the like, 10s.
For one Benson of Kingston for being drunk, 5s.
One Soames of Old Brentford for being the like, 5s.
Edward M. Melrose, a carpenter of London, for breach of the Sabbath, 10s.’
These are massive fines and failure to pay led almost inevitably to prison, which was also the fate of those whose religious beliefs aroused the fury of the mob. In 1659 the mob’s fury was directed against the Quakers, whose movement had begun preaching in London in 1654. Below is an extract from A Brief History of the Quakers in Brentford and Isleworth, edited by Joan Wilding:
‘On the eighth of the month called May, John Tysoe, being at a meeting at Brentford, fell under a great concern of mind to go to the steeple-house there, where he began to exhort the people to Repentance and the fear of the Lord but with undeserved returns for his Christian counsel: they falling furiously upon him, pulled him about, thrust him and rent his clothes, stopping his mouth with their hands and, dragging him by the hair of his head, cried “Kill him, kill him”. After which they put his legs in the stocks and left him lying there with his head and shoulders on the ground; and at last had him before a Justice, who committed him to Newgate.’
Disturbances for reasons other than religion are also recorded. In 1668 ‘certain persons of Brentford’ are summoned to the Quarter Sessions to answer for a riot and in 1670 William Smith of New Brentford has to appear before the Justices in London ‘for dispensing a wicked and false scandal upon several inhabitants of the Parish’. About the same time ‘one Thomas Townsend made oath that about St Thomas’s Day last (21st December) Richard White threatened to set fire to the Red Lion’. It was in the Great Room there, that the magistrates dispensed justice.
Malpractice and Markets
In 1670 James Clitherow, a London merchant, bought Boston Manor House from the former Lord, John Gouldsmith, and with it the right to all the feudal dues and duties attached. These rights were enforced in the Courts Baron and Leet held at frequent intervals usually at the Red Lion or the Three Pigeons. The rights of such courts developed over the centuries included arrangements for maintaining law and order, the inspection of weights and measures, the quality and measurement of essential foods such as bread and ale, the presentment and punishment of petty crimes, encroachments on commons or roads and nuisances such as the fouling of commons. The inhabitants of the Ham, for example, ‘allow their pigs to run wild, they build privies, they make dung hills, they dig up and sell gravel and sand, they dig sawpits to expedite their building operations and, though fined, they persist.’
Occasionally major crime is recorded. In 1692 when the surviving records begin there is an account of the confiscation by the Lord of’ several messuages and tenements, with their appurtenances’, of George Caswell executed for the murder of Andrew Hickson. More typical was the case of Isaac Goring convicted at the Assizes ‘for persuading Thomas Brooks apprenticed to Henry Linacre to desert his Master’s Service for encouraging Brooks to rob Jane Scale and others in the King’s Highway’. He was fined 13s 4d and was ordered ‘to be put in and upon the Pillory in New Brentford Market Place, upon such market day as the sheriff shall speedily appoint for one hour with a paper over his head showing his offence.’
In 1706 we get a brief picture of rascally goings-on in the police force with two entries from the Petty Sessions: ‘Robert King former chief constable of New Brentford to pay Moses Bodicott, gentleman, the money he has received from the rates for passing vagrants’. ‘Robert Pattin chosen chief constable in place of Robert King who has absconded.’
The Market, of course, was the focus of the little township and a noisy bustling place it was. The manorial records highlight typical incidents: ‘in 1704 Elizabeth Staines, the wife of a coachman, pleaded guilty at the Quarter Sessions to an assault on John Howard. The court ‘ordered her to make a submissive and public acknowledgement of the said offence in the open market at Brentford where she gave the abuse to the said Mr Howard and to ask his pardon there, which Mr Howard is willing to accept in regard to the poverty of John Staines, her husband.’
In 1711 an old woman, a pilferer, ran away and left one turkey, one chicken, one small pewter dish, all valued at 5s. They were claimed by Mr Ponting in whose hands they were left. In 1714 Langland’s widow was killed by the kick of a cow belonging to her son, Richard, and a composition for a deed and two guineas was raised. In 1716 a man was stabbed at the Wolf Inn and in 1717 the indigent coachman, John Staines was appointed beadle. In 1720 the Justices ordered the township to provide new stocks, a cage and a whipping post to supplement whatever forms of punishment were in use. Christopher Clitherow was approached for a grant of ‘part of the waste lying between the roads leading over Brentford Bridge and throw [through] the Brent River towards Hounslow’ explaining the need to provide ‘for the better securing and punishing all loose and idle persons.’
The cage was to be ‘eight foot square, in the clear height 7 foot to the evesplates to be built of timber, weather boarded without with fir, and lined within with elm boards, the foundation brickwork, the stocks and a whipping post to be affixed and penthouse over them.’
An early occupant of the cage was Deborah Street ‘a lunatick’ who was in 1721 ordered to be moved to the mad-house at Lambeth Marsh ‘or elsewhere till she recovers from her lunacy.’
Bonfires & Bells
In 1718, we learn that the Bellman was given a greatcoat. His duties as security officer and time-keeper, pleasant enough no doubt, became onerous on dark wintry nights when he was vulnerable to attack by robbers or drunken young blades. His duties were laid out for him and reiterated towards the middle of the century when it would appear that there had been some laxity in performance: ‘He was to go round the parish twice a night between the hours of twelve and four from the 1st November to 1st March in the dark hours and should his courage fail him or the weather being inclement he decide to stay indoors, he would be subject to instant dismissal.’
The long-established habit of celebrating by lighting bonfires in the streets became a source of ‘divers complaints by Travellers and Townspeople’ in 1748 after the defeat of the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden. It was ordered ‘that for the future if there shall be any necessity for a bonfire, the same shall be made in the Butts.’
It was on the hustings of the Butts that the Middlesex elections took place and they became a focus for political agitation. Tempers became inflamed through a heady combination of political involvement and drink according to an account of a riot in the Market Place in 1768 where the cry was ‘ Wilkes and Liberty’ and it was here that a young man, George Clarke, met his death at the hands of two security men, Lawrence Balf and Edward McQuirk, who had used their bludgeons to quell his enthusiasm. The two were arrested, charged with murder, tried, sentenced to death but afterwards pardoned by royal prerogative since Clarke had not succumbed instantly to his wounds. He had picked himself up, joined the cheering crowds and gone on a drinking bout before finally collapsing a few days later.
Brentford High Street was a major stopping place on the route from London to the West Country but the dark narrow road had long been an invitation to robbery and in 1767 an Act of Parliament was passed to secure powers to light the High Street with oil lamps. In the next two years a fund was launched for ‘paving the footways in the township of New Brentford.’
In 1778, the New Brentford vestry was asked to consider what methods should be used ‘to put into execution the more effectual observation of the Sabbath and to prevent drunkeness and profaneness.’ The suggested remedy was to erect a new pair of stocks and to distribute around the parish five hundred abstracts of the Penal Law with the stern warning ‘that it is the design of the inhabitants to put the law in execution according to His Majesty’s late proclamation.’
War with France broke out in 1793 and the burdens on the poor increased. A cold wet summer followed by a poor harvest reinforced the public mood of hostility to the Government and to its costly and so far ineffectual war against France. The protests of the Brentford poor even crept into the church where it was reported that the ringers had refused to ring the bell on 5 November 1798 or to celebrate the anniversary of Charles II’s accession to the throne. Their behaviour, it was reported, ‘had been extremely improper, particularly on the 4th June last, when they got into the belfry between one and two in the morning and rang the bells.’ No doubt their enthusiasm had been fired in one of New Brentford’s ale-houses in view of an indignant note of 23 September 1800: ‘That the Beadle be directed to acquaint the ale-house keepers in this Township that complaints have been made against many of them that they harbour idle or disorderly persons and keep their houses open at unreasonable hours in the night, and often on Sundays during Divine Service’. By the end of that year the vestry had come to the conclusion ‘that there are more public houses in this town than are necessary’ and by an act that must have caused consternation amongst the alehouse keepers, withdrew licences from the Rose and Crown and the Rising Sun.
Robberies and Rewards
In 1775 a robbery in the Church had resulted in a rush to London to seek advice from the famous Middlesex magistrate, blind Sir John Fielding (half brother to novelist Henry Fielding). Robbery was on the increase. In 1800 John Franklin committed a highway robbery and was duly sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay. However, as a result of his good conduct he was pardoned in the King’s name by the Governor and thus permitted to come home.
In 1801 there was an attempted robbery in the church, the details of which are set out in the records:
‘… this chapel was, early on Friday morning, the 27th February last, sacriligously broken into, the vestry room entered and attempts made to remove an iron chest which was inserted in the wall and contained the Communion plate. The watchman of this township in endeavouring to secure three villains as they were coming out of the church was severely wounded in the head by a ball from a pistol … the said villains had left behind them a horse and cart, a brace of pistols, a hand crow, dark lanthorn etc’.
The church wardens immediately assembled some of the principal inhabitants to decide what to do. The robbery was reported to the police in London and bills were posted around the neighbourhood offering a reward of £50 on the capture and conviction of any of these robbers. The watchman recovered but was in no fit shape to resume his duties and was duly discharged with a golden handshake of five guineas.
The ripples of the Industrial Revolution reached Brentford in the early 19th century with the opening of the Grand Junction Canal. Breweries, mills and other industries began to displace the previous agricultural economy. The coming of the railways, the opening of Brentford Dock, the waterworks, gas works and factories increased noise and pollution, changing the character of New Brentford. In July 1861 there are complaints to the vestry of the ‘annoyance to which the inhabitants are subjected by persons standing about in the streets and obstructing the foopaths thereof and by the obscene, blasphemous and immoral language which are so shamefully and indecently prevalent in the streets of the township at all hours of the day and night.’
The vestry demanded that a requisition be sent to the Inspector of the Police, requesting that the police take action ‘ to prevent such conduct, within the sanctions of the law of the land’.
This is almost the last entry in the vestry minutes which cease in 1863. During the 19th century powers had been stripped away from the vestry and given to a variety of elected boards and councils. Policing had become the responsibility of police commissioners in 1829 and an Act of 1839 allowed JPs to create a county force of chief and petty constables. The rough and ready systems that had proved adequate in the past were being transformed into a modem industry.
David Shavreen lives in Brentford and has long been interested in its history. He retired 12 years ago after 40 years in the teaching profession, mainly teaching in schools in Brentford and Chiswick.