The right to trial by jury has been traditionally acknowledged as a pillar of the English legal system. Under the principle of ‘twelve good men and true’, juries had been trusted for centuries with the responsibility of dispensing justice impartially and according to evidence. Defendants had the right to be tried ‘by their peers’, but juries had always been composed entirely of men. In 1919, reforms in the law allowed women to take their seats as jurors in a criminal trial for the first time. The trial took place here in Bristol in 1920, and not everyone was entirely happy about it.
The Consistory Court was established in Bristol following the creation of the bishopric and diocese in 1542. Previously the Bristol parishes north of the river Avon had been part of the diocese of Worcester, while the parishes south of the river were in the diocese of Bath and Wells. In this article, Joseph Bettey explores a neglected source for local history and genealogy in Bristol and the surrounding area: the records of the Church or Consistory Court. Proceedings of the court, including statements by witnesses, were recorded in detail, and 45 Cause Books survive starting in 1545, as well as numerous bundles of Cause Papers from 1600.Ecclesiastical jurisdiction dealt with many aspects of daily life, including disputes over wills, marriage and inheritance, offences such as heresy, immorality, drunkenness and slander, failure to attend church and misdemeanours of the clergy.
George Donisthorpe was the resident magistrate of the town of Somerton in Somerset. In 1796 he was tried for 'wilful neglect of his duty as a magistrate' in refusing to assist in quelling a riot and 'with having rather encouraged it.' The public prosecution of a Justice of the Peace was a rare occurrence. Traditionally, the local magistrate was represented as a paternal figure 'guiding the conduct' and ensuring the wellbeing of the deferential poor. Their wealth and status placed them beyond reproach. In this article, Rose Wallis illustrates the increasingly precarious position of magistrates in the period, as their discretionary powers and paternal authority were eroded by the centralisation of government control.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Weston Super Mare had grown into the most flourishing and fashionable seaside resort in Somerset, its close proximity to Bristol making it readily accessible to thousands of visitors by road and rail. Early Victorian resort economies were dependent to a large extent upon a perception of social tranquillity and calm. Despite rapid expansion, in the mid 1850s Weston still only had six constables to keep its fragile peace. Steve Poole tells the story of the series of disturbances in 1861 which shattered the towns calm façade.
In the years after 1600 Taunton was marked by a heady mixture of radical Puritanism and the volatile wool trade. Together these pitched Taunton into the centre of the Civil War in the area and, on two occasions in the second half of the seventeenth century, into open rebellion against the government. William Gibson follows Taunton’s transition from a centre of rebellion to peaceable borough in the eighteenth century.
‘Shortly after midnight on 3rd October 1730, a series of brilliant 'fire balls' or hand-made grenades were seen arching through the air on St Augustine's Back, Bristol, and over the back wall of George Packer's large and opulent mansion house. There was 'a noise like the report of several guns', followed by quickly spreading flames. Within minutes, the merchant's home was ablaze, his household in full flight, and it was only a favourable wind that prevented the flames spreading to nearby warehouses and the dense flotilla of wooden ships crowding the adjacent quay.’ In this article, Steve Poole uncovers a story of organised extortion by arson at Bristol, and the ethnic and religious prejudices which it exposed.
The first recorded Quaker meeting in Wiltshire took place in 1653. From the very beginning, the Wiltshire Quakers were met with staunch opposition from the local authorities of law and order. It was widely believed among the ruling elite that the nonconformist nature of Quakerism would lead to widespread resistance to authority. In this article, Kay Taylor looks into the ways in which Quakerism in Wiltshire was criminalised, how the Quaker community sought to justify their practices, and the phenomenon of martyrdom.
Mary Hamilton was perhaps the most notorious cross-dresser or ‘female-husband’ of her day. She lived in Somerset, among other places, and was the subject of scandal across the country for her habitual crime of marrying other women. Her story was preserved in the pages of an anonymous pamphlet by a famous contemporary novelist and dramatist. Through the story of Mary Hamilton, Sheila Hannon considers the rights and responsibilities of modern-day novelists and dramatists in their use of historical evidence. To what extent can writers take liberties with historical record in the name of ‘dramatic license’, when much of the ‘historical evidence’ that remains is itself fiction?
As we entered the new Millennium, historians reflected on the main events which shaped our lives. One of these achievements has been that women in Britain obtained the vote. Many books have been written and various debates undertaken regarding Emmeline Pankhurst's suffrage movement, the W omen's Social and Political Union (WSPU). However, there were many women who fought for this cause who have had little or no acknowledgement over the years. Pearl Jebb writes a short piece as a tribute to a Suffragette who seems to have been forgotten.