the latter part of November, nightly in Wareham and just after
dark, a quaint band of men can be seen gathering outside of a
hostelry, some are in top hats, some in bowlers, most are in some
form of archaic dress and all are wearing a highly polished brass
medal suspended from a red ribbon.
Once inside the pub they merrily start their work, under the supervision
of a tall man in a plus-four suit, whom they refer to as 'Mr.
Bailiff. They check the quality of leather goods, weigh a sample
of the local bread. taste and report on the quality of the ale,
sweep the pub chimney and so on: often levying the Landlord for
failing to maintain suitable standards.
These men are the Officers and Jury of the Wareham Court Leet:
a present day survival of an ancient local court, which existed
long before the current parallel systems of local and central
government. They are carrying out a ceremony handed down through
the generations, in some cases from father to son, since the time
of the Norman Conquest.
These courts were once held in most towns and villages in the
country, presided over by the Lord of the Manor and dealt exclusively
with local matters. In particular, they addressed local government
and policing issues such as trading standards and breaches of
Court Leet Song
& music by Graeme Meek performed by Life and Times
Sadly, most of the courts are now long-gone and most are not even remembered,
although some 30-odd courts still exist in England today
The survivors each take a very different form, as they are so ancient
that there is no common organisation capable of enjoining some form
of standardisation between them.
Even so, most courts have lost the majority of their powers, although
the Royal Manors, such as the Royal Manor of Portland Court Leet and
the New Forest Verderers still retain most of theirs.
Wareham Court Leet follows a regular format, the origins of which are
lost in the 'mists of time'. The Court meets nightly during the last
week in November, from Monday to Thursday, and two pubs are inspected
In the 'good old days' (we younger members are told!), the court dealt
with three pubs on some nights. That was when the 'Pure Drop in West
Street and 'Lord Nelson' by St Martin's Church were still open. What
was it like in the 'good, good' old days when there were many more pubs
in the town? The olduns don't know the answer to that one!
On the Friday of the Court Leet week, the more serious business takes
place, when the Court sits in the Town Hall to assess the weeks events
and take 'presentments' from the Jury.
court adjourns at midday to the 'Black Bear' for lunch; generously provided
by the Lord of the Manor in gratitude to his Officers and Jury for their
faithful service throughout the year. And so another court year ends
- although during that year other events are held, such as the Commons
Inspection when members of the court are conveyed by tractor and trailer
around the common land before departing to a local hostelry for discussions
Various evenings also take place throughout the year, presenting awards
to the landlords for achieving high standards in their public houses.
A Ladies Night takes place in January, when members of the Court thank
their ladies for their support during the year and a Court Leet church
service is held in October, when thanks are given to the Creator for
the unrivalled gift of friendship and brotherhood afforded by such an
association as ours.
The eight public houses in Wareham will be inspected during the last
full week in November, from 7 p.m. nightly. On the Monday night, the
Horse and Groom and the Quay Inn are inspected, followed by the Antelope
and the Duke of Wellington on the Tuesday, the King's Arms and the Railway
Tavern on Wednesday and, finally, the Red Lion and Black Bear on the
The court sits on the Friday in the Council Chamber of the Town Hall
at twelve o'clock noon (when the clock strikes thirteen!) and members
of the public are welcome to attend.
The Court Leet of the Manor of Wareham is one of the few surviving
remains of a once powerful feudal court system.
The word 'leet' is ancient and possibly derives from the Anglo-French
word 'Iitte' meaning a list and the word is still in use in Scotland
for a list of candidates for office.
The court leet would have dealt with everything within the Manor of
Wareham concerned with local government amid the maintenance of law
and order. Such courts originated in the century following the Norman
Conquest some 800 years ago and in those days, two forms of this system
of local government were in force:
Courts Baron was the automatic right of a Lord to settle disputes
etc. and to aid in the administration of his estate, but they had
no right to deal with crimes or punish offenders.
the more powerful courts of criminal jurisdiction, granted by the King
to one of his trusted Tenants-in-chief In those days, law and order
was also self-administered by the 'Frankpledge' system, where people
were responsible for the conduct of one another in groups of ten householders
(hence the word 'tithe' meaning a tenth); if one offended then the other
nine were held responsible.
When necessary, the 'Hue and Cry' system aided in the speedy apprehension
of offenders. With the establishment of democratic Parliament and local
government control, the court leet system gradually lost its powers:
After the I880s courts leet no longer imposed fines. In 1925 the 'Law
of Property Act' abolished many manorial rights; and, finally In 1977
court leet functions were further reduced to their current level during
local government reorganization.
The court leet of Wareham convenes at the end of November and consists
of the office-holders listed below, many of whom, in recent years, have
followed in the footsteps of their forefathers as members of the court.
The Lord of the Manor: Mr. J.D.C.Ryder who succeeded to the title
in 1986, following his father, who had held title for 58 years.
The Steward: Appointed by the Lord as his right-hand-man, quite
literally the 'sty-ward, with the word sty in this case meaning 'hall'.
The Hayward: Appointed by the Lord as responsible for 'enclosures
and fences'; that is the so-called 'common land'.
The Bailiff: Appointed by the Lord to administer 'arrests and
summonses' and, in practice, to supervise court matters.
The Officers: Appointed annually by the Jury as follows:
Constables: to ensure law and order during court sessions.
Ate tasters: to check that a true pint and true quart are offered
and to taste the quality of the ale.
to check the freshness of the meat and poultry.
Bread Weiglers: to check the freshness and weight of the bread
and to ensure a consistent two-pound loaf throughout the manor.
Surveyors of Chimneys and Mantles (otherwise know as 'chimney
peepers): to check that chimneys are swept clean; a measure introduced
after the fire of Wareham in 1762, when a large part of the town was
Scavengers: to ensure standards of hygiene within the 'lanes
and privies' of the town. to guard against the spread of infectious
Leather Sealer: to maintain the quality of leather goods.
In addition to the above are the Foreman of the Jury and his Deputy,
presiding over the nominal twelve Jurymen who are appointed by the Bailiff.
The current official functions of the court are the appointment of officers,
the swearing in of the jury, the taking of presentments with respect
to the common land, the town walls, the town pound and other matters
of local concern, and, perhaps more importantly, maintaining the ancient
and time-honored traditions of the court