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.
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
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
Brief History of Wareham Court Leet
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
Leet were 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.