Friday, November 9, 2012
A book which paints a vivid picture of life in the old city courts when the Riot Act was read.
By the end of the 18th century Norwich’s prosperity was waning quickly. People were hungry and there was trouble on the streets.
The Guildhall was at the centre of city life. This was where the magistrates of the day ruled the city with a rod of iron but the people were angry.
In 1766 an anonymous letter to the justices, especially directed at shopkeeper James Poole was published by the Norfolk Chronicle.
“Mr Pooll, this is to latt you know and the rest of you justices of the Pase that if bakers and butchers and market do not sall thar commovits ar a reasnabell rate, your fine house will be set on fire all on one night - all you grand Rogues,”
The furious magistrates responded by offering a reward of £100, a massive sum, leading to the conviction of the letter writer but it is not recorded if he was ever caught.
These troubled times are told in the new book Nothing But The truth telling the story of 650 years of the Norwich magistracy and 600 years since the first prisoners arrived at the Guildhall.
Journalist and magistrate Dick Meadows, along with several of his colleagues, give us a fascinating insight into life in the courtrooms over the centuries - from whippings to community service orders.
The original Riot Act was passed in 1715. It made it a serious offence for twelve or more people not
to disperse within one hour of the Act being read to them by a magistrate.
The 18th and 19th centuries were tough for the poor with famine, food shortages and high prices,
and Norwich had a long standing tradition of riots and civil disorders
Hundreds of wooden staves were stored at the Guildhall to help keep the peace. Lives were lost in violent street battles as the people ran riot.
Distress, writes serving magistrate Stephen Slack, was at its peak during two decades following the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815.
In January of 1830 there was a dispute over wages paid to the weavers and between 3,000 and 4,000 of them interrupted a meeting of the Court of Guardians who were responsible for the relief of the poor.
“Whatever the rights and wrongs of each incident, it has to be said that actually reading the Riot Act to an angry crowd must have taken real courage,” says Stephen.
“Norwich Justices of the Peace and the militia that supported them may have been representatives of those who had the most to lose by meeting the demands of the crowd and some of them clearly had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
“There were, undoubtedly, some magistrates who were corrupt or just plain idle and inefficient, but many in the city were decent men who sought to maintain law and order in a just and fair way,” adds Stephen.
<t> Next time: How stealing a glass bottle could result in transportation. A life sentence for most who never managed to raise the money to get home after serving their time.
Thank you to everybody - and there were more than 300 entries - who entered the competition to win a copy of Nothing But The Truth: A History of Norwich Magistracy by Dick Meadows in the shops now.
I asked when the first prisoners arrived at the Guildhall and the answer was 1412 - 600 years ago.
The first four names out of the hat with the correct answer came from:
Mrs D J Curl of Norwich.
Rod Bulldeath of Norwich.
Mrs J Laird of Norwich.
Malcolm Leeds of Old Catton.