Law and Order

Long Alley
Long Alley

Unlike other parts of the country, where the royal courts came into each county on circuit twice a year to deal with serious offences at county assizes, Middlesex had the advantage of housing the royal courts and therefore could not hold an assize court. The courts of King’s Bench and Common Pleas dealt with both enquiries into treasons and felony (commissions of oyer and terminer) and of gaol delivery. Indictments for sessions of the peace or oyer and terminer were initially held before the grand jury.

In Elizabethan times there were two sessions of the peace and yearly bundles survive from their proceedings. These include gaol delivery files, special indictments and inquest records. There are also coroners' inquest records. Between them the files provide a glimpse into the world of local law-breakers and unexpected deaths. It is impossible to give an indication of the amount of crime from the records, since they are solely concerned with crime where at least one party was apprehended.

Punishments were savage. Theft of items worth more than 1s (5p) was a capital offence and punishable by death. The accused could in theory have stayed silent in the face of the accusation, but in which case he or she would be subjected to ‘prisone forte at dure’ - of being laid naked on his or her back with as great a weight as could be borne without immediately being crushed and left there until death. Most accused pleaded guilty to avoid this fate. Death by hanging could also be avoided by the literate, by proving that they could read. The offender was then branded, but a subsequent offence would result in death - unless the mark of the brand could somehow be removed.

There are a range of cases of assault, theft and burglary. In the summer of 1571 John Sheppard, alias Coxe, attacked Thomas Ferrys, a butcher, on the road “from Kynsgland to Newyington” (i.e. between the south end of Kingsland High Street and Stoke Newington High Street). Sheppard plunged a meat knife through Ferrys’ body near the heart, killing him instantly.

In 1575, a gang of five men assaulted Mathew Davy, a servant of William Marshall “in the highway at Hackney” (possibly on or near Mare Street). The goods are itemised in the indictment and consist of:

“…five yards of blewe woollen cloth worth thirty five shillings, a satten dublett worth thirty shillings, a Spanish-lether jerkyn, worth thirteen shillings and four pence, a piece of woollen cloth of marble colour worth thirteen shillings, ‘unum par’ braccarum vocat’ a paire of gascoynes’ worth twelve shillings, a piece of buckram worth ten-pence, a piece of Tuke (sic) worth twelve pence, of the goods and chattels of the said William Marshall

Davy also lost some his own possessions:

“…a marble coloured woollen cloth worth eighteen shillings, a sword and dagger worth sixteen shillings, a black woollen cloth cloak worth six shillings and eight pence, and three shillings and four pence in numbered money..”

Four of the thieves had been caught, and like Sheppard, were sentenced to be hanged. One, Robert Marrye, was ‘still at large

Men were not the only offenders. On 12 June 1583, an argument between Anne Haselton and Felicia Walden, a widow, turned nasty and Haselton was stabbed in the lower part of her body with a knife. She took a painful three weeks to die of her wound, according to the coroner’s inquest.

One rape is recorded, though a particularly unpleasant one. In 1591 Garrett Radkyn assaulted Katherine Newby, aged eight in Hackney. The sentence is not recorded.

The record of burglaries gives some idea of the goods local people owned. In April 1592 Leonard Skelton broke into the house of Thomas Peasaker at Hackney and stole:

“…a woman’s gown of sheeps russett colour worth twenty shillings, six pewter pottes worth ten shillings, eight pewter dishes worth six shillings and eight pence, and two brasse pottes worth ten shillings”

which was enough to get him hung.

In January 1603, John Squyer, Thomas Dixon and William Greene, all Londoners, travelled out to Hackney and broke into the house of John Shelley, a prosperous yeoman and stole

“…a lokinge glass worth four shillings, a linen napkin worth six pence, and a handkerchief worth four pence, of the goods and chattels of the same John Shelley”

Possibly the thieves were using the linen to wrap up their principle piece of booty, the looking glass. Again, hanging was the outcome.

There must have been some thieves whom the neighbourhood must have felt well rid of. Stealing horses was the 16th century equivalent of stealing cars, and was obviously a speciality of Henry Bowyer, who in 1600:

“…stole a baye nagg worth forty shillings, of the goods and chattels of William Crowther"

- also nine other indictments of the same Henry Bowyer for stealing horses in and about London from different owners on days of June, August and October at

"Stepney, Hackeney, Beddnollgreene and Stratfordebowe”

Bowyer was sentenced to be hung.

To the modern eye some of the petty crime that appears in the records seems extraordinary. In the spring of 1572, Richard Neyler, a London fishmonger, must have decided he needed to replenish necessary tools of his trade and add a little fresh water fish to his stall. He:

“…stole certain hairs worth three pence from the from the tail of Henry Warley’s mare, and certain hairs worth three pence from the tail of John Finkes gelding”.

Presumably Neyler intended to use the hair as fishing line. Warley and Finkes clearly objected to the damage to their beasts, and instead of some quiet fishing, Neyler ended up in the pillory at Cheapside.

Apprending local criminals was the work of the parish constable. However they were not always as effective as they might have been - in April 1589 John Eastery, one of the Hackney constables, had to confess that Thomas Denham did “unlawfully withdraw and rescue himself” - in other words he had given the constable the slip after being arrested.

The Dudley Crest
The Dudley Crest

Taking and wearing the livery of a great lord, when not entitled to do so, was also an offence. In April 1572, William Burton and John Nicholson, were both indicted for wearing the livery of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; Henry Warley (presumably the owner of the bay mare that Richard Neyler had taken a fancy to) for wearing the livery of Sir Ralph Sadler; and George Lynnett for wearing the livery of the Earl of Leicester’s relative, John Dudley, then resident at Stoke Newington’s manor house.

The session papers also include indictments against those who persistently refused to attend church, including recusants - those who held to the Catholic faith. The principle Hackney offender was William, Lord Vaux of Harrowden, who had already been arrested for harbouring the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion. He had a household in Hackney from 1583, renting a house from Lord Mordaunt and appears in the indictments between 1584 and 1586, together with his sons and members of his household. From other sources we know that the conspirator Antony Babington was a visitor in 1585. Vaux was host to several priests and a mass attended by eighteen people was held there in 1584.

Coroner’s inquisitions were also called when the cause of death was uncertain. In March 1579, an inquest was held at the house of Antony Trywood at Hackney, where his servant Juliana Lerede was held to have died of the plague. There were also accidents. In 1594 two adolescents were fooling about with guns:

“…that on the 3rd instant between the hours four and five pm the said Thomas Goldston and a certain Richard Carpenter of Hackney yeoman, sixteen years old were playing together in the house of a certain William Harrison of the said parish, when they found ‘in the hall’ of the same house ‘a dagg’ charged with powder and ball and ‘a fowlingepece’ also charged with powder and ball, with which weapons they played in ignorance that the dagg and fowling pece were loaded, Richard Carpenter having the fowling pece and Thomas Goldston the dagg; and in so playing Richard Carpenter unintentionally and by mischance shot Thomas Goldston in the face, so that he died instantly. On his arraignment Richard Carpenter put himself Guilty by mischance”.


About the Site | Contact | Credits

This site, developed with funding from the New Opportunities Fund as one of the projects within Sense of Place, London, forms part of the National Archive's Education site. It was developed as a partnership between Hackney Archives Department, Immediate Theatre and the National Archive's Education Team