Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Keeping the law in Swindon

When Joseph Boots of Highworth rashly declared he would rather spend his days in prison than pay money owed to Miranda Archer, that's exactly where magistrates sent him.

Boots appeared before the Swindon Petty Sessions in September 1854 accused of failing to comply with a maintenance order for the illegitimate child he had fathered.

Meeting just four times a year, the 18th century saw the Quarter Session Courts overwhelmed with work.  By the middle of the 19th century the Police Courts or Petty Sessions, the lowest tier in the English court system, were taking over the less serious crimes.  With no jury to be sworn in, two or more magistrates heard the cases, which were then speedily dealt with.



When a similar case to the Boots/Archer one was brought before the Petty Sessions in 1881 the courtroom was cleared of 'females and juveniles' before the evidence could be heard.

John Maslin, a hay binder from Liddington, was ordered to pay Mary Carter 2s per week for sixteen years to support her illegitimate daughter.  It was recorded that 'the evidence showed a very loose state of morals to exist at Liddington.'

In the 1880s the Petty Sessions were held twice weekly at the Police Court where cases brought before the courts have a familiar ring about them and received extensive coverage in the Advertiser.

Wootton Bassett was the scene of some dangerous driving when on the evening of March 28, 1881 John Roper, a dairyman of Coped Hall, was nabbed en route to the railway station, driving his horse and trap at a 'racing pace.'

Somewhat unwisely Roper had sped past the police station where he was spotted by Sergeant Carter who ran out in pursuit.


The police officer reported that he saw the defendant thrashing and urging the horse but by the time Sergeant Carter reached the bottom of the hill, Roper had been to the station and returned up Stoneover Lane at 'a terrific rate.'

Sergeant Carter estimated that defendant was travelling at a speed of '16 or 17 miles per hour' and it was noted that 'the manner drivers took the milk carts to the station was very dangerous and it was a wonder persons were not often killed.'

Ironically Roper had been unable to appear when originally summoned the previous week because he had been thrown out of his trap and injured.

The County Law Courts opened on Clarence Street in the early 20th century.  A hundred years later the building was home to Swindon's Jobcentre until staff moved to offices on Princes Street.  The building stood empty for several years until it was bought by EPOC Properties in 2010 who then planned to convert the property into 20 apartments.


In the 1960s terrace housing along Princes Street was demolished to make way for the new Courts of Law building.  The foundation stone was laid by the Mayor of Swindon, Alderman CWJ Streetly in a ceremony held on July 12, 1963 and the building was opened by Lord Devlin two years later on April 21, 1965.

Images: Terraced housing along Princes Street; the New County Court Offices in Clarence Street and Magistrates Court, Princes Street are published courtesy of  Swindon Local Collection visit the website on www.flickr.com/photos/swindonlocal

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