Category Archives: Court records

Court Rolls of Balsham Manor

Old village sign, depicting the one resident of Balsham who escaped the Viking invasion in 1018.

Old village sign, depicting the one resident of Balsham who escaped the Viking invasion in 1018.

I recently visited the London Metropolitan Archives to view some early manor court rolls for my home village of Balsham in Cambridgeshire.

At first, manor court rolls can seem a little overwhelming as a source – until 1733 most were written in highly abbreviated Latin. It takes some effort to access, transcribe and translate them. It’s worth perservering, though, because they can be a very valuable source of information about individuals and families in a period when other sources can be scant.

Manor courts were the place where the business of the manor was carried out. Court barons, which took place every three weeks or so, dealt with exchanges of land, the swearing in of new tithingmen and/or tenants, the pledges of existing tenants and minor disputes or misdemeanours. Court leets, held twice a year, dealt with more series cases within the jurisdiction of the lord of the manor.

In practise, the customs of each manor varied greatly, and some held courts more regularly than others. Moreover, not all manor court rolls have survived, so (as always!) the chance of finding mention of an ancestor depends upon the availability of the records.

In Tudor Balsham, the Elizabethan lord of the manor was one Thomas Sutton, said to be the richest commoner in England at the time. On his death, Sutton bequeathed Balsham Manor, along with his other estates, to establish a school and hospital at the former monastery of Charterhouse in the City of London. As a result of this, the rolls have been reasonably well preserved and most have survived.

The first manor court after Thomas Sutton bought Balsham Manor was held on 14 December 1575. Earlier courts had recorded its jurors and those sending their excuses for absence (called essoin), but these lists were not long and it is apparent that the previous lords had not required all tenants to attend. However, in Thomas Sutton’s first courts, there are extensive lists of villagers, including those who couldn’t attend but who sent proxies, lists of head tithingmen (chief pledges) who were sworn as jurors and a list of customary tenants who were obliged to attend court. In total there are over 60 names of people of Balsham recorded. As such, it is an incredibly rich source of names for the parish.

The parish registers for Balsham have survived from 1560 onwards, and so some of these names can be cross-referenced in with baptisms, marriages and burials. In some cases, it gives more information about the person, such as ‘cleric’, ‘widow’, ‘junior’ or ‘aged’.

Below I have transcribed the full list of names from the manor court roll of 14 December 1575 and I hope it might help anyone who has ancestors from Balsham to further their knowledge. For those without Balsham ancestors, I hope it might illustrate how useful the manor court rolls can be to help understand a particular place and its people from many centuries ago.

Those who couldn’t attend, and the names of the proxies sent in their place:

  • William Freeman [to be replaced] by John Freeman
  • John Funstone by William Lawrence
  • Thomas Lawrence senior paid a fine
  • William Teversham by Robert Teversham
  • Thomas Cranfield by Robert Cranfield
  • Henry Tye, Thomas Malt, Robert Symond, John Symond and William Sibley by John Pearne the rector of Balsham paid a fine
  • Richard Mayles and Edmund Smyth by John Smyth junior
  • Leonard Durgeon by Robert Teversham
  • Thomas Pepper by Thomas Lawrence junior
  • Henry Norton by Richard Cornell
  • William Pryor by John Smyth senior
  • Robert Webb of [West] Wickham by Richard Marsh
  • John Stacey and John Brand by Leonard Woolward
  • John Lynzell and William Lynzell by William Flack
  • William Cornell by bailiff

The chief pledges who were sworn in as jury, in three groups of 11:

  • Richard Marsh
  • John Smith senior
  • John Cowle
  • William Lawrence
  • John Smith junior
  • John Starre
  • Leonard Woolward
  • Robert Haylock
  • Robert Bullen
  • Edmund Rule
  • Richard Cornell
  • Robert Smith
  • Thomas Lawrence junior
  • Henry Marsh
  • John Taylor junior
  • John Pearn
  • John Woolward
  • Matthew Teversham
  • Bartholomew Tassell
  • William Symond
  • Thomas Grigg
  • William Lorkin
  • Thomas Morton
  • John Abery
  • Robert Teversham
  • Thomas Smith
  • John Chaplin
  • John Diss senior
  • Robert Cranfield
  • Thomas Webb

The customary tenants who were obliged to attend court were:

  • Leonard Norton
  • Robert Broomstead, clerk
  • William Pryd junior
  • Letitia Diss, widow
  • Alice Cockerton, widow
  • Elizabeth Rule, widow
  • Marion Webb, widow
  • Katherine Haylock, widow
  • Joanna Pryd, aged.

I sincerely hope to see them all in court!

Court records can provide a level of detail not found elsewhere.

The website for the proceedings of the Old Bailey offers full transcriptions of all cases held at the Central Criminal Court from 1674-1913. Statements are recorded verbatim, so it allows us to see the words spoken by witnesses, prosecutors and defendants alike.

Take the case of Joseph Catling Gibbons, aged 52, who was tried for bigamy on 20th October 1890. He was being prosecuted by the wife of his bigamous marriage, who said:

I became acquainted with the prisoner two years ago, and went out with him for five Sundays—some information then came to me, and I wrote him a letter breaking off the acquaintance, and ceased to keep company with him about Christmas, 1888 about September, 1889, I met him and asked him if he knew me—he said, “What! after the letter you wrote to me?”—I said, “I wrote that in a temper; are you a married man?”—he said, “I have no time to speak to you now”—I said I would see him the next night—I met him the next evening, and he said, “I hope I may be struck dead if I am not a single man”—I then walked out with him till we were married on 8th July in the registry at Whitechapel—I lived with him six weeks at my mother’s house up to a fortnight ago; I was then told something, and went and saw his wife—that is her (pointing) I gave him in charge the same evening.

One of the witnesses was Rose S Hales, Joseph’s daughter. She told the court:

…the prisoner is my father, and the lady who has been produced is his wife—they have been parted for sixteen year—he allowed her 2s. a week up to Christmas last—she lives in the same house with me—my father called there about four months ago, and saw my mother and me; I cannot give the date accurately—he came to see his son’s baby, which was three days old—it was born four months ago—my mother was in good health at the time.

She later said:

you allowed her 2s. a week for ten weeks in the year, when you were at the Drury Lane pantomime—you were pantaloon there.

This kind of detail is rarely found in family papers, and cannot be deduced from census entries alone. It gives a clear insight into the dramas of this family (no pun intended).

Joseph Catling Gibbon’s defence was:

I left my wife eighteen years ago owing to her misconduct; she has lived with three different men, and has had several children, and I thought she was dead.

Rose Hales further stated that:

her mother had two children by another man, one of which was seven and the other two years old.

Joseph Catling Gibbons was an actor throughout his life. He used the stage name Tully Louis. There is a newspaper report in the Pall Mall Gazette on the 28 October 1890, found using the British Newspaper Archive at findmypast, which refers to his court case for bigamy under his stage name, confirming that they are one and the same. Tully Louis was a well-known pantomimist and comic actor of his time.

He perhaps wasn’t as much the injured party as he suggested at the Old Bailey. He married his first wife in 1860. By the 1871 census she was living with their two daughters and described herself as a ‘widow’. Joseph appears to have been missed off (or mistranscribed) in this census. In 1881, however, he records himself under his stage name, Tully Louis, and was living with Charlotte Louis and their 3 children, Eugene, Nellie and Josephine. There is no evidence of him having married Charlotte.

Six months after the hearing at the Old Bailey, the 1891 census was taken. Joseph was recorded under the name ‘Joseph Catling’ and lived with 6 children all with the Catling surname (including Eugene, Nellie and Josephine). His youngest son was 3 years old, so he must have been born shortly before Joseph began courting the unsuspecting Caroline Wooton in 1888. It seems that Caroline was ignorant of his first wife, so it seems likely she was also unaware of his 6 children and relationship with Charlotte.

Here’s proof of the tantalising glimpses court records can give into the lives of your ancestors. A criminal in your past can be of great use in providing new insights into your family history.