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At Every Bloody Level: A Magistrate, a Framework-Knitter, and the Law


In November 1806, Nottinghamshire magistrate Sir Gervase Clifton was visited at his house by one of his poorer neighbours, “a pauper of the village of Wilford.” (Wilford is about three miles from Clifton village and Clifton Hall.) William Kirwin was attempting to sort out complicated domestic arrangements within the framework of the law that governed his family's life. He told the magistrate about his mother-in-law, a widow, currently living in Tollerton. “She is in a very distressed state,” he said; he and his wife wanted her to come and live with them, “so that she may be better taken care of & kept from want.” He had asked the Wilford overseer for permission to take her in but had been refused. The family had tried to help after her husband died: her son (with wife and children) had moved into her cottage on the understanding that “they would take care of her during her Life & allow her good victuals drinks firing & good cloathing.” Something had evidently gone wrong with that arrangement, but we are not to know what, or how, as the entry in Clifton's notebook breaks off here (as is the case with many pieces of magisterial business he recorded). Kirwin was aware of local ratepayers and tensions between parishes in regard to their financial responsibilities under the old Poor Law: what he proposed would keep his mother-in-law from “troubling the … parish of Wilford,” he said. She was financially independent, or at least on marriage she had “brought a many good with her & such as a beds & other goods.” He knew that a justice of the peace was a point of appeal in the vast, complex edifice of ancient statutory law (poor and settlement law) that dictated the way he lived his life. We can discern something of William Kirwin's understanding of these matters from the fragmentary, incomplete account of what he said, and the strategies he used in telling his story; we can discern some of Sir Gervase's from the action he did not take in this case, and what he did not have his clerk record.

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Gwenda Morgan and Peter Rushton , “The Magistrate, the Community and the Maintenance of an Orderly Society in Eighteenth-Century England,” Historical Research 76 (2003): 7576

Doug Hay , “Dread of the Crown Office. The English Magistracy and King's Bench, 1740–1800,” in Law, Crime, and English Society, 1660–1830, ed. Norma Landau (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 1945

Carolyn Steedman , “Lord Mansfield's Women,” Past and Present 176 (2002): 105–43

Alannah Tomkins , “‘I mak Bould to Wrigt’: First Person Narratives in the History of Poverty in England, c.1750–1900,” History Compass, 9/5 (2011): 365–73

Richard Burn , The Justice of the Peace, and Parish Officer. By Richard Burn, LL.D. Chancellor of the Diocese of Carlisle, and one of his Majesty's Justices of the Peace for the Counties of Westmorland and Cumberland. The fourteenth edition: to which is added an Appendix, including the Statutes of the last Session of Parliament (20 G. 3.) and some adjudged Cases. 4 vols. (London: T. Cadell, 1780)

David Lemmings , Professors of Law. Barristers and English Legal Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 19

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Law and History Review
  • ISSN: 0738-2480
  • EISSN: 1939-9022
  • URL: /core/journals/law-and-history-review
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