The History of Surrey’s Justices of the Peace

650 Years serving the Community in Surrey.

In 1361, a statute of Edward III created the office of Justice of the Peace in every county of England. These “most worthy” persons were to preserve the Kings Peace by dealing with offenders according to law, thus removing the threat and fear of violence or other disturbance. Since then, the Magistracy has played a key and changing role in serving the community so that local people can go about their daily lives in peace.

To commemorate the 650th anniversary of Justices of the Peace (JPs) in Surrey, a special exhibition recording the history of local justice in the county has been superbly researched by Matthew Alexander, Honorary Remembrancer for Guildford, with support from many including the Lord-Lieutenant, HH John Bull, the Surrey History Trust and Surrey County Council.

The exhibition records graphically, in words and illustrations, developments from the early days when only male JPs were appointed from the landed gentry – leading to the modern Magistracy, with men and women recruited from all groups in society. It contains some fascinating historical facts. Elizabethan magistrates supervised the Overseers of the Poor and were responsible for the parish Poor House. Some in our courts will remember the Poor Box which until a few years ago provided funds for defendants lacking the fare home. Under Cromwell, Surrey JPs were required to conduct civil marriages. The range of sentencing was considerable and often highly punitive in earlier times. The Transportation Act of 1718 enabled magistrates to ship offenders to the colonies until it was abolished in 1857. Whipping at the carts tail was a common punishment, the last instance taking place in 1830 in Guildford High Street. Magistrates were also involved in mediation when victims came to them to seek redress a forerunner perhaps of restorative justice? Well into Victorian times, JPs were responsible for the maintenance of bridges and it was only in 1889, with the formation of Surrey County Council, that the local authority took over most of the civil administration from magistrates, under its first chairman, Edward Leycester-Penrhyn JP.

The anniversary in 2011 provided a timely opportunity to lift the veil of mystery that has shrouded the work of the Magistracy, as far as the general public is concerned. Few people are aware that todays magistrates are unpaid public servants, dealing with 95% of criminal cases as well as contributing to the efficient working of the family justice system. The exhibition presents remarkable evidence for us all about the rich heritage of the history of the ancient office of Justice of the Peace, dating back to 1361, and the significant responsibility every JP still bears in promising “to do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of the Realm without fear or favour, affection or ill will”.

Lesley Myles MBE JP

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