IT WAS a sad day for local justice - except if you’re a crook - when Harborough Magistrates’ Court heard its last case on June 30. Prompted by a new exhibition this month at Harborough Museum and with the help of a district author and magistrate, the Mail takes an in depth look at the town’s courthouse and the history of the magistracy.
Harborough Museum from September 16 until October 31 celebrates the 650th anniversary of the passing of the Justices of the Peace Act in 1361, writes Meriel Buxton, chair of the Harborough Magistrates’ bench and award-winning author of The Flying Duchess.
Ironically the anniversary coincides with the closure of three of the six magistrates’ courts in Leicestershire, including our own in Harborough, 100 years after it opened (our courthouse has already closed: the bench is not formally merged with Leicester until January 2012).
Today, magistrates can impose a maximum sentence of six months’ custody. In Elizabethan times they could sentence prisoners, including children, to be hanged, transported, whipped or put in the stocks. Young people were not tried separately from adults until 1908. Magistrates were also responsible for many aspects of local government.
Only in 1948 was corporal punishment replaced by probation. The punishment now called “unpaid work in the community” only started in 1972 and there was no compulsory retirement age for magistrates before the middle of the 20th century. This is now set at 70. Even during the Second World War, a woman of 96 was serving on a committee and three out of four active members of another committee were over 80.
Nor were there any female magistrates until after the First World War. The system whereby the chairman of the bench steps aside to make way for others after three years was only recently introduced.
When the Doddridge Road court opened in Harborough, seven magistrates would sit together as a single bench, instead of the modern three. In 1911, JW Logan, MP for Harborough, took the chair: an exemplary employer, if controversial and sometimes pugilistic as a politician, he was a JP for 40 years. Other magistrates came from leading local families, the farming community and those who had built up successful businesses: Pochin, Kendall, Newcombe and Symington were well-known names.
Other courts in the Harborough district have included Lutterworth, which survived until the mid-1990s, and East Norton, which was closed in the late 60s. Tiny though that village is, perhaps its position on the Uppingham turnpike (A47) gave it importance. Squashed uneasily between the village pub and the Old Police House, for many years the court depended on the White Bull for both lavatories and waiting room: as witnesses were required, their names were called loudly throughout the pub.
The East Norton bench latterly included Lord Hazlerigg of Noseley, his sister Edith, Monica Lloyd (pictured below, second from left) and Julian Thorne, whose daughter Joan Weatherstone became a Harborough magistrate. The five members would all customarily sit together for a short day once a fortnight. Arthur Hazlerigg had captained Leicestershire at cricket in the 30s and won an MC in the war; Edith was everyone’s favourite maiden aunt, kindly but firmly shepherding her girl guides, Pony Club members or any other group for whom she accepted responsibility along the paths of righteousness. Monica Lloyd worked tirelessly in a voluntary capacity in the county. Her husband Lt Col PH (Pen) Lloyd (pictured below, furthest left), long-serving chairman of the county council, sat on the Harborough bench. Brian Moore became clerk to both the East Norton and Harborough magistrates in 1965, retiring in 1992.
When Helen Jefferies, later chairman, joined the Harborough bench in the late 1930s, when barely 30 years old, they must still have been sitting on an actual bench rather than chairs, for she recalled how, as the smallest and youngest, she was pushed right to the end and struggled not to fall off.
Helen’s contemporary as chairman of Lutterworth was the inspirational ‘Squib’ Burton, a legend on the motor cycling circuit in the 20s and 30s who went on to run a successful garage in Lutterworth and continued to play a leading role in his sport, making him a role model for young tearaways. Magistrates at the time could sometimes offer practical support to young men in need of suitably challenging opportunities in a disciplined environment, Squib perhaps with work in his garage or Colonel Tony Murray-Smith in Harborough by pointing them towards the armed services.
Less stringent conditions prevailed at the time. Brian Moore recalls a young advocate at the start of a most distinguished career whose client had failed the breathalyser by a single point. He introduced a professional witness who had been involved in the original research into breathalyser levels, whose testimony proved sufficient to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of the bench and win the defendant an acquittal.
The Harborough bench at the time included two other retired Colonels, Peter Hughes, a gentle, charming man then farming at Hallaton, and Derrick Hignett of East Langton, infinitely kind with an impressive war record.
Local professionals too were well represented, amongst them Alan Bentley, chartered accountant, and my father DJ Cowen, senior partner in Harborough land agents Fisher and Co. and deputy chairman of the bench (and pictured above on the right of the photo with his wife Yvette Cowen), with no prospect of ever becoming chairman as Helen Jefferies would only reach her 70th birthday a few weeks after he did.
Many of the changes in the magistracy have been for the better. The loss of local justice for the Harborough district will be regretted by many.