Thoughts on being a magistrate, by Samuel Pepys

170px-Samuel_Pepys_by_Sir_Godfrey_Kneller_1689On 25 June 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded that he and his wife Elisabeth had travelled to Dorset House ‘to deliver a list of the names of the justices of peace for Huntingdonshire’.

This is the first, but not the last, references to the magistracy in Pepys’ diary. The Pepys family were good citizens and both politically aware and involved. Samuels great uncle, Talbot Pepys, was MP for Cambridge in the 1620s; his father’s cousin, Sir Richard Pepys was MP for Sudbury two decades later. Pepys himself became an MP later in his life.

But the Pepys family were also involved in the law at a local level, as this June entry suggests.

Pepys was employed by the Navy Board, and it was common for navy officers to be made magistrates for those counties where the royal dockyards were based. Accordingly, on 24 September 1660, Pepys was sworn in as an ex officio justice of the peace for Middlesex, Kent, Essex and Hampshire.  He was aged 27. He recorded the day in his diary:

“there at Sir Heneage Finch Sollicitor General’s Chambers, before him and Sir W. Wilde, Recorder of London (whom we sent for from his chamber) we were sworn justices of peace for Middlesex, Essex, Kent and Southampton; with which honour I find myself mightily pleased…”

Interestingly, Pepys took on this role despite being, as he admitted ‘wholly ignorant in the duties of a justice of peace.’

Luckily for Pepys, there was help available, both from friends and acquaintances, and from the likes of Michael Dalton’s manual, The Country Justice, which had first been published in 1618.

It certainly seems as though Pepys got to grips with his justicing work quickly, for three months after being appointed, on Tuesday 11 December 1660, Pepys noted that he travelled by barge to Woolwich, where he met with a Captain Stoakes, who was ‘very melancholy’, suspecting that some of his clothes and money had been stolen from his cabin on board a ship there. A sailor was suspected of the theft, and Pepys recorded:

“I did the first office of a justice of Peace to examine a seaman thereupon, but could find no reason to commit him.”

Pepys’ role as justice of the peace largely involved examining individuals and signing warrants, as the above case indicates. On one occasion, he overstepped his legal jurisdiction; he sent a man named Field to prison, for ‘some ill words he did give the office’ – only to be later notified that he had no right to, as Field should have been dealt with by a City of London magistrate, whereas Pepys was a Middlesex JP with no jurisdiction over the Square Mile.

A lawsuit was brought against Pepys, – he was served a subpoena at his office on 4 February 1662 – which caused him great concern. The matter was only resolved eight months later, when Nicholas Lechmere, a councillor at Temple, advised Pepys that a verdict had found against him – and he would have to pay £30 damages as a result (Diary, 21 October 1662).


A Wordle of Pepys’ diary entries relating to the magistracy

Pepys read the news-sheets keenly, enjoying the tales of crime and punishment therein. On 25 February 1662 he read a story based on an examination of Charles, Lord Buckhurst, and his friends before a Justice of the Peace, ‘wherein they make themselves a very good tale that they were in pursuit of thieves’, and, thinking another man was a thief, promptly killed him.

Pepys clearly disbelieved the tale, but recognised the inherent unfairness in the criminal justice system that meant men of title and wealth would be given a sympathetic hearing at trial – ‘I doubt things will be proved otherwise than they say’. Pepys interest in the story reflected his spotting of stories involving magistrates, crime and the law; but also his interest in a good bit of tabloid-style gossip.

In March 1663, Sir Richard Ford – ‘a very able man of his brains and tongue’ – argued to the Lord Mayor of London that he and Pepys should be made JPs for the City, but although the Lord Mayor (‘a talking, bragging, buffleheaded fellow’) consented to the idea, Pepys suspected that he would change his mind the next day (Diary, 17 March 1663).

That did not appear to have happened, for five days later, on a quiet Sunday, Pepys recorded that he ‘Wrote out our bill for the Parliament about our being made Justices of the Peace in the City’ (Diary, 22 March 1663).

This took time to be passed, though; it was only on 25 January 1667 that Pepys was able to record, ‘and also our little Bill, for giving any of us in the [navy] office the power of justice of peace, is done as I would have it’.

Pepys’ diary shows that magistrates were called on to help with a variety of tasks. On one occasion, a magistrate was asked to help shut up the Exchange, at the request of the King (Diary, 22 December 1663); on another occasion, the magistrates requested Pepys and two others to go to the local vestry to do ‘something for the keeping of the plague from growing’ (Diary, 3 September 1665). The men sat and worked out some ‘orders for the prevention thereof.’

And despite Pepys’ original ignorance of the duties of a magistrate, it was clear that JPs soon picked up a knowledge of the law as it related to the them and their role, even if they did not have that originally. During a discussion with another magistrate, Sir Thomas Clifford, he told Pepys that he was ‘of little learning more than the law of a justice of peace; which he knows well’ (Diary, 26 April 1667).

On 1 May 1666, Pepys recorded a visit from his cousin Thomas, who wanted to ask him about the role of justice of the peace. He had been asked to become a magistrate for Kent, but pointed out that although he was ‘of Deptford parish’, his house was actually within Surrey’s borders.

He also pointed out that he could not read Latin, so might not be able to do the job as all warrants were written out in Latin at that time (Pepys, of course, was adept at Latin). In addition, he was reluctant to ‘exercise punishment according to the Act against Quakers and other people, for religion.’

But Pepys encouraged him to accept the position if he was ‘pressed to take it’, because he thought it would reflect well on him having a family member as Kentish JP.

Pepys took his role as magistrate seriously; but it is also clear that he saw it as having a social caché, and so was keen not only to serve himself, but to be seen to have relatives acting as justices too.