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Let there be Leet – Wareham’s Court Leet

Steve White explores the history and practices of the Court Leet: guarantor of the quality of Wareham's beer and victuals

Bread Weighers Tony Gepheart (right) and Phill Harris

Every year in late November, and for four consecutive evenings, a strange event takes place in Wareham’s public houses. It is then that the Court Leet takes to the streets. Leet officers, dressed in fantastical garb, carry out their time-honoured traditions, albeit with their tongues firmly in their cheek. Visiting two pubs each evening, specialised members of this organisation, overseen by the Bailiff, assess the quality of the beer, meat, bread, leather goods, chimneys and toilets to ensure standards are maintained.
Wareham is not alone in continuing the tradition of the Court Leet – others exist around the country, but the Royal Manor of Portland’s Leet is the only other in Dorset. What is different in Wareham is the methodology employed – the Court Leet centres almost exclusively on the public house elements of the old leet system. Each November all eight of Wareham’s main pubs and hotels are visited with the aforementioned aspects of the premises being assessed and then reported back upon. At the end of the four nights of public house visiting, the members testify to the Lord of the Manor on their findings.
To fully understand this annual period of apparent madness, one has to first appreciate how this all came about; there is a fascinating history to the leet system. The Normans, after the conquest of 1066, instigated many changes, not least of which was the introduction of their own ‘legal’ system; they gave us such things as constables and bailiffs. The Court Leet tradition we see carried out today can trace its roots back to the conquest. The powers of the Courts Leet were extensive and all-encompassing in those days. Nowadays the carryings on of the Wareham Court Leet are done to uphold a custom more than anything else.

Steve Welsh (apprentice Aletaster) and Mark Howlett (senior Aletaster)

The term ‘public house’ is a hint at why the Court Leet needed to exercise its influence in days of yore – beer was brewed by many households for their own consumption, (it being safer to drink than water due to the brewing process) – even children would drink very weak (or small) beer. Some households would sell their beer, a few providing a room for people to drink – the first public houses. Who to keep an eye on the quality and quantity? That was the Court Leet’s job.
At the head of Wareham’s Court Leet is ‘Lord of the Manor’, Mr J D C Ryder, who succeeded his father to the title in 1986; his father had held title for the previous 58 years. Three officers are nominated by the Lord of the Manor and report directly to him. These are: the ‘Steward’ – his right hand man; the ‘Hayward’ – who looks after the ‘common land’ and the ‘Bailiff’ appointed to hand out arrests and summonses.
Other officers of the court, appointed annually, carry out various tasks. ‘Constables’ ensure law and order is kept, ‘Aletasters’ check the quality and correct measures of ale, ‘Carniters’ check the quality of meat and poultry, while ‘Bread Weighers’ ensure that the loaves throughout the manor are the correct weight and freshness. Surveyors of Chimneys and Mantles (normally known as ‘Chimney Peepers’) check that establishment’s chimneys are clean and not fire risks, ‘Scavengers’ ensure that the lanes and privies of the town are clean and, finally, ‘Leather Sealers’ check the quality of leather goods. As time passed some of the roles vanished; for example 1952 was the first year that both the Leather Sealer and Scavenger returned to office in Wareham.

Hugh Elmes's grandfather (in the Mac and tie (centre) with the Court Leet in 1939

The equipment used by the members of the Leet can trace its origins back hundreds of years, although the tankards currently used to check measures were handed out to the Courts Leet in Victorian times, as were the bread-weighing scales. Other ‘tools’ of the trade have been added as time goes by, some with a more serious original role, such as the implements used by the Chimney Peepers, others have been added more for the fun of it. Take the clothing worn by the members – pictures from the 1930s show members wearing suits and regular attire, during the 50s and 60s clothing became more outrageous and this trend (albeit emphatically not a fashion trend) continues.
The task of Aletaster, Carniter, Scavenger, Bread Weigher and Leather Sealer are clearly associated with quality and quantity, which are matters nowadays covered by trading standards, weights and measures, environmental health inspectors and so on. Chimney Peepers, however, are looking at potential risks. Wareham’s fire of July 1762 (one of a number of fires over the years) caused devastation throughout the town; many of the buildings were built of cob and thatch so the fire raged unabated. Consequently, checking of the fireplaces to ensure no fire risk existed became a vital part of the Leet’s function. One claim the Leet does make is that they probably prevented a chimney fire – not many years ago the Chimney Peepers, whilst carrying out their duties, discovered a large rook’s nest in a pub chimney only a few days before the first logs were to be burned.
So that’s the history, a few facts about the members of Wareham’s Court Leet and the apparatus and attire of their trade. Nonetheless, the only way to really appreciate what it is all about is to experience it personally. It should be emphasised that this was done solely in the spirit of journalistic excellence, although we were undone by the Leet itself. It is clear how the Court Leet demonstrates its powers; fines are handed out by ‘Floss’ Gould (the Bailiff) to pub landlords for even the smallest transgression. For instance, the Horse and Groom landlord was fined when Scavengers found a cobweb in the gents; this was just one of many fines handed out that night. Some fines are clearly unjust; the author was fined for talking when interviewing a Leet member. The round of applause that followed this humiliation only added to the injustice.

Scavengers Titus Maytum and Martin Adams (centre)

These fines take the form of the purchase of a measure of spirit – normally a double – to be added to the ‘pot’. This receptacle is a tankard that starts the evening holding beer, but its contents are best described by the single word ‘strong’ by the end of the evening. In the intervening period, it is passed around the assembled company for sampling. The landlords and staff of the pubs visited all join in the merriment and along with beer, bread of various shapes and sizes is carried out to be weighed, while offal of diverse types is brought out to be cooked and tested by the carniters, then handed round to anyone brave enough to sample it.

Carniter Mike Popperwell

Some officers of Wareham Court Leet have been doing the job for many years; Seymour Lee began the job back in 1965 and it is hard to estimate the number of pints he has ‘tested’ in the line of duty. Hugh Elmes, who recently retired as bailiff for health reasons, has been a member since 1969; his father, a member since 1946, also served as bailiff, as did his grandfather from the 1920s. Records show that there were Elmeses performing ‘Leet duties’ in the 1800s. Hugh makes the point that not so long ago, when the annual leave entitlement was around two weeks, many members of the leet who couldn’t spare any leave, would work each day, arrive at his father’s house to change into ‘uniform’, carry out their leet responsibilities and then return to work the next day. Nowadays, the members who are not retired tend to take the week off as a holiday. This is a sensible employment strategy and a health, safety and road-traffic-accident prevention precaution, I would suggest; others contend that they ‘don’t know they’re born’ these days.
After four nights of calling at pubs, the Leet convenes at midday on the Friday of the third full week of November in Wareham Town Hall. The clock strikes thirteen and the meeting begins. Members of the public are welcome to observe the good-humoured session of the court, where they can witness reports given by the officers to the Lord of the Manor. The results of their visits to licensed establishments – and the condition of the common land given by the Hayward– are detailed. Also present are a Jury Foreman and eleven Jury members. After the open session, the court retires to a nearby hotel to be treated to lunch by the Lord of the Manor. Afterwards a closed session of the court convenes. The bailiff, when challenged as to what business could be conducted after a substantial lunch including, no doubt, liquid refreshment, merely gave a wry smile.

David Hamblin, Jury member

Clearly, once upon a time all functions now performed by Wareham Court Leet would have been essential to the health and safety and fair trading standards of the town. As these tasks are now carried out by official bodies and the legal powers of the Court Leet have long since been repealed, does this deter them? No… neither should it. Seeing the members of the Leet carrying out their ‘duties’ gives us a flavour of the fascinating history of Wareham; just be sure that you don’t drive to see it.
Dorset Life would like to thank Hugh Elmes, ‘Floss’ Gould, other members of the leet and Ian Stainer for their help in preparing this article.

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