Court Leet for the Borough of Altrincham

Scope and Content

The records of the court leet consist of five series of material: a court roll and bundles of verdicts 1450-1888 (EGR2/6/1); court books, 1786-1905 (EGR2/6/2); suit rolls, 1684-1853 (EGR2/6/3); estreats, 1748-1872 (EGR2/6/4); and other records, c.1700-1920 (EGR2/6/5).

[Among the records of the court leet and view of frankpledge for the barony of Dunham Massey there are two court rolls that also contain records of proceedings at the portmote or borough court of Altrincham in 1403-1404 (EGR2/1/3/1-2 above), a file of subsidiary papers that includes material relating to pleas between parties in the borough court, 1712-1717 (EGR2/1/9/6 above), two jury list books that contain lists of jurors at Altrincham court leet, 1832-1881 and 1882-1905 (EGR2/1/12/8-9), and a list of fines imposed upon jurymen for non-attendance at the borough court, 1871 (EGR2/1/12/10/3).]

Administrative / Biographical History

Altrincham was granted the status of a free borough in 1290 by Hamo de Massey, lord of Dunham. The original charter is in the possession of Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council; for a seventeenth- century translation of the charter see EGR2/6/5/1 below. The court leet, which may be regarded as the direct descendant of the portmote or borough court established under the charter, was the governing body of the town. The court, composed of the burgesses, met twice yearly, in April or early May and in October, before the mayor of the borough and the steward of the lord of Dunham. For information on Altrincham court leet see Sydney and Beatrice Webb, English local government, vol 3, pt. 1, pp. 166-70; Municipal Corporations Commissioners, First report of the commissioners appointed to inquire into the municipal corporations in England and Wales (London: 1835), vol. 4, pp. 2573-6; Alfred Ingham, Altrincham and Bowdon, with historical reminiscences of Ashton-upon-Mersey, Sale, and surrounding townships, 2nd edition (London: 1897), pp. 60-84; Charles Nickson, Bygone Altrincham (Altrincham: Mackie & Co., 1935), pp. 7-25.

The court leet of Altrincham was identified by Sydney and Beatrice Webb as a remarkable example of a lord's borough that, despite having in strict law very little autonomy, contrived to perform throughout the eighteenth century the whole civil government of the town. "What distinguishes Altrincham, so far as we know, from the Lord's Courts and Manorial Boroughs in other parts of England, was its curious usurpation of all the civil powers of the Parish and its Vestry."

The court leet involved itself in almost every aspect of the life of the town. It appointed all officers of the town. It devised elaborate bylaws to control nuisances, and undertook the provision of municipal services such as street lighting and water supply. It regulated the town field and common pastures, and approved their progressive enclosure and improvement. It ensured that ditches were scoured, and defined the boundaries between properties.

The officers of the town who were elected annually at the autumn session of the court included constables, deputy and assistant constables, surveyors of highways, overseers of the poor, ale-tasters, common-lookers, pinners of the town field (whose duty was to impound stray beasts), market-lookers, pump-lookers, well-lookers, fire-engine-lookers, scavengers, leather-sealers, dog-muzzlers, chimney-lookers, bylawmen, bellmen and swine-lookers. The court heard presentments by the officers, received their accounts, and gave them orders, fining any who failed to perform their duties satisfactorily. In the case of the mayor, the grand jury of freeholders presented the names of three candidates from which the steward chose one. The court leet also formally admitted new burgesses.

The orders of the court relate to the making and repair of hedges, fences, gates and stiles; the scouring of ditches and watercourses; the regulation of the town field (this gradually ceases as the fields were enclosed); street cleansing; the repair of buildings; the repair of the town well; the control of nuisances such as the dumping of rubbish and manure in streets, stray dogs and swine, pollution of the town well, and overhanging waterspouts from which rain-water poured down onto the streets; the destruction of vermin such as rats and sparrows; the removal of encroachments onto highways and commons, and the control of animals turned onto commons; the fining of persons who allowed their chimneys to catch fire; the testing of weights and measures; and the regulation of boarding houses and the prevention of their harbouring vagrants.

The orders made by the court leet grew increasingly elaborate during the eighteenth century, as the court extended its regulation over the town's activities. In the nineteenth century many of the functions of the court leet were assumed by the formal vestry meetings that were established after the consecration of Altrincham St George's Church in 1799. The business of the court was reduced to the election of the mayor and borough officials, presentments of petty nuisances, and the fining of suitors for non-appearance. In this form the court leet continued into the twentieth century, and it survives in 1994 as a piece of antiquarianism, stripped of all effective powers.

The court also had jurisdiction over civil suits between burgesses, although in the eighteenth century these appear to have been dealt with by a separate court baron that continued to hear a declining number of actions down to 1793.

Before the 1630s the court is described in headings simply as "inquest" or "court". From 1636 it is termed "view of frankpledge with court for the borough", while in the late seventeenth century it is generally referred to as "court of view of frankpledge with leet and court for the borough". In the period from 1695 to 1742 the court is invariably described as "court leet and view of frankpledge with court baron", thereafter simply as "court leet and view of frankpledge".

The court leet was held at the court house in Altrincham, at least from 1741. The names of the stewards of the court are recorded in the introduction to EGR2 above.

Separated Material

Trafford Metropolitan Borough, Altrincham Library: T/AL-A/352/ALT, Altrincham court leet record book, 25 April 1906 to 21 July 1937.