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Devon County

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Devon County Gaol in 1850

The County House of Correction c 1850

Behind the wall there are two prisons side by side - the Bridewell and the County Gaol

Both were replaced by a new prison (still in use) the building of which began in 1853.

Courtesy of Devon County Council


Baldwin Fulford was a Justice of the Peace and he seems to have taken his duties very seriously. In an age when there were very few records of what went on in a lower level court, he took notes during the proceedings which somehow survived across the years in the ancestral home of the Fulford family - Great Fulford,  nr. Dunsford.


Thanks to the generosity of Francis Fulford, the present owner of Great Fulford, to his wife,  and to the wonderful work of Fay Sampson Priestley who was allowed to make a transcription of these notes, we can reconstruct many of the cases he tried.


The idea behind trial by Magistrate or Petty Sessions was that of Summary Justice - instead of languishing in goal for months waiting from one Quarter Session to another for a trial, minor offences could be fast-tracked to punishment or acquittal.


No lawyers were present. A mandatory code of procedure was laid down which all Magistrate's followed. The charge was read out, then the accused was asked whether or no he admitted it. If he said no, then evidence was heard, first from the prosecutor and any witnesses he chose to call, then from any witnesses the accused chose to call.


The Magistrate sat alone and was empowered  to award whippings and sentences of up to seven years*. As this was considerably  less than the sentences which could be awarded by the Courts of Quarter Session, trial by Magistrate was much preferred by those accused of crimes. However, there was no parity of justice between Magistrates and some could be very harsh and even unjust - something against which there was no appeal. 


Most courts were held in rented rooms in hotels or public houses, the rent being paid by the Magistrate out of his stipend. This was not outlawed until 1902. Out in the countryside, before 1848, cases could be heard in the Magistrate's own home in private, giving plenty of scope for miscarriages of justice. After 1848, if there was space in the rented room, members of the public could watch the proceedings.


In Devon, those found guilty served their sentences in the County House of Correction which stood on the site of the current Exeter Prison. No consideration was given to the age of the prisoner and it will be seen in the 1851 census of prisoners that boys as young as 10 were being kept alongside habitual criminals. Most prisoners were sentenced to be whipped in addition to their main sentence as this was felt to be an unpleasant deterrent, especially for younger prisoners and all sentences at this prison would have included punishment on the treadmill. 


Finally, no-one who reads Baldwin Fulford's notes can fail to notice what an honest and open attempt he made to be just. There was no requirement for any Magistrate to make notes - in fact, the whole system of Summary Justice was intended to move cases to a conclusion as swiftly as possible. Baldwin Fulford, however, did not rely on his memory or on fleeting impressions - he jotted down all the detail he could as the witnesses were heard and in doing so, created a most valuable insight into the function of a Magistrate's Court in the 19th Century.


*In the case of James Vanstone, the transcript states that Baldwin Fulford sentenced him to 10 years. There are many explanations but the most likely is that Fulford was not entirely familiar with all of the rules laid down for his guidance - there was no formal training for Magistrates at the time.


Great Fulford c.1840 - home of Baldwin Fulford JP

Great Fulford, nr. Dunsford c.1840 - home of Baldwin Fulford JP

Courtesy of Devon County Council



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