‘Wandering abroad in the night time’: How crime and punishment used to work in Barking
PUBLISHED: 17:00 13 May 2020
Former magistrate Sue Hamilton explores crime and punishment as part of a heritage project uncovering Barking town centre’s past.
There was a House of Correction established in East Street, Barking under control of the Justices of the Peace to serve Becontree Hundred between 1609 and 1791 for criminals and lunatics.
Becontree Hundred is an ancient description for an area east of London which covers Barking and Dagenham, Newham, Redbridge, parts of Havering and Waltham Forest.
It was repaired and extended in that period but abandoned when new premises were designed by John Johnson, surveyor to the county of Essex.
The new building was on half an acre in nearby North Street, 400 yards north of St Margaret’s Church.
Standing between the Good Intent public house and the old police station it opened as Barking House of Correction/Bridewell in 1792.
It had a garden, a keeper’s house, separate yards and workrooms for men and women, also an infirmary and a pump with “excellent” water.
The men picked oakum, which was a punishment in many prisons and workhouses.
It involved using fingers to pick all the fibres from sections of rope into fine strands which were then used with tar in shipbuilding for caulking or packing joints of timber.
It was a painful task causing very sore fingertips.
The prison governor, Luke Miller, reported: “The inmates engage in picking four pounds of oakum per day which occupies eight hours; the rest of the day for exercise.”
Cases were heard at Essex Quarter Sessions. Typical recorded crimes were: wandering abroad in the night time and begging; leaving family; wandering abroad and not giving a good account of oneself; lodging in the open air and having possession of implements of housebreaking.
The building became outdated, needing alterations and repairs.
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It closed in 1831 and was sold then demolished. A new house was built in Little Ilford.
The Old Leet House, also called The Market House and The Old Town Hall, was an Elizabethan two storey weather-boarded courthouse built to the east of St Margaret’s Church in 1567/68. It was demolished between 1923 and 1926.
The old timber frame was in good condition and was stored for future use. Some of that timber was used in the entrance to the new town hall which was opened in 1958.
It was bought and paid for by Elizabeth I as Lord of the Manor of Barking and cost £324.
It included 22 shops and sheds for the market use. The rent from the shops went to the church.
A hall, where the manor court was held and its records stored was on the first floor, together with a “Justice Chamber” for petty sessions with a chimney to warm the justices and a room for the town armour, reached by a well staircase.
Behind the staircase out of the sunlight, the “cage” (used as a jail) contained the stocks and the caretaker lived at the south end.
The remainder of the ground floor was occupied by the corn market with its open wooden arcades. The town’s standard bushel was kept there.
A bushel was an old unit of measurement equivalent in volume to approximately eight gallons and each town had their own standard vessel.
The market bell hung in a bell-cote on the northern end of the roof whilst the schoolroom was up in the garret with its own fireplace.
The pillory stood at the front of the building, this was similar to the stocks inside but on a wooden platform so the crowds could see easily.
The offender had to stand locked into the frame with holes for head and hands and be humiliated by the public including pelting with eggs or rotten fruit and vegetables.
On the north, south and east sides were rows of shops and sheds including the butter market and a shed for weights and measures.
Punishment for petty offenders was to be put in the stocks or receive fines. More serious offenders were sent to Chelmsford Jail to await the Quarter Sessions.
By the mid 18th century cases were heard “out of sessions”. There was not to be another magistrates’ court in Barking until 1960.
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