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Law and order

The Laws of England are based on unwritten codes and customs whose origins have been lost in the past. With the coming of the Normans in 1066, the Anglo-Saxon laws were gradually embodied in a legal system for the whole of England. Disputes and offenders were brought before the King himself (The origin of King's Bench) against whose judgement there was no appeal.

In medieval times representatives (judges) of the king began to preside at the courts (the Assize Courts of today) in the larger cities, and by the 13th century their decisions were collected and became the Common Law of England. Today, English law is also made up of Statute Law, judge-made law and Equity - a series of legal principles designed to remedy the injustices of too rigid an interpretation of the law.

The Normans, who introduced juries, used them to find out what had happened. Then in medieval times a Grand Jury met at each Quarter Session and prepared a list of charges, while a Petty Jury- chosen from the Grand Jury - tried the offenders.

From Tudor times, vagrants and minor offenders committed to Houses of Correction, where they were kept busy doing useful work. In the 18th century these were amalgamated with the prisons and were contracted out to private jailers who were allowed to make what profit they could. Because of this, conditions were terrible and prisoners were ill-fed, though those with money were allowed to buy extra food and more comfortable quarters.

Punishments were brutal, and at the time of Waterloo (1815) death was the penalty for over 230 offences. Life sentence prisoners were transported to North America to work on the plantations, but after the loss of the American colonies the worst prisoners were kept in old naval ships - prison hulks - on the Thames. Later, convicts were transported again - this time to Australia.

John Howard, a Quaker prison reformer, advocated a more humane treatment of prisoners, (in the 1830s Elizabeth Fry did much to get conditions in women's prisons improved) and early in the 19th century a new type of prison was built with a separate cell for each prisoner. Penal servitude, whereby the prisoners were given repetitive tasks (the treadmill, breaking stones, etc), was also introduced. In 1857 transportation and prison hulks were phased out, and twenty years later all prisons became state controlled.

(Thanks to the volunteers who worked on the Grafton Estate CD)