Law & esteem in mid-eighteenth century Newcastle

On the 22nd of September 1750, the Reverend Edmund Tew gave a sermon as part of the Carlisle assizes (a regional court which tried the most serious cases referred by county sessions). He spoke about the relationship between king, people, and law. Monarch and judge alike were bound by ‘the Rules of Justice and Equity’, he said: bound, then, to oppose the practice of ‘assailing Characters and Reputations, and of torturing modest, humble Witnesses, by less pertinent or injurious Questions; whom the Solemnity of the Place is sufficiently apt to terrify’. Leading witnesses astray, taking advantage of their social inferiority and the grandeur of the assize proceedings, could ‘by no Means be the Praise of a GENTLEMAN’. Nor could ‘loading Mens Characters with Reproaches’ be excused, for every man was ‘justly tender of his Honour and Reputation, which are to maintain him in Society’. [1] Tew was a justice of the peace as well as a cleric, and it is easy to read what Norma Landau has described as a ‘patrician’ model of magisterial behaviour into this sermon: ‘patrician’ justices drew their authority from a national, disinterested legal culture rather than (as ‘patriarchal’ justices did) their prominence within local hierarchies of power. [2]

But Tew’s activity as a local JP was not like this. He was the rector of the village of Boldon, but most of the people who approached him – he kept a notebook from 1750 to 1764 recording his business with them – were from the urbanising parishes of South Shields, Sunderland and Monkwearmouth. [3] The year that he warned his audience in Carlisle cathedral about ‘loading Mens Characters with Reproaches’, he noted that one Shields woman was ‘a notorious scold and impudent woman’, while two others from Monkwearmouth were ‘extremely bad – one a common woman and one a fortuneteller’. The following year, he described several Monkwearmouth women as ‘of ill fame only’; a man and woman from South Shields as ‘both persons of bad character’; a man and woman from Monkwearmouth Shore as ‘2 very touchy people’; and a South Shields barber as ‘a very bad man, and son-in-law to Mary Haddock’, the woman he had deemed ‘of bad character’ two months earlier. In these two years, Tew recorded denying warrants four times when approached about instances of slander, including to a Shields carpenter ‘for a man’s calling his wife whore etc’. [4]

My PhD is concerned with local cultures of esteem in six Northern counties (Northumberland, Durham, Cumberland, Westmorland, Lancashire and Cheshire) between 1660 and 1800. The social and cultural changes of this period have significant implications for how reputation was worked out and expressed, not least its relationship to community regulation. The law was still intertwined with the local, oral culture of esteem in Restoration England: one question which I will need to answer is whether this had changed by the end of the eighteenth century. Seventeenth-century law provided, James Sharpe’s study of early modern crime tells us, the ‘framework and ideological cosmography within which village tensions could work themselves out’. The eighteenth century saw this framework gradually replaced ‘by a justice which, however flexible in relation to specific local circumstances, was essentially that of the gentry and, at one or two removes, the state’. [5] David Lemmings also finds an overarching change in how England was governed in the eighteenth century: he describes this as a shift ‘from consent to command’. As both practices of governance and elite attitudes became more ‘rational’, legal culture and local culture drifted apart.

The legal culture which early modern people lost was, Lemmings says, about both ‘communal self-government under the law’ and a ‘culture of grass-roots participation in legal processes determining issues of life and property’ which ‘betokened freedom, consent, and equity, virtues that respected the dignity and interests of ordinary people’. [6] But both litigation and governance in early modern England were often less about equity than defining the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion; enforcing power relations within households and neighbourhoods; articulating and re-inscribing norms of local behaviour. [7] Similarly, ideas about equity, impartiality and truth were embedded in processes of social and cultural exclusion. [8] When people talked about the law in early modern England, they were also talking about social relationships. This was truer than ever in the eighteenth century, and is made explicit in a print account of a 1760s murder trial which I’ve been reading. Here, we see one way in which law, esteem, and society could be framed in the mid-eighteenth century North East.


In August 1764, a notice was placed in the Newcastle Chronicle lamenting the ‘uncommon Sufferings, of a worthy family, who have always deservedly enjoyed the Esteem and Affection of all who knew them’. They had been charged with the murder of a maidservant. But on their side, the notice declared, were: the judge, who had ultimately declared them innocent; ‘a Number of Gentleman of the most respectable Characters’ who had ‘warmly interested themselves in their Vindication’; and ‘all the Publishers of the News Papers, in agreeing to pass over, in Silence, the scandalous, false, and malicious Reports, so industriously propagated against them’. The support of these allies – representatives of the law, the gentry, and the press – proved their innocence, and revealed nothing less than ‘the Sense of the World, and Sentiments of the thinking Part of Mankind’. [9]

Four years later, a pamphlet defending Mr James Oliphant – surgeon, gentleman and head of the family in question – appeared in print. Its title page quoted from the sermon given by Dr Lowth at the 1764 Durham assizes, where the Oliphant family had been tried. The quote aligned Mr Oliphant with the law as it should work, those who had found him guilty with legal malpractice. Because ministers and officers, Lowth had said, were tasked with proceeding ‘agreeably to known Rules, and in subservience to the Laws; these become responsible for Mal-Administration’. [10] From its outset, then, the account staked Mr Oliphant’s claim to the disinterested culture of the law. The pamphlet was allegedly sold by ‘all other Booksellers in Great-Britain’ as well as in Newcastle and Edinburgh, and it aimed to transcend the local world which had found him guilty. Local prejudice had driven him ‘to appeal to the impartial world’, its introductory section explained, for he had ‘an unreserved confidence in the justice of the public’. [11]

The account put forward a dichotomous understanding of eighteenth-century society. On one side was a local culture marked by prejudice and delusion, represented by those who had charged Mr Oliphant with murder; on the other was a national culture marked by intelligence and impartiality, represented by the Oliphant family, their friends, and the tract’s readers. The author’s imagined audience had not picked up the pamphlet for its lurid account of intrigue in a better-sort household (though this was a flourishing genre at the time); they did not ordinarily concern themselves with other people’s domestic affairs. ‘The events, indeed, are of a private nature’, he wrote, ‘but not the less interesting to every lover of freedom, every friend of human kind’. [12] ‘Every impartial, intelligent inquirer’ was expected to react the same way: to be horrified by the injustice of the case, the potency of popular prejudice and the powerlessness of a gentleman and his family against it. [13]

The ‘impartial world’ was also expected to agree with Mr Oliphant about how esteem should work. Before describing the coroner’s inquest, the account paused to relate the ‘general character of the persons composing this family’. Honourable ancestry, professional skill, and personal virtue defined the character of Mr Oliphant; an abundance of these last two qualities meant that ‘few men better deserv’d, or enjoy’d in a higher degree, the esteem of mankind’ than his father-in-law; his wife was ‘a lady of distinguish’d accomplishments and humanity’. The maid who had been accused alongside them warranted less praise: ‘it may suffice to observe, that she had been well educated, was a girl of simple inoffensive manners and of a good disposition, and had always behav’d herself in a very becoming manner’. [14] Reputation was at the heart of the case in another way, too: the Oliphants’ relationship with their alleged victim had been shaped by their attempts to govern how she was esteemed. All they had wanted, the notice in the Newcastle Chronicle lamented, was to ‘reclaim an unfortunate Girl from Vice and Infamy, without exposing her to public Shame’. [15]

Eighteenth-century servants were usually reliant on the ‘characters’ (the eighteenth-century antecedent of job references) which they had been given by former masters and mistresses. Dinah Armstrong, however, was hired on the basis of the ‘plausible account the Girl gave of herself’ and her ‘good countenance’. [16] This turned out to be an unreliable character reference. Shortly after taking her in, Dinah’s new master and mistress left her and their children with a friend as they travelled to Scotland. When they returned, the friend reported that Dinah had stolen three damask napkins. They did not find these napkins when they searched her chest, but they did find a sheet marked with the initials of a lady who had recently dismissed her: she had been planning to cut it into shifts for herself. Mrs Oliphant took pity on her– it turned out that she really was in need of underwear – and

took an opportunity to exhort the Girl in the tenderest manner, to a virtuous and industrious course of life, as the only means of making her happy; and at the same time made her a present of some linen. [17]

But she still denied stealing the napkins, and so Mr Oliphant sought help from a neighbour who was an ‘intimate acquaintance’ of his, a parish officer, and a ‘gentleman of great humanity’. This neighbour agreed that the Oliphants’ attempts at reforming Dinah were ‘laudable and benevolent’, and he, too, tried to persuade her to confess. [18] But it did not feel benevolent to Dinah: she told her sister (according to testimony at the inquest) that Mrs Oliphant ‘had sent for Mr Green a parish officer to threaten [her] about some linen that was missing which she … declared she knew nothing about’. [19] After this admonition, she sank into an ‘extremely dull and sullen’ mood, later retreating into the cellar by herself. [20]

The Oliphants lived in a four-storey house on the first arch of the Tyne Bridge – these houses were yet to be swept away by the flood of 1771 – and their cellar opened out onto the banks of the river. When the other maidservant went downstairs to look for Dinah, she saw a fleeting shadow on the cellar wall; the door out to the river left open; and, when she approached it and looked out, Dinah lying on the sand thirteen feet below. Yet, when she returned to the cellar after running to tell her master and mistress and looked down at the river banks again, there was no-one there. [21] Five days later, after much searching and confusion, a keelman came to their door to report that a girl’s body had been found floating in the Tyne: they had taken it ashore at Dunston, a nearby village ‘where a number of people employed about the coal-works live’. [22]

It was at this point that the other culture broke in on the Oliphants’ rational, genteel world. The crowd which gathered around the body ‘could not, by the exertion of their faculties’, imagine that the mark around Dinah’s neck meant anything other than that she had been hanged (the Oliphants insisted that it was left by the necklace or ribbon which she wore). A young surgeon, passing by, endorsed their view. ‘After this’, the pamphlet declared, ‘the most extravagant and uncharitable notions, the most ridiculous and absurd opinions, were adopted and espous’d by the unthinking multitude, ever ready to condemn without examination; always rash and precipitate in their judgments; credulous, and at the same time obstinate’. [23]

This culture was – had to be – represented as the culture of the lower sort, and so those who took part in it were assigned a humbler status than they are, in practice, likely to have had. ‘A Jury were impannel’d, out of the lowest people in the place’, the pamphlet alleged, ‘all strongly infected by the popular prejudice; and so violent was the contagion, that even the Coroner was unable to secure himself against it’. [24] (Peter King has compared complaints that eighteenth-century jurymen were impoverished and ignorant with records of those eligible for jury service in Essex, and concluded that they were resented not for their poverty, but because they were middling-sort men who did not side with the gentry.) [25] When Mr Oliphant travelled to Dunston, he thought the people he encountered there ‘an enraged mob’: how, he wondered, could anyone’s case ‘depend upon the determinations of such a rabble as he then found himself among’? It got worse. He was repeatedly interrupted by the ‘encircling mob’ as he addressed himself to the coroner; Dinah’s sisters were among them, ‘busied in inflaming the populace’. When Mr Oliphant ‘begg’d’ to be listened to, one of the sisters

grew quite furious, thrust herself forward to Mr Oliphant, and call’d him a murdering dog, and indulg’d herself in the most scurrilous language and abuse. Mr Oliphant requested one of the Jury he might first be heard out, but one of the Jury interposing, said, “We will hear her, she has as good a right to be heard as you, altho’ you be a Gentleman.” To which Mr Oliphant reply’d, “If that be your opinion and method of proceeding, Gentlemen, I think I have already said enough” so left them, and returned to the Coroner. [26]

The social implications of rationality were, in this passage, laid bare. Only the disinterested voice of a gentleman could tend towards justice and equity. In Mr Oliphant’s impartial world, the irrationality of the populace meant that it forfeited its right to be listened to.


Let’s return to David Lemmings’ description of the legal culture left behind: ‘communal self-government under the law’ on the one hand, ‘freedom and equity’ on the other. For James Oliphant and his defenders, the discernment of the impartial world could not be reconciled with a culture of reputation based on what legal tracts were still calling ‘common fame’. It was ‘extraordinary’, the pamphlet insisted, that ‘these outrages and severities are effected in Britain, the esteem’d land of liberty and good sense’; it should shock ‘every Briton concern’d in the preservation of his birth-rights’. [27] Yet the ‘popular prejudice’ held up as shocking here – not only the allegedly unjust indictment, but the entire social process leading up to it – was the usual logic of early modern regulation, of shame sanctions and communal calculations of worth.

For my purposes, the most important question is: what happened when these two eighteenth-century cultures of esteem, the literary and national and the oral and local, confronted one another? Both Tew’s justicing book and The Case of Mr James Oliphant suggest that in the mid-eighteenth century North East, the latter continued to shape not only how most people understood reputation, but also how most people understood the law. Even after Mr Oliphant was ultimately declared innocent, he remained guilty in the eyes of many local people: he claimed to be greatly injured as a result.

In practice, the social contours of law and reputation were probably less marked than the Oliphant case suggests. Elsewhere in mid-eighteenth century Newcastle, an apprentice hostman called Ralph Jackson recorded a number of trials and executions in his diary. ‘Went to Court and saw Richard Trotter Sentenced to be Hanged’, he noted in 1750. In 1752, he wrote that ‘I got my Breakfast and went upon the Key but most people was gone to see the unfortunate Owen Macdonald executed for the murder of Robert Parker, Cooper’. And in August 1756, he heard ‘one Curtis’ charged with murder at the town court. ‘Some were of opinion’, he added, ‘that Curtis wou’d not have suffer’d had it not been that he obstructed an Officer in discharge of his Duty’. [29] It’s worth wondering how different Ralph Jackson’s ‘most people’ were from Mr Oliphant’s ‘encircling mob’ (and whose opinion did he hear at the town court?).

There was nothing new about better-sort men asserting their right to enforce the terms of both law and reputation, or about a gentleman’s word taking precedence over everyone else’s. But there was, I think, something novel about the cultural distance described in Mr Oliphant’s account – the distance between the culture of esteem allegedly shared by the ‘thinking Part of Mankind’, and everyday interactions in South Shields, Monkwearmouth, Newcastle or Dunston. In the long run, the terms of the ‘impartial’ legal culture became dominant (today, you can find them in below-the-line comments on any British news site), while law itself became detached from the workings of neighbourhood. But in the 1750s and 60s, the popular understanding of law and reputation still structured local life. A gentleman who distanced himself from this culture could find himself isolated and embattled, unable to either understand or fully escape from the communities around him. A clerical justice, however patrician, was immersed in it.



[1] Edmund Tew, The Queen of Sheba’s Notions of Government, Considered, in a Sermon Preached at Carlisle Assizes (Newcastle, 1750), 16.

[2] Norma Landau, The Justices of the Peace, 1679-1760 (London, 1984), 3-4.

[3] Gwenda Morgan & Peter Rushton, The justicing notebook of Edmund Tew, rector of Boldon (Woodbridge, 2000), 5.

[4] Ibid, 29-33.

[5] James Sharpe, Crime in Early Modern England, 1550-1750 (London, 1984), 87, 93.

[6] David Lemmings, Law and Government in England during the Long Eighteenth Century: From Consent to Command (New York, 2011), 21, 5-6.

[7] Steve Hindle, ‘A sense of place? Becoming and belonging in the rural parish 1550-1650’ in Alexandra Shepard & Phil Withington (eds), Communities in Early Modern England: Networks, Place, Rhetoric (Manchester, 2000) 97; Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford, 1996), 268-76.

[8] Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1994), 42-3.

[9] Newcastle Chronicle, 25 August 1764.

[10] The Case of Mr James Oliphant, a Surgeon, Respecting a Prosecution … for the Suppos’d Murder of a Female Domestic (Newcastle, 1768).

[11] Ibid, vii.

[12] Ibid, viii.

[13] Ibid, xii.

[14] Ibid, 11-3.

[15] Newcastle Chronicle, 25 August 1764.

[16] The Case of Mr James Oliphant, 1.

[17] Ibid, 2-3.

[18] Ibid, 4.

[19] Ibid, 25.

[20] Ibid, 6.

[21] Ibid, 4-7.

[22] Ibid, 9-10.

[23] Ibid, 14-6.

[24]  Ibid, 17.

[25] Peter King, ‘“Illiterate Plebeians, Easily Misled”: Jury Composition, Experience, and Behavior in Essex, 1735-1815’ in J. S. Cockburn & Thomas Green, Twelve Good Men and True: The Criminal Trial Jury in England, 1200-1800 (Princeton, 1988), 304.

[26] The Case of Mr James Oliphant, 20-1.

[27] Ibid, viii.

[28] Clifford E. Thornton (ed.), Bound for the Tyne: extracts from the diary of Ralph Jackson, apprentice hostman of Newcastle upon Tyne, 1749-1756 (Newcastle, 2000), 7-8, 25, 43.


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