'Court of Requests'
A 'Court of
Requests' was established in the early nineteenth century to deal
with debtors. It could rule on cases up to £5 in value and impose
terms of imprisonment up to 100 days. The court was estabished
through an Act of Parliament in 1807 promoted by Lord Lyttleton,
the local MP, 'for the more speedy recovery of debts within
the parishes of Halesowen, Rowley Regis, Harborne, West Bromwich,
Tipton and the manor of Bradley'. Oldbury was part of Halesowen
at the time, and a relatively small and poorly developed settlement.
Despite larger towns being within the area covered, Oldbury was
chosen for the siting of the new Court.
court was held on 19th May 1807 with Thomas Turner as Chairman,
Ellis Sutton as Clerk of the Court and Thomas Johnson as Sergeant
of the Court, although the records do not show where it was held.
The Revd L Booker, Vicar of Dudley, preached an 'excellent sermon'
in Oldbury Chapel on the day the Court opened. The Court asked
that it might be printed for 'the restraint of dissipation
and vice, the encouragement of frugality and virtue, and the universal
diffusion of prosperity and happiness'. Lord Lyttleton was
presented with a silver cup to mark his services in obtaining
the Act of Parliament. Appropriate hats were soon provided for
the court officers, one with a gold band for the Sergeant of the
Court, Thomas Johnson, and one with merely a black band for his
assistant, John Turner.
In July 1807
the Court approached the Lord of Oldbury Manor, Francis Parrott,
to sell them some land in Church Street to establish the new courthouse
and jail. He agreed, but the Courthouse was not opened
until 1816. Meanwhile, the work of the court proceeded.
for contempt received by the end of 1807 were distributed to the
poor of Halesowen, Harborne and Oldbury. Those levied for 'insulting
and obstructing officers of the court' were paid in January 1810
to Joseph Wright, the Treasurer of the recently established Oldbury
Sunday Schools, to benefit the Sunday Schools movement. This amounted
to £11 13s 4d, no mean sum at the time, and suggests a substantial
amount of insult and obstruction on the part of the local citizens
to the new court.
Thomas Johnson, seems to have performed his duties with vigour,
for the Court minutes record that he was ordered to pay £1 1s
in recompense for injury to James Walker following a complaint
against him, and to 'make confession of his conduct'. Further
complaints about Sergeant Johnson followed, and he was finally
discharged on 30th April 1811.
of the court, John Turner, reported that he had observed goods
being removed by night from a house, presumably goods that the
court had ordered to be seized for debt, or ones in a case about
to come before the court. The minutes record him saying to the
woman carrying items from a house, "You are removing your goods
in time!". She answered, "Ah, damn you, you stripped the
house once of all the goods, and we will take care you shall not
1811, a Birmingham basket maker, Stephen Porter, was present in
court and interrupted proceedings. He 'did there and then make
use of insulting language before the Commissioners sitting in
Court … and continued to do so after being admonished'. The
Commissioners ordered him to be removed, and he later took action
against Revd David Lewis, the Anglican Minister at Oldbury, who
was probably chairing the Commissioners. Tthe minutes record that
Revd Lewis incurred considerable expense in defending the action,
and the court agreed to pay these costs from Court funds. These
events suggest that the court was somewhat 'ad-hoc' in its approach
and faced difficulties in establishing its authority.
courthouse and prison
Courthouse datestone, still in place..
It is likely
that public houses were used for much of the court's initial work,
the 'Swan Inn' at West Bromwich, where a special meeting was held
in 1809 to fill vacancies in the list of the Court Commissioners.
Finally, in 1815 the builders William Harris and Thomas Whitehouse
were asked to provide a plan and estimate for the construction
of the courthouse and prison, and these were completed in
1816, presumably by them.
were tightened up in the new premises, and the prison regime
was quite severe. In July 1820 it was ordered that 'no kinds
of provisions, ale, spirits, or drinkables be allowed to be received
or taken into the prisoners for their use of any description whatever,
except a loaf of bread weighing 1lb for each person per day'.
In contrast, however, in May that year they had made the sensible
ruling that working tools should be taken in distraint for debt
only as a last resort when sufficient other goods could not be
By 1828, John
Horton was employed as the Sergeant to the Court. On 31st March
that year, when a little drunk he decided to confront the notorious
31-year old collier William Steventon, known as 'Billy Sugar',
who had outstanding warrants for debt against him. Steventon was
known as a man of vicious character who often carried a knife
to resist attempts to arrest him. Sergeant Horton challenged him
at 'The Whimsey Inn', Churchbridge, and said he was under arrest.
Steventon, who was on his way from work, asked for time to go
home to wash and Sergeant Horton allowed him to do so. When Billy
Sugar returned to the inn, he had a large knife with him, and
stabbed Sergeant Horton fatally. He made his escape, but was soon
was arrested. He was sent to Shropshire assizes and sentenced
to be hanged. His public execution in August, along with two other
murderers, was attended by a crowd of about 5000. His body was
passed to Salop Infirmary for dissection.
Courthouse in 1900, from 'Picturesque Oldbury'
of Requests gaol had cells for men and women prisoners. In 1839
the 'Master' was Henry Parrish and the 'Matron' Mrs S Martin.
At this time the Court met fortnightly on Tuesdays, with William
Caldicott as the Clerk and Collector.
At the census
of 6th June 1841, the 'Resident Gaoler' was John Mason, and his
wife Mary was the 'Matron'. They had living accommodation at the
courthouse, together with their daughter, Mary Anne, and a domestic
servant Elizabeth Carter. The gaol itself held one woman prisoner
and nineteen men. Their ages ranged from 20 to 60, two-thirds
of whom were iover 40. Only five of the prisoners are recorded
as being born 'In County', which would be Shropshire, suggesting
that many of them were either migrants into the area or hailed
from those parts of the court's jurisdiction in Staffordshire.
They were drawn from several occupations, all hard working, low
paid jobs: eight were coal miners, two were brickmakers, two nailors,
and one each of boatman, caster, chainmaker, cooper, cordwainer,
(h)ingemaker, and pot turner.
conditions were very bad by the 1840s, and an inquiry was
ordered by the Home Secretary. This was carried out by John G
Perry, Inspector of Prisoners, who reported to Sir James Graham
part of the prison for the reception of male Debtors consists
of three rooms, measuring, respectively, 30 feet 7 by 18 feet
6, 14 feet by 10 feet 6, and 12 feet by 10 feet 6, placed on
the two sides of a yard of the same level with themselves, whose
dimensions are 34 feet by 25 feet 8. These rooms which serve
for both day and sleeping-apartments, are extremely confined,
offensive and unwholesome, neither of them having openings on
more than one side, and the smaller of the three having no window
at all, - but depending for its supply of air upon the door
of communication with that adjoining. The walls and floor of
the buildings are very dirty and neglected, and adjoining to
the more confined of them is the Privy of the prison, from which
there is no drainage, and which adds not a little to the offensiveness.
from report by Inspector of Prisons
rooms are supplied with iron bedsteads, each accommodating two
persons, who have a bed stuffed with straw, which is said to
be changed monthly, and one blanket. There are no seats, tables
or other furniture of any kind.
the state of the atmosphere of these apartments, when filled
with their inmates and closed for the night, is most insupportable,
may safely be inferred from its condition at the time of my
visit, when, notwithstanding that all the windows and doors
were open and most of the men were in the yard, it was extremely
foul and oppressive.
accommodation for Female Debtors consists of a small room and
an airing-yard on the same level, less than half the size of
that of the men. One female only inhabited this part of the
prison, while the male prisoners amounted to 19.
shortest time for which prisoners are liable to be detained
in this prison is 20 days and the longest, upon a single execution,
of 100 days.
of Inspector of Prisons
diet allowed for males and females consists of 1½lb of Bread
per diem. The prisoners are allowed to be visited by their friends
for two hours of the day, from whom they may receive food, but
a rule of the Prison directs that if any food be brought in
by the friends of Debtors, the bread of prisoners so receiving
food shall be stopped on that and the following day. The gaoler
assured me that this rule was not acted upon, and that there
is an intention of repealing it as well as some other obsolete
rules. The statement of the Gaoler relative to the non-observance
of the rule was confirmed by the prisoners.
prisoners are allowed coals, but neither candles, soap nor towels.
In order to purchase soap and other small necessaries, money
is demanded of every new comer, in the nature of Garnish, and
in the case of his inability or refusal to pay the demand, some
of his clothes are detained from him by the other prisoners.
can be required to prove the entire unfitness of the prison
I have described for the reception and confinement of Debtors.
The Commissioners, under this persuasion have purchased a large
lot of ground, immediately adjoining, which would admit the
erection of a suitable prison, but the uncertainty as to the
effects of the County Courts Bill, if passed into Law, upon
the powers of the Court, is pleaded as a reason for no steps
being taken at the present moment."
final paragraph makes clear his condemnation of the Oldbury Commissioners
in not improving the prison: "In reply to this position, I am
bound to express my opinion that with the means in their hands of
improving the Condition of the wretched inmates of the Prison, the
Commissioners are not warranted in delaying the abatement of an
admitted nuisance, in expectation of a possible change in circumstances
more or less remote."
County Court and the Magistrates Court
In 1846 the
1807 legislation was repealed by the new County Courts Act. Oldbury
became part of Circuit 25, and County Courts were held monthly
in Oldbury Courthouse. The area covered comprised Oldbury, Langley,
Warley Salop, Warley Wigorn, Smethwick and West Bromwich. The
First County Court judge was Nathaniel Richard Clarke, with Joseph
Heapy Watson as Clerk and Charles George Megevan as High Bailiff.
Clerks to the Court House and Session Court were the Oldbury solicitors
Hayes & Sons.
report was not ignored, and by 1850 Slater's Directory reported
that the Court House was recently improved and now 'a neat
and commodious building'. It even contained 'apartments
for the magistrates who assembled in petty session every fortnight,
and for the judge in the county court, who sits monthly to determine
causes of any amount not exceeding £20.' Five years later
two assistant clerks were listed, J B Baly and George Wheatcroft,
so the work of the courts was probably expanding as the population
of the area grew rapidly.
In 1858 West
Bromwich leaders initiated moves to have the County Court transferred
to them. However, strong opposition fought off the challenge,
the court was retained at Oldbury, and the government even paid
£3000 to extend the court buildings. This reprieve was not to
last, and in 1889 West Bromwich, by then a County Borough, was
successful in having the County Court transferred to it. The magistrates'
court remained in Oldbury and continued to operate at the courthouse.
Littlebury's directory of 1873 shows that none of the twelve magistrates
actually lived in the district, although several had industrial
interests in the town. The premises were eventually bought by
Worcestershire County Council, and the Police Station moved into
it just in 1904. They occupied the ground floor with the court
for Oldbury Petty Sessions, covering Oldbury, Langley, Rounds
Green and Warley, continued to meet each Tuesday at the courthouse.
By the early 1900s, the magistrates were almost exclusively drawn
from the ranks of local industrialists, with G S Albright, S Bennitt,
A M Chance, W E Chance, E Danks, J W Wilson, and J E Wilson among
disused magistrates court photographed in the 1990s. The
images have been digitally enhanced to remove the boxes
of papers and debris which cluttered the room to show fine
the features of the building!-
See more recent pictures here.
of the magistrates court were reported regularly in the 'Oldbury
Weekly News' and the 'Midland Chronicle', and record the domestic
and illegal activities of the people of Oldbury.
featured regularly with drunken husbands becoming violent, brothers
falling out and coming to blows and neighbours fighting over disagreements.
Men and women are summoned for drunkenness and foul language on
its own peculiar offences. A surprising number of employees in
the munitions factories of WW1 were brought before the court for
the recklessly suicidal offence of possessing matches or smoking
materials within the factory. Lighting restrictions saw men and
women before the court for willfully or accidently 'showing a
The main sources
for this article were:
F W Hackwood,
'Oldbury and Round About', (1915), Whitehead Bros and Cornish
Brothers, pp196-202. Hackwood quotes the details recorded in an
article in the 'Midland Chronicle' , 22 August 1913, p6.
of John Horton is described in an article by Bob Taylor in 'The
Bugle Annual, 1981', pp 89-90
on Prison the Oldbury Court of Requests', 24th June 1944,
by J G Perry, is document HO45 - 778 in the National Archives.
wardens, prisoners, magistrates etc are taken from various directories
dated 1840 - 1904, from the 1841 Census, and from Bone's '1905
Yearbook' for Oldbury
have moved into new modern buildings in Low Town, and the police
have left too. The Courthouse building now houses Oldbury Library
on the ground floor. The court itself still remains on the second
floor, used as a storage space for council documents and papers.
It still has the court fittings with the dock, the witness box
and the magistrates' bench, and its one fireplace, strategically
placed behind the bench to keep the magistrates warm. The police
cells also remain, substantially intact, but again used as a store
for old papers.
court fittings are still intact and should be retained. These
are buildings that must be preserved since they represent
an important stage in Oldbury's social development, and they are
worthy of a better use than just being a store room for unwanted
papers. With the expected move of the Public Library to new building
in the next couple of years, a new sympathetic use for the whole
complex is required, preferably one that allows the fittings and
fabric to be retained.
article © Dr
Terry Daniels 2008 - contact for permission
to use extracts