18th century

Keeping Law and Order in the Liberty of the Savoy according to Joseph Ritson | Stephen Basdeo

By Stephen Basdeo, a historian and writer based in Leeds, UK. This article is taken from a conference paper due to be given tomorrow at the British Crime Historians’ Symposium, University of Leeds.

Joseph Ritson (personal collection)


Policing in eighteenth-century civil parishes is a subject that has been well covered but less attention has been paid to the maintenance of law and order within the liberties: places where central government authority had been ceded to a mesne lord and did not fall under a civil authority. The liberties had evolved as essentially self-governing domains with their own courts: the Court Leet. And this system survived into the eighteenth century. The proposed paper asks the following questions: how did law enforcement differ from that in non-Liberty districts? What was the chain of command? Who indicted and passed judgement upon criminals? I will answer these questions by examining several tracts published in the late eighteenth century by the antiquary, lawyer, and High Bailiff for the Liberty of the Savoy, Joseph Ritson (1752–1803). Having been appointed to the position of high bailiff in 1786, according to his letters, he soon realised that no public official could tell him what bailiffs in liberties were actually supposed to do. He researched the matter and published tracts such as The Office of Bailiff, The Office of Constable, and Jurisdiction of the Court Leet. He then delved into the archives and attempted to write a kind of ‘Newgate Calendar’ highlighting the historic crimes that had been tried in the courts leet in The Proceedings of the Court Leet (1789). While the functions of the courts leet were eventually subsumed into those carried out by the magistrates in civil parishes, Ritson’s writings offer a fascinating glimpse into what is a fairly ‘forgotten’ aspect of law enforcement in Georgian London.


Joseph Ritson was born in 1752 in Stockton-on-Tees. He became a lawyer and moved to London where, after a brief apprenticeship with the firm of Masterman and Lloyd, struck out on his own and ran a legal practice from Gray’s Inn. Most people know Ritson as an antiquary who specialised in medieval history. His famous 1795 book, Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, have made him well-known to modern medieval scholars.

Stockton-on-Tees at the end of the 18th century (British Library)

Ritson: Antiquary and High Bailiff

However, Ritson also left us fascinating crime and legal history resources that are worthy of historians’ attention. His research in this area began when Ritson was appointed as High Bailiff of the Liberty of the Savoy, then part of the Duchy of Lancaster, in 1784. A liberty was a place where, at some point in the past, central authority had been ceded to a mesne lord and had its own court system: The Court Leet. Yet Ritson had a problem: No one could tell him just exactly what his duties were and so he set about researching them and the result of his research was published as The Office of Bailiff of a Liberty, The Jurisdiction of the Court Leet, and the Proceedings of the Court Leet.

When Ritson first started his job as High Bailiff of the Liberty of the Savoy, no one really knew what the job entailed. So Ritson decided to research the subject.

The Chain of Command in the Liberty of the Savoy

The first thing Ritson did in The Office of a Bailiff was to establish the chain of command in the liberties:

High Sheriff (for the whole Duchy of Lancaster)

High Bailiff (Ritson)

Deputy Bailiff(s) (if the High Bailiff decides to appoint one)

Serjeant at mace


The Savoy in 1792 (personal collection)

This is how Ritson understood it, and no one ever bothered to correct him at any rate. Contemporary scholars had differing opinions about the relationship between High Sheriff (who was probably absent from the Savoy anyway) and the High Bailiff in the Savoy. He quoted two scholars on this point which gave contradictory opinions about who was higher:

Spelman. The bailiff of a franchise or liberty is he who … taken away from the power of the sheriff, executes the business of the sheriff.

But then Ritson quotes two contradictory older statutes which were, in his time, un-repealed:

33 H. 6. 29. The Kings bailiff of his manor is immediate officer to the King.

This would seem to confirm the opinion of another eighteenth-century scholar whom Ritson cites:

Keilway, 89. The bailiff of a liberty is not servant to the sheriff, for the sheriff cannot make other return but according to that which the bailiff of the liberty certifies him.

Ritson’s own opinion, however, seemed to be that of Spelman’s: the bailiff is essentially the agent of the sheriff who is rarely present in the liberty.

In one of the ironies of history, Ritson, who was responsible for ensuring the longevity of the Robin Hood legend, was the equivalent of a sheriff charged with arresting Robin’s 18th-century counterparts

The Powers of the High Bailif

What surprised me was just how wide-ranging the powers of a liberty’s High Bailiff were; it was an office that combined civil administration of the area with the maintenance of law and order. So among the civil aspects there was the swearing in of jurors, infrastructure repairs, and the collection rents. As for the criminal justice aspects of the role, if the bailiff or his agents

Have suspicion of evil of roberdesmen, wastours and drawlatches, be it by night or day, they shall be incontinently arrested …and delivered to the bailiffs … and kept in prison till the coming of the justices assigned to deliver the gaols.

Contrary to a popular myth, perpetuated in William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard (1839)—who said that warrants for arrest originating outside the liberties could not be executed within them—Ritson pointed out that this was not the case: Criminals would be arrested no matter even if they fled to a liberty.

‘Roberdsmen’ was a colloquial term for ‘robber’ which, so the legal commentator Edward Coke (1552–1634) had earlier assumed, was taken from the name of the band of men who followed that legendary medieval outlaw, Robin Hood.The high bailiff of the Liberty of the Savoy performed the duties a high sheriff. In one of many ironies of history, then, Ritson—whose writings on Robin Hood ensured the legend’s longevity—was in effect a latter-day sheriff charged with responsible for the imprisonment of Robin Hood’s eighteenth-century counterparts.

Historicizing the Office of High Bailiff

Ritson then decided to capitalise on the success of contemporary publications such as The Proceedings of the Old Bailey and popular histories of criminals by publishing Proceedings of the Court Leet of the Manor and Liberty of the Savoy (1789). It was inscribed to ‘The Gentlemen of the Jury of the Manor and Liberty of the Savoy’ and contained the details of notorious criminal cases from the year 1682 onwards. Contained within are details of cases such as brothel keepers who were fined for the crime of ‘keeping a disorderly house’, such as a man named James Keate, who was charged with ‘keeping a lewd disorderly house, and entertaining lewd and disorderly persons att [sic] unseasonable times of the night, to the disturbance and annoyance of his neighbours’. The details of those who ran illegal gambling dens are also recorded, such as one man who was fined £5 for

Keeping a billiard table … for public use, being a great inconveniency to the neighbours, especially to the youth, by inducing them to play at the same, and by loosing [sic] their money there are put to difficulties to obtaine more, and that by unlawful means.

There were some rather mundane misdemeanours recorded in the Digest as well, such as rogue landlords like Hans Wintrop Mortimer who in 1779 was fined £10 for an ‘incroachment on his majesty’s soil’, having extended part of his house into the public highway. However, Ritson’s Digest differs from the more sensational true crime works simply by being incredibly detailed, whereas other criminal biographers rarely gave a fig for facts and often invented stories, complete with footnotes and references, and he did not engage in any moral commentary on the actions of criminals.

In conclusion, Ritson’s early research into the nature and function of the role of High Bailiff of a Liberty offer scholars an interesting glimpse into a relatively neglected aspect of eighteenth-century law enforcement and his Proceedings bring to light cases that went unnoticed in the more popular resources that historians use today such as Old Bailey Online.

Further Reading

Basdeo, Stephen, Discovering Robin Hood: The Life of Joseph Ritson—Gentleman, Scholar, Revolutionary (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2021)

Ritson, Joseph, Law Tracts (London: Privately Printed, 1794)

——, Office of Bailiff of a Liberty, 2nd edn (London, 1811)