Heritage: The Liberty of Havering – a mini republic that lasted 427 years

PUBLISHED: 15:00 26 November 2017

Criminals were hanged at Gallows Corner. Theres no record of any executions after 1666. Picture: Ken Mears

Criminals were hanged at Gallows Corner. Theres no record of any executions after 1666. Picture: Ken Mears


Prof Ged Martin looks at the special privileges awarded Havering by King Edward IV

In 1465, Edward IV issued a charter giving special privileges to the inhabitants of his royal manor of Havering (the modern borough west of the Ingrebourne – Rainham and Upminster were not included).

As tenants of the king, Havering people already possessed various privileges, such as exemption from paying tolls at markets and bridges throughout England.

The reason for these privileges was not swank, but the king’s need for his own tenants to have money in their pockets. If Parliament was reluctant to vote him taxes, he could impose a “tallage” on his own estates.

The 1465 charter was probably the idea of prominent local landowners who wanted to run the district as a private fiefdom. The most likely godfathers of Havering Liberty were Sir Thomas Urswick of Marks, near Collier Row, and Sir Edward Coke of Romford’s Gidea Hall, both wealthy London merchants and influential in politics.

Officially, as described in Elizabeth I’s 1588 confirmation of the charter, residents formed a body called “The Tenants and Inhabitants of the Lordship or Manor of Havering-atte-Bower”.

But most people called it “The Liberty of Havering”.

Havering had its own courts. Local people could not be forced to plead elsewhere.

The Liberty was headed by a Crown-appointed Steward. He was one of two magistrates, the second being elected by the inhabitants – an arrangement unique in England.

A 1554 charter reissue allowed the appointment of a Deputy Steward, who acted as the third magistrate.

Havering’s magistrates were kept busy. Octavius Mashiter of “Priests” (now Priests Avenue, Rise Park), elected in 1836, rarely spent a night away from Romford for thirty years.

The Liberty had its own court house and primitive prison at the west end of Romford Market. The site was cleared in 1934.

Criminals were hanged at Gallows Corner. There’s no record of any executions after 1666.

The law was upheld by local men taking turns to serve as enforcers. The Liberty was divided into two “Sides”, Romford and Hornchurch, each having a High Constable, backed by nine petty constables, two of them for Romford town.

Havering’s business methods do not always inspire admiration. In 1730, the jury couldn’t agree in an assault case, seven opting for guilty and five insisting on not guilty.

Eventually jurors agreed to put twelve shillings in a hat and shake them about, determining the defendant’s fate by counting heads or tails.

He was acquitted, “the chance happening in favour of not guilty”.

Liberty courts could handle small debt cases. The ability to settle disputes quickly and on the spot probably helped Romford’s market become the dominant trading centre in south Essex.

As a county within a county, Havering was sometimes seen as a soft target for dubious activities, such as prize-fighting.

As with illegal raves today, venues for bare-knuckled boxing contests were only revealed at the last minute.

In December 1789, there were rumours that a fight was planned between Thomas Gray, a Romford labourer, and “Shock Will” Bridges, to take place at Havering Well (later Roneo Corner).

Magistrates banned any such encounter, citing “the great and enormous mischiefs, evils, riots, strifes, discords, thefts, robberies, and other grievances” caused by the influx of thousands of fight fans.

They sweetly added that they would feel “the most sincere concern” at the “disagreeable necessity” of asking the government to send a troop of cavalry to keep order, “well knowing how extremely burdensome it would to the publicans to have a body of horse[men] quartered upon them during the winter.”

Back the big fight, was the message, and the Army will commandeer your scarce hay stocks.

Gradually, through the 19th century, Havering Liberty lost its autonomy.

In 1892, it finally came to an end. A local school and a shopping centre recall its 400-year history.

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