When King’s ministers intervened in vote for magistrate

The current Romford Magistrates' Court. Picture: John Hercock

The current Romford Magistrates' Court. Picture: John Hercock - Credit: Archant

Days before the country goes to the polls, Prof Ged Martin looks at a 17th century election

A controversial election split the Liberty of Havering 410 years ago, in 1607.

The Liberty covered those parts of today’s borough of Havering, west of the Ingrebourne – Upminster and Rainham were not included.

Since 1465, inhabitants of the royal manor had the unusual right of electing a local magistrate. But the charter of privileges issued to the Liberty that year did not say who could vote.

Sir William Ayloffe, of Bretons in Elm Park, and Hornchurch lawyer and farmer Thomas Legatt were deadly rivals. Through his carelessness, Ayloffe had been responsible for flooding the south Hornchurch marshes in the 1590s. He had refused to pay towards cleaning up the mess, and had physically harassed Legatt, who took charge of the remedial work.

Both wanted the job.

Running the election was Havering’s steward, Edward Cooke of Gidea Hall, a mansion which stood next to Raphael Park. As the local first family, the Cookes always held this top job. But 27-year-old Edward, who disliked Ayloffe, was deeply in debt. Legatt lent him money.

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In 1607, Legatt helped Cooke by buying an outlying Gidea Hall property, Redden Court, a farm that stretched from Ardleigh Green to Harold Wood.

Ayloffe later claimed the deal disguised a bribe to get the magistrate’s job.

Havering’s manorial court always chose a jury of 24 men, who decided legal cases and discussed local issues – a combined court and council.

Juries were chosen with informal deference, places being tacitly conceded to wealthiest and best educated residents.

But in October 1607, Cooke and his deputy steward, Romford lawyer Thomas Freshwater, decided to hand-pick their own jury, choosing less prominent residents who would vote for Legatt.

Ayloffe alleged “a desire to sway and rule all matters within the said manor or Liberty of Havering-atte-Bower according to their own wills or pleasure”.

To their dismay, prominent residents who volunteered for jury service at the October meeting were rebuffed. Instead – claimed Ayloffe – Cooke packed the jury with “drunkards and disorderly persons”, men “of very mean estate and substance”.

Even so, when choosing a magistrate, the jurors split, 15 backing Legatt, nine supporting Ayloffe.

Despite Cooke’s objection, the manorial court insisted on polling everybody who had turned up. The result was a 38-18 majority for Ayloffe.

The electoral college had voted for Legatt, but the popular vote was for Ayloffe.

Although Legatt immediately took office, prominent Ayloffe supporters appealed for government intervention. The Ayloffe camp spanned Havering from north to south, John Wright of Wrightsbridge at Noak Hill signing alongside James Harvey of Mardyke, now Orchard Village, in the far south.

James I’s ministers overturned the election in Ayloffe’s favour. But, as steward, Cooke ordered all Havering officials – the gaoler, constables, bailiffs and ale-tasters – to ignore the interloper.

Havering’s citizens re-assembled in April 1608. When Ayloffe took his seat in the court house, Cooke, Freshwater and Legatt led a walk-out, and reconvened business in a nearby inn.

The row dragged on for several years. Legatt was forced out of office. Ayloffe does not appear to have taken his place. Rather, he became an Essex county magistrate, using his position to undermine Havering’s autonomy.

In defence of their privileges, Liberty of Havering magistrates actually hanged a criminal in 1611 – something they hadn’t done for years – to show Essex they were still in business.

His name was Ollyver: let’s hope he recognised that he died in a good cause.

There was another dispute over the right to vote for Havering’s magistrate in 1836. The last election was in 1891. Colonel Holmes of Grey Towers, Hornchurch (a mansion remembered in Grey Towers Avenue), won by 78 votes to 32.

Colonel Holmes did not hold office for long. The Liberty of Havering was abolished in 1892.

Around 120,000 Havering citizens will vote on June 8 – about 5,000 times more than the electorate of 1607.