Heritage: How Romford Market made fair play a principle of English law

Romford Market in the late 1930s. Picture: A Century of Romford by Brian Evans

Romford Market in the late 1930s. Picture: A Century of Romford by Brian Evans - Credit: Archant

Professor Ged Martin looks at a 300-year-old case that established a basic principle of English law

It’s a fundamental principle of English law that trustees cannot benefit from the affairs of the person they’re looking after.

If you’re acting on behalf of a child, or somebody who’s sick, you must bend over backwards to avoid taking a rake-off.

This was the judges’ message in the case of Keech v. Sandford in 1726 – also known as the Romford Market Case.

The Crown owned the tolls paid by people using Romford Market, but the government leased the fiddly job of chasing the small sums involved, usually to some businessman who then sub-contracted the actual collection work locally.

Around 1700, the Crown leased the tolls to Mark Frost, a brewer from Bow. He sub-leased their collection to a Romford resident, Mr Keech.

Sadly, Mr Keech died, and the agreement was inherited by his infant son Charles. The boy’s guardian, William Sandford, continued to collect the cash in his role as trustee.

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When the sub-lease ran out, Sandford very properly asked Frost to renew it on behalf of young Charles Keech.

But the Bow brewer refused, saying he wasn’t happy about dealing with a minor. As Sandford had been doing the work, why didn’t he take over the sub-lease himself?

William Sandford began life in Ingatestone working as a woolcomber, cleaning wool for sale to textile manufacturers. By 1714, he’d moved to Romford and become a wool dealer. He also dabbled in property.

Sandford rented Risebridge Farm from New College, Oxford. (Now a golf course, it gives its name to Romford’s Rise Park.)

Risebridge Farm was a plum investment. In addition to rents and taxes, all farmers also had to pay tithes, one tenth of their produce, to the Church.

Havering tithes went to New College. Risebridge Farm collected their tithes across northern Havering, and of course its tenant made a profit from the operation.

Since Sandford was geared up to collect tithes (usually commuted into cash payments), it made sense also to take over the sub-lease of the market tolls – a job he was already doing.

Frost had refused to deal with Charles Keech, so the youngster was out of the picture anyway, and Sandford didn’t think he was doing anything wrong.

By 1724, William Sandford was calling himself “gentleman”. But Keech, now grown up and married, didn’t think his trustee’s conduct was gentlemanly.

It was probably his wife Susan who pushed him to take legal action. They put a bomb under English law.

The case arose soon after the South Sea Bubble scandal of 1720. Thousands of naive investors had put money into the South Sea Company, a Ponzi scheme that promised to make them rich overnight.

Life savings were lost. An angry public demanded higher business standards.

Keech v. Sandford gave the judges their chance.

The court accepted that Sandford had intended no dishonesty.

All the same, he’d been wrong to take over the sub-lease.

“This may seem hard, that the trustee is the only person of all mankind who might not have the lease,” one judge commented.

But without an absolute rule, trustees would find reasons to divert property to their own use, and orphans would be cheated of their inheritance.

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The profits of Sandford’s lease had to be handed over.

Unfortunately, the windfall didn’t do Keech much good. He became a “chapman”, a general trader. I suspect he was something of a Del Boy.

In 1734, a news magazine announced the bankruptcy of “Charles Keech of Rumpford, Essex”. The rude spelling was a sarcastic allusion to the reputation of Havering’s chief town for its illicit sex industry.

Three centuries later, the principle of Keech v. Sandford holds true in every country whose legal system derives from Britain.

In 1995, it was cited before the High Court of Australia.

In 2019 it was mentioned in a pensions case before the US Supreme Court.

Keech v Sandford is Romford’s contribution to fair play across the English-speaking world.