On a Spring morning, just over 350 years ago, we know precisely what one of Chrishall’s farmers was doing. Was he on his farmland in Church Road instructing his men on the crops he wanted planted? No. He was in Newport. For John Lucas, a yeoman farmer of Chrishall, was also one of the Parish Constables. And on Monday 31st March 1670 he was obliged to be at ‘the sign of ye Bull’ in Newport submitting the parish return to the magistrates of the Petty Sessions.
Who was John Lucas?
We know John Lucas was a farmer as he left a Will when he died in April 1700, where he describes himself as a yeoman (a landholder). And he leaves “the best cow which I happen to have at the day of my death” to his daughters Francis and Grace. The Lucas family were reasonably well off as Francis also received a cupboard, and “the joyn’d Bedstead in the Parlor with the feather Bed and all the Bedding thereunto belonging”. A ‘joyn’d’ or joined bedstead was made by a carpenter and was probably a four poster bed. But the key piece of information about this bed is that it was in the parlour, i.e. the main living room of the house. Why was it there? Well it seems that at this period expensive items of furniture were put on display for visitors to see when they came to call and it is unlikely that the bed was slept in, or certainly not with any regularity. Shakespeare famously left his ‘second best bed’ to his wife but actually that would have been the bed they usually slept in as the ‘best bed’ was on display! (See this article about Shakespeare’s lost interiors).
So we know John Lucas was a well-to-do farmer and we know from his Will and the church records that he was married to Alice and he had a son John, daughters Mary (1666), Grace (1674), Francis (1678), Ann, Sarah, and at least one grandson also named John. In the baptismal records there is a Robert Lucas baptised Jan 1662 and also the burial of a Thomas Lucas in 1680 so it may be these were children of John and Alice who didn’t survive.
Where did John live? Well sadly in his Will he doesn’t say. He leaves his dwelling house, outhouses, yards, gardens and all his lands copyhold and freehold to his son John but he doesn’t say where they are. We do know his dwelling house had two fireplaces as he had to pay hearth tax in 1662!
It is possible that John lived in Church Road. The name John passed through the family. John Lucas, parish constable, had a son and also grandson both called John. And going back in time, in April 1588, we have a John Lucas (we will call him ‘senior’ to make things clearer) holding a tenement and six acres “on the west side of the way called Churchestreat in Chrysshall” and thirty years earlier, 1558, holding land in Church Road. This John was also a juror serving for the village and Thomas Lucas, possibly his son, was a constable in the 1620s. It does all look like it was the same family so a family farm in Church Road that was lived in by several generations looks possible.
Now we can picture John Lucas, Parish Constable, with his family – and his nice furniture on show in the parlour – living probably in Church Road in the mid to late 1600s. What was his connection with the law and what did a Parish Constable actually do?
Let’s start by taking a brief look at the legal system at this time.
Petty Sessions, Quarter Session and Assises
If you broke the law in the 1600s there were three levels of law enforcement that you might encounter depending on what you had done.
The Petty Sessions were local courts that dealt with minor criminal offences and local administration such as the village returns. Parish Constables were appointed in each parish and one of their (many) responsibilities was to bring people who had been charged to appear before the magistrate at the Petty Sessions. Cases that came to Petty Sessions were usually quite minor and might concern local disagreements or minor thefts. They also dealt with local administration such as damage to highways for example and they could decide whether a case should be referred to the next level of law which was the Quarter Sessions.
The Quarter Sessions were held four times a year, near or on the quarter days of the year: Epiphany, Easter, Midsummer and Michaelmas. In 1670, the year John Lucas made his return about Chrishall to the Petty Sessions, the Easter Quarter Sessions were held at Chelmsford on Tuesday 16th April and returns were made by 37 local parishes which had initially been submitted to the Petty Sessions.
The Quarter Sessions were for more serious cases and in the 1620s Thomas Lucas, who was a Chrishall Parish Constable at that time, obviously had some disagreements with the Coleman family in Chrishall as there are several cases in 1620 and 1625 of John Coleman being told to keep the peace to Thomas Lucas. In fact in the November 1620 Quarter Sessions John Coleman had attacked Thomas Lucas so things were getting serious, and even though they were bound over to keep the peace, they attacked him again in 1625!
There is a lot of history between the Lucas and Coleman families. In December of 1592 Lettice Martin conveyed land by indenture to John Lucas senior and also to John, Richard and Thomas Coleman, all husbandmen (farmers) of Chrishall. This was when Lettice was setting up her charity and all those who had land were obliged to give money gained from the land to the church to be distributed to the poor. (See an article about Lettice here). And in 1588 John senior is recorded as having some land in Church Road ‘by surrender of Nicholas Collman’. Anyway back to the Quarter Sessions.
The Quarter Sessions began in 1388 and amazingly ran until 1971! They were the county authority which preceded the County Council. The Quarter Sessions had various circuits, Essex being part of the Home Circuit but the cases relevant to Chrishall would have been held when the Quarter Sessions were held at Chelmsford. Later on Saffron Walden had it’s own Town Sessions and also held Quarter Sessions.
The final layer of the local legal system was the Assizes, held twice a year and these were always held at Chelmsford. These were for the most serious crimes such as highway robbery, murder and horse stealing. There are plenty of fascinating Assizes records concerning Chrishall which can be found at the Essex Archives Online by searching for ‘Chrishall assizes’.
Duties of the Parish Constable
John Lucas would not have been the only Parish Constable. Francis Abraham and Anthony Parker are also mentioned as constables for Chrishall around this time. John Lucas does seem to have family connections to the law going back through the generations with Thomas being a constable and John Lucas (senior) being a juror. And this family background was probably very useful as the duties of the parish constable were widespread.
Here are some of the Parish Constable’s duties
- confine those summoned to court and deliver them to the court
- implement the Vagabonds and Beggars Act of 1494 in which beggars were set in the stocks for three days and then whipped until they left the parish!
- responsibility for the stocks
- punishing poachers, drunks and hedge damagers
- monitor trading standards and pubs
- catch rats!
- restrain loose animals
- light signal beacons
- provide local lodging and transport for the military (John Lucas might well have been a serving constable during the civil war)
- perform building control
- attend inquests
- collect parish rates and national taxes.
You can see why they needed more than one person per village!
Finally we can allow John Lucas to arrive at ‘the sign of ye Bull’ which was probably The Bull Inn. Also known as The Black Bull Inn, a large inn, it once stood on the site of the present Bullfields on the main road opposite the Debden turning in Newport. The Bull Inn existed in the 17th century and was closed in 1901.
This was John’s report that day:
Our Alehouse keepers keepe good orders Wee haue non that drawe with out licence Wee haue no aprentices to put out non that liues of ther oune hands them that weare returned last are gone to servis
Absenters of the Church John Watson and John Abraham excomunickated persones
our highwayes are in good repaier whipping stokes and post in good repaier no destroyers of the kinges game
Wee haue made sarch for eidle persons and find non
So things were looking good in Chrishall in March of 1670.
Thirty years later John passed away and is recorded in the church records as “old John Lucas” so he must have made a good age. Alice survived him by just a year and died in 1701. Their children went on to live in the village for some time. Mary Lucas married George Brand, a blacksmith, and Elizabeth Lucas married Henry Guiver, a butcher. The last burial record of a Lucas was in 1784 but both Brand and Guiver families remained in the village for several generations.
- Essex Record Office blog: Oath Book 1714-1716: http://www.essexrecordofficeblog.co.uk/document-of-the-month-february-2016-oath-book-1714-1716/
- Cooper, J. (2000). The Well-ordered Town: A Story of Saffron Walden, Essex, 1792-1862. United Kingdom: Cooper Publications.
- Wikipedia details of a parish constable: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parish_constable
- Lucas family research: http://www.lucasfamily.uk/
- Essex Archives Online (which can also be accessed at the Archive Access Point in Saffron Walden Library):
- ERO D/B 2/CHR5/1: record of John Lucas being one of the men conveyed property by Lettice Martin in her will to set up the charity. Also included John, Richard and Thomas Coleman among others. These four men are all listed as husbandmen.
- ERO Q/SR 423/30: sessions roll for Easter 1670, Littlebury return showing that the sessions were held at The Bull, Newport, 31st March.
- ERO Q/SR 423/27: John Lucas’s return, Easter 1670.