Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Wapentake of Wirral

No-one knows where the practice of governing England as 'Hundreds' came from, but it was around in the 800's (that's the 800's, not the 1800's) before the Norman conquest and to some degree it just kind of stuck around.

(Few things in British law are ever fully thrown away, they just kind-of, compile.)

The 'Hundred' might at one point have been an actual one-hundred households, but by the beginning of the medieval era its pretty much an area of geography. It's also a court, and an area of administration.

It probably begins as a meeting of local landowners where they get together to deal with legal matters, arguments, debts and so on. Then becomes a form of organisation, a way for the king to summon people to fight and to exert his authority.

Later on, over a thousand years of different kings, other forms of administration are added and they just kind of overlay the old hundreds, eventually making them effectively irrelevant.

But not revoked.

And in parts of England where the Danes had once ruled, the 'hundred' was sometimes called the 'Wapentake', hence 'The Wapentake of Wirral'.

In medieval times, the right to hold a court could be 'farmed out' to various people, they would do the administration and then pay the King his share if any money was claimed, and 'ownership' or right to hold the court could be traded and passed down like land or property.

And that brings us to the 19th century. Specifically, November 16 1819, when the Wapentake of Wirral is advertised for sale by Messrs Potts & Co of Chester. Since they don't expect anyone to be very interested in it, they throw in the rights to " wreck," to "royal fish," and to " treasure trove".

And this means that in 1854 the Wapentake of Wirral falls into the hands of Samual Holland Moreton, and his sinister compatriot Mr Robert Grace.

And Moreton is an intelligent, avaricious, eccentric, evil-minded motherfucker, and he actually reads the stack of ancient crumbling documents that make up 'The Wapentake of Wirral' and he works out what he can do with them, which is a lot.

In fact, "when in 'sociable mood' Moreton would sometimes confess an ignorance of where his own power was limited." The Wapentake is ancient. It's older than any other law on the book.

"Crimes and misdemeanors, felonies or civil actions, trespass, treason, all that was wicked of weak came within his jurisdiction."

He could summon a Court of Wapentake, call a jury, compel attendance of witnesses, try cases civil and criminal.

This means that in the middle of the 19th century, a crazy-ass motherfucker with an ancient document can effectively run his own, private law court in the Wirral and that no-one can stop him. He's legal. He's more legal than legal.

And this means that if you're going past the Tranmere Ferry Hotel some time in 1850-something, and a large man comes towards you and summons you to court, you better go. And if inside you find a drunk-as-fuck Samual Moreton who tells you that you are a juror, or a witness, or any other member of the court, then you are.

Moreton sat off in a fucking pub, running drunken courts, compelling attendance from whomever he wanted, taking cases based simply on spite or just revenge.

In 1855, Thomas Smith of Birkenhead, was pulled, seemingly at random, into the workings of the court. "one day when he was at work in his garden, a man called to him to come at once to the Wapentake Court sitting at the Inn known as the Shrewsbury Arms, Hinderton. He treated the summons as a joke, whereupon  two men were sent and Smith was haled to the Court in his shirt-sleeves. On his arrival he found Moreton, Grace, and others seated at a table spread with food and drink. Grace informed him they were about to fine him 20 for not coming at once, and that it was no joking matter. Smith was appointed one of the "affeerors" to the Court (an honour which he shared with Shakespeare, who held that post at Stratford-on-Avon)."

Moreton and Grace would ride out with the rest of their court in a packed  Omnibus dressed in "shabby black tail or frock coats" and just accost wealthy-looking people, summoning them "to sit as jurors at the nearest public-house, in company with the riff-raff of the neighborhood." A refusal was met by a a fine, which if not paid, lead to the seizure and sale of property.

"In one case a neighbor built a wall for safety round a pond on his property next to the road. He was summoned for encroaching upon the road, and the Court proposed a fine of 20. Smith, as affeeror, objected that this was excessive, to which Grace, the steward, replied, " Nonsense, who is to pay for all this ?" pointing to the spread upon the table."

In 1856 a major embezzler is tried and sent for transportation. As the judgement comes down, Moreton and Grace  take a cab to one of the houses he bought with his stolen money, kick the guys wife out into the road and stay there. The company the man stole from take them to court. In 1860, the court finds for Moreton, because he's Lord of the fucking Wapentake and he has the legal right to a felons goods. He gets not only the house he is squatting in, but most of the other properties bought with the stolen money as well.

Eventually Moreton dies and Grace gets his hands on the Secret Documents. He performs one useful action for Birkenhead, the train lines over the pavement at the Green Bank station are leaking terribly, leaving the road a mess for people to walk through. Grace goes to the owning company and threatens to repossess the train line as Lord of the Wapentake, not willing to test this threat, they fix the leak.

Ultimately, the mad rule of the Wapentake is brought to an end by an act of parliament. Moreton still retains the title of the Lordship of Wirral until his death.

What happened to the ill-gotten (but legally attained) fortune of the 'Lord of Wirral'?

Apparently Moreton falls ill and....

"After the medical man left, the Very Rev. Canon Fisher, a well-known Roman Catholic dignitary, with whom Mr. Moreton had been in frequent communication, was sent for. Upon his arrival he found the old man in extremis ... the rev. gentleman produced a form of will already drawn out, raised Mr. Moreton up in the bed, put on his spectacles, placed a pen in his hand, and, without reading the will over to him, got hold of his hand and guided the fingers of the dying and insensible man to form his signature at the foot of the will .... By this will the whole of Mr. Moreton's property ....  is bequeathed to the Right Rev. Alexander Goss, Bishop of Liverpool, for the benefit of religion as taught by the Roman Catholic Church."


  1. Because you could WAP someone on the head EN TAKE all their stuff.

  2. Baffling, interesting, and probably very gameable.