Life at the Bar – The Stipendiary Magistrate

During my time in Blackpool I had only appeared in front of lay magistrates. Those upstanding members of the local community who the Lord Chancellor’s Department thought were fit and proper persons to dispense justice to their fellow citizens. They often lacked any real understanding of the law and sometimes struggled to assimilate the facts of a case, but I am sure they did their best. Often they had unqualified staff as court clerks who didn’t know the law either. That has all changed now and court clerks have to be qualified lawyers if they are advising the bench of magistrates on legal matters, and the justices of the peace are given much more thorough training.

My move to live in London, driven by the sexist behaviour in my home county and by my love of the theatre, brought me into contact with a different kind of JP, the stipendiary magistrate. They were a fearsome bunch and, at first, I was a little in awe of them. Over ninety per cent of all criminal cases are dealt with in the magistrates’ courts and the stipendiary magistrates, whether a solicitor or a barrister were much quicker at dealing with cases and expected those appearing in front  of them to be brief.

St. John Harmsworth sat at the court in Marlborough Street,  in the heart of the West End, next to the London Palladium and just across the road from Liberty’s. He was extremely punctual, Marlborough Street Magistrates Courtwalking briskly into court dressed in a pinstripe suit, a military tie of navy blue and dark red stripes and a fresh rose in his button hole. If he was strict in his interpretation of the law, he was also humane.

One morning I was sitting in court waiting for my case to be called on, when a fifty year old was brought into the dock. He had been charged with being drunk and disorderly. The arresting officer (they went to court then) stood in the witness box and said he had stopped the defendant as he been staggering on his feet on Oxford Street at about eight o’ clock that very morning.

‘I spoke to him to ask his name, Sir, and noticed his breath smelt of alcohol, his speech was slurred and he was unsteady on his feet, Sir,’ the policeman said. This was a formula all officers used when describing somebody as drunk.

The warrant officer, the man who controls the order the cases are called before the bench, moved forward and said, ‘He was only released from Pentonville this morning, Sir.’

‘What time were you released from custody?’ said St. John Harmsworth, addressing the man in the dock.           pentonville

‘Six, Sir.’

‘How did you manage to get drunk between six and eight?’

‘Well, your honour.’ (Defendants in the magistrates’ court frequently get the form of address wrong. Only Crown Court Judges are addressed as Your Honour.) ‘It’s my birthday and the lads in the kitchen at Pentonville brewed some hooch and we spent the night drinking.’

St. John Harmsworth looked at the charge sheet in front of him. ‘So it is. Well as it’s your birthday I’ll fine you five pounds or one day,’ he said. There was no need to explain to the defendant that t one day meant he was to stay in custody for the remainder of the court day. It was a common way of dealing with those whose offences were minor and means were limited.

As the prisoner was being led away the learned magistrate said to the warrant officer, ‘Release him as soon as he’s sobered up.’

In these changing times I was a little sad to see the court I had been to so often is now a boutique hotel.

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About scribblingadvocate

Born in Lancashire, Law degree from Sheffield University and MA in Creative Writing from Exeter. A barrister for twenty five years, who appeared in the Crown Courts in and around London. When I retired we moved to live in Devon, first on Dartmoor, more recently overlooking the Exe Estuary. After twenty years I still feel an exile from London. Married, no children but own an affable Springer Spaniel. I love reading, walking and travel. I completed an MA in Creative Writing at Exeter University and have written three books, Crucial Evidence, Reluctant Consent and Legal Privilege, all set in London. You can email me

8 responses to “Life at the Bar – The Stipendiary Magistrate”

  1. Maureen Rutherford says :

    I work in Oxford Street and daily gave evidence at St John Sittings, I recall him so well. I recall a local busker who played the penny whistle for funds. He was arrested for begging, when asked someone had stolen his whistle and St John fine him a nominal amount the awarded him a greater amount to replace his whistle. I love watching his sessions.

    • scribblingadvocate says :

      He was a humane man and treated everyone with respect. I admired him greatly. Of course, the court is now a boutique hotel and I guess cases in the area are tried elsewhere. Thank you for your comment.

  2. Brian Harding says :

    If was a street trader in Carnaby street in the 60’s.
    Got nicked to be in court on my 21st birthday. Harmsworth : Do you have anything to say Mr. Harding ?
    Yes, sir. Today is my 21st birthday.
    (Checks with the clerk).
    In that case Mr. Harding it will be 2 pounds today, instead of the normal 5.
    Thank you sir.
    Laughter and uproar in court !
    I did visit the place a few years ago when it had been converted to a hotel. The actual court room is still there, as is the holding cell, before your appearance. Once shared it with Sly of the Family Stone.

  3. Michael Oliver says :

    As a Detective Inspector on The Met Police Company Fraud squad back in the late 70s , I often had occasion to go to St John Harmsworth’s West End flat after hours to obtain a search warrant – an occasion which usually resulted in the dear man bringing on the g&t’s and a lively conversation. On one occasion his wife Jane and mother-in-law were there waiting while he returned from the off-licence. “Sin-jn” came in with a carrier bag of hooch complaining loudly that the manager of the offy had almost refused his credit card.
    He asked why I was there and wafted me into his magnificent library to find a bible – upon which I would swear my oath that “the contents of this, my information are true” etc.
    He could not find a bible so he picked up a copy of Gulliver’s Travels and said, “Ah this is a ‘Good Book’, that will do!’
    Another charming story from my memory of the man was the occasion when he was walking past the local Police Station as we raised a hat to each other. He was about to speak to me when he noticed a young hooligan vandalising the flower display in the boxs on the railings outside the Police Station.
    He pointed his rolled umbrella at the lad and said to me ‘Arrest that boy for malicious damage, young Michael, and make sure he comes in front of me!’
    The lad was later let off with a conditional discharge – those were the days before Community Service.
    Many stipes in those days had served in the War – including CSS Burt at Camberwell (aka Camberwick) Green and Glen Craske at Clapham, a Battle of Britain Pilot (VC, I think?) of whom many an amusing tale could be told. They brought to the bench a great deal of experience of real life and very little political correctness.

    • scribblingadvocate says :

      Thank you for your memories of St John Harmsworth. I think it would take a whole book to recount all his idiosyncrasies. The legal profession is so much more regulated now and there is less room for individuality.

    • Harriet James says :

      St John Harmsworth was my grandfather, It is nice to hear all these stories about him but he lived in a small flat in Chelsea with no library and his mother in law died in 1938 – are you confusing your magistrates?

      • scribblingadvocate says :

        How lovely to hear from you about your grandfather. Of course, I wasn’t the person who wrote about going to his house, so I can’t comment on the description the Detective Inspector makes, but it does sound like he’s describing the wrong magistrate.
        I would say that your grandfather was such a gentleman and it was always a pleasure to be in front of him whether prosecuting or defending. That can’t be said about all stipendiary magistrates or district judges as they are now called. Best Wishes.

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