April 2019: 1718-1719 in the Spotlight - Debts, Diligence and Degeneracy

The Middle Temple has existed as an institution for over six hundred years, and in that time has faced a vast array of challenges, difficulties and unexpected incidents. This month, we comb through the historical records to reveal in rich detail what captured the interest and attentions of the Middle Temple at a specific point in its history, and shine the spotlight three centuries into the past, on the eventful year of 1718-1719.

'The Temple 1722' (MT.19/ILL/D8/29)

One of the most important issues addressed by the Masters of the Bench at the first Parliament of the new legal year on 24 October 1718 was the huge debt accrued by gentlemen and owed to the Inn. Every term gentlemen would be charged a sum for Commons taken in Hall. If they did not dine in Hall, they would be charged a smaller sum for Absent Commons. Gentlemen frequently had to be pressed for payment, but in 1718 the debt was particularly large. A schedule presented by the Steward gave the sum of £703.02.02 as the total debt due to the House. An unpaid debt of this size was alarming as the as the Society in turn owed £708.00.11 to their suppliers for food expenses. To put this sum in perspective, the total annual turnover for the Inn from 1718-1719 was £2092.19.07, so this placed a large strain on its finances.

In response to the debt owed, Parliament ordered that the Chambers of gentlemen who were indebted for 40s. upwards, or who had been indebted with smaller sums for a long period, were to be padlocked up or that their guarantors, otherwise known as ‘sureties’, were to be contacted regarding the arrears. The Minutes of Parliament for the year report several gentlemen having their chambers locked up and seized due to unpaid debts.

Account of gentlemen in arrears for Commons, Michaelmas 1718 (MT.7/CAS/7)

While the Benchers stripped certain members of their chambers, other more nefarious individuals sought to strip them of their possessions. The diligence of the Middle Temple staff was crucial in preventing crime in the Inn, with the Porter and those that served under him playing a large role in maintaining the security of the Society. They were well rewarded for their vigilance - an Order of Parliament of 29 May 1719 granted the Porter’s Assistant, John Brooks, 20s. for his diligence in seizing and taking a man named Davis into custody on suspicion of a design to break open some Chambers on 22nd May. Davis was found equipped with many dangerous tools that that could have been used to commit burglary.

After Davis was taken into custody, records indicate that Isaac Jackson, the Under Treasurer, was charged with making enquiries about the miscreant and committing him to the compter, a type of small prison. His failure to commit larceny might have saved him from a terrible fate – the crime carried a death sentence if the goods stolen exceeded a certain value.

Under Treasurer's bill for transporting and making enquiries about Davis, 1719 (MT.2/TAP/46)

The staff of the Middle Temple had to be careful to maintain their vigilance for reasons other than potential burglary. Foundlings were an ongoing issue at the Inn, obliged as it was to take care of any child left abandoned on its property. Desperate parents would attempt to leave their children in doorways and staircases, hoping to transfer responsibility of the infant to the Society. By 1718 the Inn was maintaining five children and on 17 December another one was abandoned on the premises. A petition from the father was left with the child stating that he was ‘well educated in the law but thro' a series of misfortunes is rendered incapable to maintain this infant, and so obliged to expose him after this indecent manner (to your petitioner's unspeakable griefe and concern)’. This child was given the name George Temple, survived his childhood and was eventually apprenticed to a smith.

In response to this newest abandonment the next Parliament decided that two watchmen were to be appointed to go into every Court of the Middle Temple every hour of the night from 11 o’clock until 5 in the morning between Michaelmas and Lady Day every year and then until 4 o’clock from Lady Day to Michaelmas during the lighter summer days. One watchman was to cry the several hours of the night and the other was to frequently go up every staircase – staircases were often used as dark, secluded areas to drop off unwanted children without being seen. The watchmen only managed to prevent the abandonment of more children until 1720, when a further three were left on the property of the Inn.