Why did Leigh need a Prosecuting Society?

Leigh Prosecuting Society


Why did Leigh need a Prosecuting Society?

Prosecuting Societies were rare in Kent and rarer still in a small village like Leigh.  We do not know for sure why the locals in the village decided to introduce one but we can guess.  The period 1820-1840 was a period of unrest, particularly in rural areas.  There was considerable unemployment and wages were low.  The corn Laws had a bad effect on British farming.  The Poor Laws did little to help the poor.  New agricultural machinery was putting farm workers out of jobs.  All around Leigh there was trouble.  The Sevenoaks and Tonbridge areas, Edenbridge, Chiddingstone, Ashurst parishes had either riots or the wrecking of agricultural machinery or arson attacks.

Yet seemingly, according to the Historical Atlas of Kent, Leigh did not have any such incidents of discontent.  Guessing at the reasons it was probably a combination of several things.  First, was the Hall Place Estate.  The Farmer Baily family may often have been absentee landlords but they spent a good deal of time and money improving things in the village – particularly its housing.  They probably paid their employees relatively well and may have been relatively fair to their tenant farmers.  Secondly, the presence of the Gunpowder Mills which in the 1820-1840 period was expanding which paid, offering employment with wages somewhat more than local farmers.  Thirdly, Leigh had its own poor house (Workhouse), which was thought to be a reasonably good.

(Penshurst, Edenbridge, Hever and Ashurst did not even have one)

Although under the manorial system, there would have been a parish constable, perhaps the Leigh Vestry of the time thought that they would play safe and expand upon this long established Parish Constable system which the local Manors in the area – would have operated.  (We know Leigh was electing its own constable as early as 1572).  The Vestry set up its Prosecuting Society around 1835: it meant that members of the Parish who so chose could pay (each according to his – or occasionally her – means) to belong to what was really a village policing system to bring offenders (usually minor) to justice – to court in Maidstone.  We have a copy of the rules, the level of payment and the numerous type and level of fines that could be imposed – and the sort of offences that were committed in and around Leigh.

So for about twenty years, Leigh, as so often in this era, looked after itself, only winding up its Prosecuting Society in 1856 when English society was becoming less village orientated and a national police service was established with a HQ for our area in Sevenoaks.

Chris Rowley (Feb 2020)