An Eighteenth Century Fast Track Claim[i]
It was 27th February 1760. Robert Ashton, who lived in Rowland, a hamlet in the Derbyshire Peak District, claimed that he was owed money. He had sold Thomas Buxton, a lead miner, candles and other goods for use in his mine. Thomas Buxton had died and his executors, although carrying on mining, had not paid Robert. The amount outstanding was £2 17s 8d (£2.88p).
Robert Ashton had no worries about lawyers, legal aid, costs or delays in the administration of justice. The local barmoot courts which regulated lead mining in the Peak District provided their own fast track arbitration service. Robert went to see the steward, complained about the debt and asked him to seize the debtors' goods. The steward issued a request to a Mr George Hayward who promptly went to Thomas Buxton's mine "upon Seedlow Rake in the liberty of Ashford" and "arrested" all the tools, materials, possessions and mears of ground belonging to the mine.This summary procedure was designed to ensure that the Defendant would be "bound in sufficient bond and sureties", not only to guarantee that he attended at the court hearing, but also to make sure that there were assets to satisfy any judgment - a primitive, and from the plaintiff's point of view, hassle free alternative to a Mareva injunction.
Robert's claim was heard at the "Small Barmoot Court of the Most noble William Duke of
Devonshire holden at Ashford" less than a month later, on 24th March 1760. A Bill summarising his complaint was prepared and Mark Buxton, a relative of the Defendant appeared, pleading that he owed nothing. Robert was sworn in before the twelve jurors who were all local miners.He was asked "Is the money for which this Bill is preferred due? Have you demanded it? And have you given lawful Notice of preferring this Bill?" Robert gave evidence that the particulars contained in the Bill were true. The total value of the goods supplied was £3 5s 5d, (£3.27p) but out of that sum 7s 9d (39p) was due to the account of a Thomas Hunt. Thomas Hunt, who was in court to give evidence for Robert, initially refused to take the oath, but eventually, agreed to be sworn in. He said that he remembered that £3 worth of candles had been delivered by Robert Ashton to the mine. For the Defendant, Christopher Howe said that about a fortnight previously he had been sent by the Defendant to the Plaintiff for a Bill of his demands. He claimed that Robert Ashton had refused to give him one.
The evidence given by Howe was clearly believed by the jurors, and they dismissed Robert's claim with costs awarded against him, apparently on the technicality that he had not given notice that he was preferring the Bill. The "costs" included the amount needed to provide the jurors with dinner! The Bill is endorsed with the words "Verdict for the Defendant. Costs 2d (1p) + 4d (2p) for 12 Men's Dinner".
Five years later, Robert was suing for another debt. This time he was more successful. He and his "groove fellows" (or mining partners) claimed against a William Masden and his partners "for not coming in and keeping company with us at a Groove called Cuckold's Venter" [i.e. a mine called Cuckold's Venture]. Robert's claim was that the Defendants had not paid their agreed share of expenses at the mine. The twenty-four jurors of the Great Barmoot Court for the Ashford Liberty which was held on 23rd April 1765 found the claim proved. They stated: "We do order and say that William Masden or any person or persons claiming under him or them shall pay to Robert Ashton the sum of eight pounds eight shillings and ten pence three farthings (£8.44p) due for him or them to pay at a mine called Cuckolds Venter in the Ox Pasture in the Liberty of this Court within ten days next after notice given by the Barmaster thereof or forfeit all his or their shares of mines within the liberty and jurisdiction of this Court."
These two cases are good examples of the way in which the barmoot courts determined civil claims involving lead mining. Their jurisdiction was however far wider, covering all aspects of Peak District lead mining. They prescribed and modified the laws and customs which governed the lead miners and ore purchasers. The extent of their powers is demonstrated by paragraph 16 of the Articles of the neighbouring barmoot court for the liberties of Hassop, Rowland and Calver made in 1664 which stated: "If it happen that any myner be damped [i.e. suffocated], murthered [i.e. murdered] or slain in any Grove [i.e. mine], neither Escheator, Coroner nor any other Officer shall meddle with, but only the Barmaster or his Deputy."
Daniel Defoe, after travelling through the Peak District, wrote in the 1720s that the barmoot courts might "be called the greatest of all the wonders of the Peak." He thought it "very remarkable" that the courts managed to keep the peace amongst the miners, who were "of a strange, turbulent, quarrelsome temper, and very hard to be reconciled to one another in their subterraneous affairs." He described the miners as "subterranean wretches" and "a rude boorish kind of people".
The barmoot courts provided a speedy and effective method of resolving disputes, but there is a suspicion that the miner jurors tended to favour their own and that their justice was partial - as in Robert Ashton's first case where the finding was in favour of the local miner. On the other hand, the custom of unsuccessful litigants paying for judges' dinners is something which has much to commend it! Maybe the County Court Rules Committee should take note!