The Price of Fish: Formal and Informal Justice in London’s 17th-Century Docklands

The next post in our Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is by Graham Moore. Graham is a PhD student, studying as part of a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership with the University of Reading and The National Archives. His research focuses on the High Court of Admiralty in the early seventeenth century, with an interest in piracy, maritime law, and littoral communities. You can find him on twitter at @moregreyham

Justice was a booming business in seventeenth-century England. English legal culture had seen rapid growth during the sixteenth century, and this growth had led to greater accessibility. Accessibility in turn led to profit, and greater profit led to heightened competition between England’s different courts. This meant that, by the turn of the century and the accession of King James I/VI, potential litigants had a veritable wealth of options to choose from when bringing forth a case.

Jane Cockyn was one such litigant, and when one day in July 1609 she found her purse missing – presumed stolen – Jane’s quest for justice took her to surprising destinations, ranging from the local Constable to ‘sorcerers and wise men’, and eventually to the High Court of Admiralty. Jane’s story is not extraordinary; her name is not one you would typically find in a history book. But, that is precisely why it is so interesting. Jane’s exploits help us consider such questions as: how did ‘ordinary’ people use the early modern English justice system? Was justice sought formally, or informally? And, finally – what’s all this got to do with the price of fish?

‘A guide for cuntrey men in the famous cittey of London…’, Speculum Britanniae (London, 1653). British Library, Crace 1.33.]

In her deposition (HCA 1/47/f22r), Jane (described as ‘wife of John Cockyn of Wapping, ship carpenter’) states that on Wednesday 22 July she was at Bell Wharf in a boat belonging to William Cowper. Jane, William, and Elizabeth (William’s wife) had bought a stock of herring together which they had sold that day for a profit. Quite a considerable profit, it seems – Jane had on her person a leather purse, containing £3 and 3 shillings. Putting this amount into The National Archives’ currency converter gives us an approximate modern value of £422.40.

However, Jane claims that when she went ashore the purse fell into the boat, whereupon William and Elizabeth rowed away:

and presently she cried out saying to the said William Cowper, o William I have let fall my purse in the boate, and presently the said Cowper rowed away […] and sayd that yf he had the money, he would keep yt

Jane’s testimony is concise and articulate. She goes on to provide some more supporting evidence against the Cowpers:

the said Cowper and his wife had only 3 or fewer shillinges & no more money on Wednesday last when they wente with this examinant to buy fysh. But soon they had bought two or three hundredth of Lemons worth 15 or 16s the hundredth, and certaine juyse of Lemons worth at least forty shillinges, howe they came to buy such things in so shorte a tyme she knoweth not.

All evidence seems to point to the Cowpers, and their suspicious citrus supplies. Luckily for us, William was also given a chance to testify, and he did so with zest (sorry). From William, we hear that at first Jane:

kneweth not where she had lost [it], whether in the ketche where she bought the fyshe, or at Kenth [Kent], Wapping, or at Ratcliffe as she wente along the shore to sell the said fyshe. And when she first miste her purse, she wente running downe to Ratcliff to seeke yt, and she charged two women with her purse & one of them she had examined before William Wade in the Tower, & the other woman she burthened & examined before the neighbors and before she hath byn with sorcerers and wise men to knowe who had her purse…

ratcliffe segment john strype 1720

Map of ‘The Hamlet of Ratclif’, from John Strype, ‘A Map of the Parish of St Dunstans Stepney and Stebunheath Divided into Hamlets’, A survey of the Cities of London and Westminster (London, 1720). Via Wikimedia Commons, view Strype’s maps here.

Jane’s attempts to ascertain the whereabouts of her purse may have been presented to disprove her testimony about Cowper’s guilt, but they also give us some insight into the various ways a determined individual like Jane might go about seeking justice.

Jane’s own agency in pursuing the case is clear. She personally tracked down her suspects across London’s Tower Hamlets, then brought her suspects before a variety of forms of justice. It seems that Jane’s first port of call was Sir William Wade (sometimes ‘Waad’), then Constable of the Tower. Wade’s reputation likely preceded him; it was under his (often torturous) examinations that many a conspirator gave evidence, including those involved in the Gunpowder Plot. Jane probably approached him in his position as a ‘Justice of the Peace’ for Middlesex. A Justice could issue summary decisions (without a jury) on minor cases, or oversee more critical felonies at Quarterly Sessions (with a jury). It is possible that Jane then pursued other methods when she didn’t get the answer she wanted. However, she was not wholly dissuaded – on 25 July, Jane and her husband brought Elizabeth Cowper ‘before a Judge of the peace’, probably again being Wade.

Sir_William_Wadd_late_Lieutenant_of_the_Tower

Anon., The lively Portraiture of Sir William Wadd, late Lieutenant of the Tower (London, 1798). Via Wikimedia Commons.

As for the second resident of Ratcliffe, who Jane ‘burthened and examined before the neighbors’; it is possible that this statement alludes to a form of informal, community justice. Early modern community justice is more commonly associated with crimes perceived to be against the community (famously, witchcraft). It may be that Jane believed the practice to be more broadly applicable. Unfortunately, Cowper gives us very little to go on.

Perhaps the most curious of Cowper’s additions is the suggestion that Jane sought counsel from ‘sorcerers and wise men’ regarding her purse’s whereabouts. This proved fruitless, as she received ‘no synes from them’; however, it hints that Jane was not reluctant to combine more unorthodox methods when seeking justice. ‘Wise men’ likely refers to cunning-folk, who often played a role in community justice due to their knowledge and social authority.

Overall, Jane’s exploits begin to show the varied landscape of seventeenth-century English justice. The justice system was clearly accessible to a determined litigant, as Jane’s multiple appearances before Sir William Wade show. However, other options were also available, and these ranged from community justice even to the occult. Jane – at least, according to Cowper – happily combined all these methods, both formal and informal. Not only that, but the case also offers an interesting snapshot into the livelihood of those who lived and worked around London’s docklands. In her various efforts, Jane traversed London’s dockland communities with evident mobility. Clearly, the sale of fish can be just as profitable to the historian as it was for Jane Cockyn.

All quotations taken from the depositions of Jane Cockyn and William Cowper: The National Archives, HCA 1/47/f22r-f23v (see Appendix).

Further reading

Baker, John, ‘Admiralty Courts and Courts Martial’, The Oxford History of the Laws of England: Volume VI 1483-1558 (Oxford, 2003), pp. 209-219.

Dabhoiwala, Faramerz, ‘Summary Justice in Early Modern London’, The English Historical Review, Vol. 121, No. 492 (June 2006), pp. 796-822.

Davies, Owen, Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History (London, 2003).

Harding, Vanessa, ‘Recent Perspectives on Early Modern London’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 47, No. 2 (June, 2004), pp. 435-450.


Appendix: Transcripts

Transcribed by G. Moore from documents held by The National Archives, HCA 1/47/f22r-f23v.

[HCA 1/47/f22r]

26 July 1609

Jane Cockin wife of John Cockyn of Wapping ship carpenter aged 35 yeares or thereabouts. Examined before the right honourable Sir Daniel Dun knighte Judge of his Majesty’s Courte of the Admiralty.

Sayth that this examinant on Wednesday last being at Bell Wharfe at the lower ende of Shadwell in a boate of William Cowpers of Wapping waterman together with the said William Cowper and Elizabeth his wife selling of herringes with this examinant and the said Cowper and his wife had bought in partnershippe before, and having 3l3s wanting yt in a lether purse at the same tyme in her pocket by her see the bottom of the pocket brake out, and the purse with the money fell into the boate, and was taken upp by the said William Cowper or his wife as she verily believeth, for as she sayth she felt the said money in her pocket when she was in the said boate, and she miss yt as she was shipping out of the boate on the shore at Bell Wharfe, and presently she cried out saying to the said William Cowper, o William I have let fall my purse in the boate, and presently the said Cowper rowed away with his wife and child in the boate and would not stay that she might search in the boate for yt, and this examinant’s husband being on the shore and hearing her purse was gon

[HCA 1/47/f22v]

Called to the said Cowp and chardged him to stay, that he might look for the said purse and money showe bet the said Cowp would not stay, but rowed away and sayd that yf he had the money, he would keepe yt & at other tymes in scoffing manner he sayd he mett the purse at St Tooles and the money at an other place.

And sayth that the said Cowper and his wife had only 3 or fower shillings & no more money on Wednesday last when they wente with this examinant to buy fysh

But soon they had bought two or three hundredth of Lemons worth 15 or 16s the hundredth and certaine juyse of Lemons worth at least forty shillinges, howe they came by money to buy such things in so shorte a tyme she knoweth not.

Jane Corkins, [mark] mark

[the same day]

William Cowper of Wapping waterman aged 36 yeares or thereabouts examined before the said Judge of the Admiralty whether on Wednesday last he & his wife & Jane Cockyn were together in a boate at Bell Wharfe selling of fyshe, Confesseth they were there together selling of fishe where they had bought in partnership together.

Being asked there were any other but they three in the said boate. Sayth there came many women & men into the said boate to and againe to buy the said fyshe, & this examinant and his wife, and the said Jane Cockyn kepte continually in the said boate while the fyshe was sould.

Being asked whether Jane Cockyn had not [the stated] money in her pocket in a purse in the said boate & that she lost yt out of her pocket in the boate. Confesseth that the said Jane Cockett complained that she had lost her purse, but kneweth not where she had lost, whether in the ketche where she bought the fyshe, or at kenth, Wappinge or

[HCA 1/47/f23r]

at Ratcliffe as she wente alongst the shore to sell the said fyshe, And when she first miste her purse, she wente running downe to Ratcliff to seeke yt, and she charged two women with her purse & one of them she had examined before Sir William Wade in the Tower, & the other woman she burthened & examined before the neighbors and before she hath byn with sorcerers and wise men to knowe who had her purse, & received no […] or synes from them of the persones, that should have her purse and upon that when she chardged the said two women and when she could fine nothing by them, she wente to Redrith & loked there amongst the legge when she had byn crienge of the fish, for her said purse, and afterward she caused her purse to be cried all alongst Wappinge and Ratcliff also as she thinkethe.

And sayth she first sayd, she had lost four or five pound, afterward she sayd yt was five or six pound, then she fell to 4l againe & now she sayth yt is 3l of money.

Being asked whether the said Jane Cocken as she stept ashore at Bell key, tould not him that she had fallen her purse in his boate, & willed him stay to searche for yt. Sayth that the said Jane never sayd to this examinant at Bell key that she had lost her purse, but after this examinant came home to Wappinge when he had sould the said fysh, the said John Cockyn came to this examinant, and asked him if he sawe his wiffes purse, & he replied saying she had lost her purse, and was gon to Ratcliffe to seeke for yt & before that tyme he never hearde of the losse of the said purse and for his ple he utterly denieth that he ever sawe or had the said purse or money or knoweth of yt.

[HCA 1/47/f23v]

And sayth that he & his wife & two others bought this weeke two hundredth of Lemons at Ratcliff which cost 16s, and he also bought two days past 12 gallons of juyce of lemons at 6s 6d the gallon whereof he hath paid 14s & the rest is yet owinge.

And were no other Lemons he hath not bought within 7 dayes.

And sayth that yesterday this examinant’s wife was by the meanes of the said Cockyn & his wife brought before a Judge of the peace in London & bound over to answer the matter in the Sessions for that she was chardged with felonye.

[mark]

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