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Glossary of Terms

The documents we are asking you to transcribe use terms that may be unfamiliar today or whose meaning may have changed. Early Victorian law and order, for instance, differs from  the justice system today. We’ve listed some of the terms you are likely to encounter with an explanation of their meaning.

We are extremely grateful to retired  court officer and local historian David Mills for his help in compiling this glossary, and to Shire Hall, Monmouth, for allowing us to include the glossary from their publication Voices for the Vote:Shire Hall and the story of Chartism in south Wales.

Adjourned Sine Die - A Latin expression meaning the court hearing is adjourned, but to an indefinite date. Often used to put the proceedings on hold whilst the parties to a court action try and resolve matters without the court having to make a decision. Either party is able to restore the hearing by making a request to the court.

Affidavit –a written sworn statement of fact voluntarily made under an oath or affirmation usually administered by a solicitor or magistrate.

Afft.  -abbreviation of affidavit

Agent Provocateur - an undercover agent, employed to gain the trust of suspects to tempt them to do something illegal so they can be arrested and punished.

Assizes - judicial courts held in England and Wales up to 1971, replaced by Crown Courts. In England and Wales, serious cases were tried by professional judges in these courts. They were abolished by the Courts Act 1971 and replaced by the Crown Court system. Usually Assizes were held twice a year when the Judges, who were based in London, came out to the larger towns in the provinces. For administrative purposes England and Wales was, and still is, divided into geographical areas, called Circuits. At the time of the Chartist trials, Monmouth was in the Oxford Circuit. The Courts Act 1971 rearranged the Circuits; if courts were held in Monmouth today (2016), they would come under the Wales & Chester Circuit.

Attorney - a lawyer or somebody legally empowered to make decisions and act on someone else’s behalf Attorney and Solicitor lawyer. With certain, acceptable educational qualifications, they practice in law and give advice to people and represent them in a court. In Victorian times the expression Attorney was commonly used. The term lawyer is generic term that covers both Barristers and Solicitors.

Attorney General - the government’s chief legal officer and advisor.

Bail Traditionally a sum of money deposited or pledged to a court, or a promise to behave, to persuade it to release a suspect from  custody on the understanding that the suspect will return for trial otherwise they forfeit the bail (and may be brought up on charges of the crime of failure to appear).

Barrister - Barrister at law is the formal title of a barrister; he or she is entitled to use the title after his/her surname e.g. Mr John Thomas, Barrister at Law. Barristers qualify to practice in the law by first of all becoming a member of one of the Inns of Court in London, they are Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn, Middle Temple , and Inner Temple. Barristers specialize in courtroom advocacy and also draft legal documents. They also advise solicitors on the relevant merits of a case. Solicitors usually refer to barristers as Counsel, when a solicitor seeks advice he/she uses the expression seeking Counsel’s advice. Until quite recently barristers could not accept instructions from a client, it had to be carried out via a solicitor; even though the rules have been relaxed, there are still rules which limit direct access to barristers. Solicitors deliver a “brief to counsel” when they instruct a barrister to attend court.

Commutation - the reduction of a sentence to a less severe punishment.

Constituency - one of the areas of a country, divided for election purposes, from which an MP is elected.

Counsel – see Barrister

Deft(s) - abbreviation for defendants

Democracy - a type of government in which power is invested in the people as a whole, exercised on their behalf by elected representatives.

Deponent – person giving a deposition

Deposition –out-of-court oral testimony of a witness that is reduced to writing for later use in court. A deposition had to be taken and written down by a solicitor or magistrate who then asked the person who had provided the testimony (the deponent) to sign the document or, if they could not write, the deponent made a mark (usually a X) indicating that they agreed with the contents of the deposition.

Grand Jury - a panel of 23 jurors who decide if there are grounds for a trial to proceed. The jurors only heard the evidence presented by the prosecution. See also True Bill.

Hanged, Drawn and Quartered – This was a punishment for high treason, known as a traitor’s death. While still alive, the convict would be hanged by the neck and their entrails removed.  After this they were beheaded and their body cut into four pieces. The heads of the prisoners were to be disposed of as directed by the Queen/King. By 1839, the element of ‘drawing’ entrails was no longer part of the punishment, but even with this concession, this practice was still regarded as barbaric by many people by this date.

Hard labour – physical labour as a form of punishment carried out as a condition of a prisoner’s sentence. It could be breaking up stones or working on some very physically demanding tasks.

High Sheriff – see Sheriff

Indictment - a formal written accusation of a crime which is read to a prisoner in court before he/she is asked if they plead guilty or not guilty.

Instant (Inst.) Often used in affidavits or deposition as a suffix to a date, it means this month. So an affidavit or deposition made in November with a date mentioned of an event in November would read 15th inst. See also Proximo and Ultimo.

Justice of the Peace – see Magistrate

Lawyers [see Barrister]

Libel – A false and malicious statement in print that damage someone’s reputation. At the time of the Chartist march, John Frost had been charged with criminal libel.

Magistrate (Justice of the Peace) -An administrative and voluntary role, requiring no legal qualifications, responsible for keeping the peace and seeing laws were observed at a local level. At the time of Chartists, magistrates may have styled themselves as being "in the Commission of the Peace.”

Nonconformist - member of a church or chapel outside the established Church of England and someone who did not want to conform with the “rules” or practices of the established Church (Anglican).

Pew Rent - money paid to secure seats in a particular pew in church.

Petit Jury, normally known simply as the jury. These jurors heard all the evidence and decided if a prisoner was guilty or not.

Plff(s) - abbreviation for plaintiff(s)

Proximo used in affidavits or depositions as a suffix to a date, this means next month e.g 15th prox or proximo.

Quarter Sessions (Courts of Quarter Session) - Local (county) courts traditionally held at four set times each year.

Queen’s Counsel (QC) –usually a barrister who had practiced for a number of years and who appeared in important cases. QCs were paid higher fees than ordinary barristers. Normally in the Chartist period, judges would only be appointed if they were QCs.

Queen’s Evidence - evidence for the prosecution, given by someone who took part in the crime, in exchange for leniency.

Recognizances  A term meaning a condition of being granted bail. Someone in custody would be ordered to enter into recognizances (a bond) for a fixed sum of money decided by the court.

Riot Act - old English law which said people making a public disturbance had to disperse within an hour of the act being read to them by a magistrate.

Sergeant/Serjeant at law - Commonly known as Serjeant, followed by his surname. A title bestowed to a small and very elite number of barristers at the time of the Chartist trials. This very ancient title existed since at least the time of Henry II, 1154 -1189. Serjeants had exclusive rights of audience in the medieval Court of Common Pleas. At one time only Serjeants were appointed as Judges but this practice was flouted and the end of Serjeants at law came about in 1873. They were in decline before that date and their status was slowly eroded by the increase in status of the King’s or Queen’s Counsel. There were two Serjeants engaged by the prosecution team at the Chartist trial of John Frost.

Sedition - words or actions designed to incite or provoke rebellion against the government.

Sheriff (or High Sheriff) - A legal official with responsibility for a county or shire.

Special Commission (Special Commission of Oyer and Terminer) - A court  constituted specifically to deal with important charges. It had unfettered jurisdiction so it could deal with all sorts of crimes. It enabled cases to be brought to trial immediately, rather than waiting for the next scheduled Assizes which, in the case of the Chartist uprising, would have been in the spring.  A special commission was appointed to deal with the persons charged with high treason after the march on Newport on 4th November and the trial began 31st December. 

Subpoena –A Latin term for a written order issued by the court, to compel testimony by a witness or production of evidence. Failure to do so incurs a penalty.

The Black Domain - the industrial heartland of the Monmouthshire Valleys.

The People’s Charter - six reforms of Parliament demanded by the Chartists.

Tory - supporter or member of the Conservative Party.

Transportation – exile to Australia, as punishment.

True Bill – A decision made by the Grand Jury when, after hearing only the prosecution evidence, they decided a trial  should  take place. It was not a finding of guilt. The members of the Grand Jury did not then take part as jurors in the trial. A Petit Jury was appointed to hear all the evidence.

Ultimo – (often shortened to ult.) The month before, used when referring to a date.

Whig – a member of a (former) British reforming political party. Whigs supported the aristocracy, and later the business community. They became the core of the Liberal Party.

Find out more:

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey website has a glossary of unfamiliar judicial and historical terms