Richard Stileman's Magistrate's Case Book
Richard Stileman (1787-1844) was a descendant of what is described as a yeoman family originating from Otford in Kent but established in Winchelsea, where they became leading citizens, by the middle of the eighteenth century. He has left an account of his idyllic boyhood in the town [available within ESRO WIN 2362/18/1]. Obviously he inherited a substantial income and always cherished an ambition one day to purchase Winchelsea's principal local estate, formerly that of the Greyfriars' monastery. This he achieved, at the young age of 26, in 1813. At that time the house remained as it had subsequently been adapted from the buildings occupied by the monks until the Dissolution. Six years after his purchase, some sources say after a major fire, Stileman engaged the architect J B Rebecca to demolish the house and start afresh. Rebecca's designs [ESRO A6077/29/26-30] show the present property, or certainly its main facade, to have been little altered from the castellated manor house which he built.
Between acquiring the Greyfriars site and beginning the construction of his new home Richard Stileman had been sworn in as a county magistrate at the Quarter Sessions held at Horsham on 21 April 1815 [ESRO QO/EW/41]. In Winchelsea at that time the 'Old Corporation' continued to exercise legal jurisdiction within the town and its Cinque Ports Liberty. The jurats appointed by that body occupied Winchelsea's bench as magistrates and, with the other freeman, were enfranchised as voters in parliamentary elections for Winchelsea's two seats in the House of Commons. Their votes were controlled by the patron, the Duke of Cleveland. Despite being a leading resident, Stileman would have nothing to do with this situation which, despite its normality in those days, he perceived as corrupt. He therefore exercised his county magistracy by sitting alone at The Friars, as his property came to be known, and receiving there complaints and representations, sometimes from Winchelsea people, but much more frequently from those of outlying villages. Beckley, Brede, Icklesham, Northiam and Peasmarsh were most frequently represented but also from communities across almost the whole of eastern Sussex.
Stileman kept, in his own hand, a meticulous record of the cases he heard, mostly in a book [ESRO AMS 6192/1] but also on supplementary separate sheets which have survived as [ESRO AMS 6192/2]. Both sources are here transcribed. The nature of the representations he received was extremely varied but the most common complaints concerned assault (60 of the 183 cases here recorded), failure to pay agreed wages (49) and theft (23). Those who came to see him, no doubt in many cases cap in hand, were, as will be seen from the index of occupations or descriptions, almost exclusively from the working class. Stileman to them represented the only authority to which they could turn to submit any complaint of injustice or mistreatment. Each entry in Stileman's record of the hearings begins with the legend 'Sussex to wit', thus defining the extent of his jurisdiction. He also notes, almost invariably that the petitioner took the usual oath to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This is followed by an account of the nature of the complaint and is signed off by Stileman with a statement that the evidence has been heard by him and the date of the hearing. Finally there appears the plaintiff's signature or mark.