Winchelsea Inquests 1775-1884 by Malcolm Pratt. Published by Sussex Record Society in 2016

Winchelsea Inquests


These records are taken from the archives of Winchelsea Corporation [ESRO WIN 513-606] and of Messrs Dawes and Prentice, solicitors of Rye, whose partners served as town clerks of Winchelsea and, in that capacity, attended inquests as the coroner's legal adviser [ESRO DAP 70 1-34]. The coroners were Winchelsea's mayors or, in their absence, their deputies. These ex-officio appointments, which had existed from as early as the twelfth century, arose from the continued existence of the medieval Liberty of Winchelsea over which the town exercised jurisdiction, as both a privilege and a duty, through its position as a head port of the Confederation of the Cinque Ports. The Liberty, roughly triangular in shape with Winchelsea at its apex, stretched along the coast from the Kent border as far as to include part of the parish of Pett. Thus, while Winchelsea's was at the time a predominantly agricultural economy, the inquests deal very largely with deaths at sea and those arising more generally from maritime activity. When there were survivors of wrecks who could identify the bodies of those drowned, the cause of death was obvious and usually no inquest was held. The existence of the Liberty ended in 1886, soon after the last inquest recorded here, when Winchelsea lost its status as a Municipal Borough and the right of the Corporation to exercise legal jurisdiction.

Inquests were held in cases of accidental, sudden or unexplained death. In order to ensure the Winchelsea coroner's right to be conducting the case, the papers invariably confirm in some way that the death occurred within the Liberty's boundaries. No time was lost in convening and conducting the proceedings which were usually held on the day following the death. The coroner would issue instructions in a standard form requiring the sergeant-at-mace 'immediately on sight hereof to summon and warn twelve or thirteen good and lawful men of this Town and Liberty to be and appear before me'. The order would include the time, usually the same afternoon as the order, and the place at which the inquest was to be held. Potential jurors frequently had to hurry in order to arrive in time. Jury sizes usually varied between twelve and fourteen and were only occasionally as large as fifteen. If the sergeant-at-mace had been successful in warning more than were needed, selection proceedings were held before the case began. It was part of the responsibility of the coroner and jurors to view the body. The wording of the original documents suggests that this took place as part of the inquest. It is clear, however, in many cases, that the body was viewed at some place other than that at which the inquest was held.

The formal record of the hearing of each case was drawn up in advance by the town clerk or his assistant in the form required by law. Spaces were left for the names of the jury, a summary of the information presented to them and their verdict. In the jury list and in these transcriptions the name of the foreman was entered first. The completed form was signed by both the coroner and the jury members, usually with the signatures authenticated by a seal. Witness statements were compiled separately. They record the evidence given and are signed by the witness. Occasionally these were taken by the coroner before the hearing and later read to the jury. Such statements are subscribed by the coroner as having been made in his presence. There is almost no evidence until a number of the latest cases of any involvement of questioning by the coroner, the foreman of the jury or the jury members. Some witness statements, however, suggest in their later stages that they have been made as a result of questions. In cases where the cause of death is unclear it is usually established through the evidence that there were no marks of violence on the body.