Victorian London - Legal System - Courts - Doctors' Commons

    Walking without any definite object through St. Paul's Churchyard, a little while ago, we happened to turn down a street entitled 'Paul's-chain,' and keeping straight forward for a few hundred yards, found ourself, as a natural consequence, in Doctors' Commons. Now Doctors' Commons being familiar by name to everybody, as the place where they grant marriage-licenses to love-sick couples, and divorces to unfaithful ones; register the wills of people who have any property to leave, and punish hasty gentlemen who call ladies by unpleasant names, we no sooner discovered that we were really within its precincts, than we felt a laudable desire to become better acquainted therewith; and as the first object of our curiosity was the Court, whose decrees can even unloose the bonds of matrimony, we procured a direction to it; and bent our steps thither without delay. 
    Crossing a quiet and shady court-yard, paved with stone, and frowned upon by old red brick houses, on the doors of which were painted the names of sundry learned civilians, we paused before a small, green-baized, brass-headed-nailed door, which yielding to our gentle push, at once admitted us into an old quaint-looking apartment, with sunken windows, and black carved wainscoting, at the upper end of which, seated on a raised platform, of semicircular shape, were about a dozen solemn-looking gentlemen, in crimson gowns and wigs. 
    At a more elevated desk in the centre, sat a very fat and red-faced gentleman, in tortoise-shell spectacles, whose dignified appearance announced the judge; and round a long green-baized table below, something like a billiard-table without the cushions and pockets, were a number of very self-important-looking personages, in stiff neckcloths, and black gowns with white fur collars, whom we at once set down as proctors. At the lower end of the billiard-table was an individual in an arm-chair, and a wig, whom we afterwards discovered to be the registrar; and seated behind a little desk, near the door, were a respectable-looking man in black, of about twenty-stone weight or thereabouts, and a fat-faced, smirking, civil-looking body, in a black gown, black kid gloves, knee shorts, and silks, with a shirt-frill in his bosom, curls on his head, and a silver staff in his hand, whom we had no difficulty in recognising as the officer of the Court. The latter, indeed, speedily set our mind at rest upon this point, for, advancing to our elbow, and opening a conversation forthwith, he had communicated to us, in less than five minutes, that he was the apparitor, and the other the court-keeper; that this was the Arches Court, and therefore the counsel wore red gowns, and the proctors fur collars; and that when the other Courts sat there, they didn't wear red gowns or fur collars either; with many other scraps of intelligence equally interesting. Besides these two officers, there was a little thin old man, with long grizzly hair, crouched in a remote corner, whose duty, our communicative friend informed us, was to ring a large hand-bell when the Court opened in the morning, and who, for aught his appearance betokened to the contrary, might have been similarly employed for the last two centuries at least.
    The red-faced gentleman in the tortoise-shell spectacles had got all the talk to himself just then, and very well he was doing it, too, only he spoke very fast, but that was habit; and rather thick, but that was good living. So we had plenty of time to look about us. There was one individual who amused us mightily. This was one of the bewigged gentlemen in the red robes, who was straddling before the fire in the centre of the Court, in the attitude of the brazen Colossus, to the complete exclusion of everybody else. He had gathered up his robe behind, in much the same manner as a slovenly woman would her petticoats on a very dirty day, in order that he might feel the full warmth of the fire. His wig was put on all awry, with the tail straggling about his neck; his scanty grey trousers and short black gaiters, made in the worst possible style, imported an additional inelegant appearance to his uncouth person; and his limp, badly-starched shirt-collar almost obscured his eyes. We shall never be able to claim any credit as a physiognomist again, for, after a careful scrutiny of this gentleman's countenance, we had come to the conclusion that it bespoke nothing but conceit and silliness, when our friend with the silver staff whispered in our ear that he was no other than a doctor of civil law, and heaven knows what besides. So of course we were mistaken, and he must be a very talented man. He conceals it so well though - perhaps with the merciful view of not astonishing ordinary people too much - that you would suppose him to be one of the stupidest dogs alive.
    The gentleman in the spectacles having concluded his judgment, and a few minutes having been allowed to elapse, to afford time for the buzz of the Court to subside, the registrar called on the next cause, which was 'the office of the Judge promoted by Bumple against Sludberry.' A general movement was visible in the Court, at this announcement, and the obliging functionary with silver staff whispered us that 'there would be some fun now, for this was a brawling case.'

Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, 1836

The Court of Admiralty, in Doctors' Commons, takes cognisance of all maritime affairs, whether civil or criminal: the trials of civil suits take place here; but criminals are tried, by a special commission from this court, at the Sessions House, Old Bailey.

Doctor's Commons is in Great Knightrider Street, St. Paul's Churchyard: they consist of three courts, the Prerogative Court, the Court of Arches, and the Court of Admiralty, already noticed: here are courts for the trial of civil and ecclesiastical causes, under the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London; here are also the offices in which wills are deposited, and searched; th~ expense of searching for and reading of a will is ls.; and copies of them may be obtained at prices proportionate to their length.

Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

DOCTORS' COMMONS, ST. BENNET'S HILL, ST. PAUL'S CHURCHYARD. A college, "or common house" of doctors of law, and for the study and practice of the civil law ... Doctors' Commons consists of Five Courts - three appertaining to the see of Cantebury, one to the see of London, and one to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty.  -1. The Courts of Arches is the highest court belonging to the Archbishop. .... 2. The Prerogative Court, wherein wills and testaments are proved, and all administrations taken. [See Prerogative Will Office.] 3. The Court of Faculties and Dispensations, "whereby a privilege or special power is granted to a person by favour and indulgence to do that which by law otherwise he could not: as, to eat flesh upon days prohibited; to marry without banns first asked in the church three several Sundays or holydays; the son to succeed his father in his benefice; for one to have two or more benefices incompatible; for non-residence , and in other such like cases."* (*Strype, B.i.,p.154) The cost of a marriage licence is 2l. 12s 6d. The 4th court in Doctors' Commons is the Consistory Court of the Bishop of London which only differs from the other Consistory Courts throughout the country in its importance as including the metropolis in its sphere of operations. The 5th is called the High Court of Admiralty, a court belonging to the Admiralty of England, divided in its jurisdiction into two courts - that of the Instance-court, and that of the Prize-court. In the Instance-court are tried all cases which form the ordinary business of the office; such as suits arising from ships running foul of each other - disputes about seamen's wages - bottomry and salvage; and the Prize-court adjudicates on naval captures during a time of war, and all proceeds of slave vessels captured and sold abroad. The judge is distinguished by a silver oar. ... The practitioners in these courts are of two sorts - advocates and proctors. The advocates wear in court, if of Oxford, scarlet robes and hoods, lined with taffety; and if of Cambridge, white minever, and round black velvet caps.

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850

Prerogative Will-Office