Chosen by Nicky Rutherford, Volunteer
Prior to the Courts Act 1971, which replaced them and the assizes with a single permanent Crown Court, the courts of Quarter Sessions were local courts held 4 times a year since the 14th century. West Sussex Record Office holds the records of the Sussex Quarter Sessions, c1350-1914, and the West Sussex Quarter Sessions, 1914-1970. These records of the sessions can be an invaluable source for family and local history, and provide a unique view of the criminal system and social context of Sussex throughout the years.
One such example is the case of Augustus Fitzhardinge Berkeley Esq of Funtington, who was accused of contriving to provoke and incite Henry Joseph Hounsom Esq, also of Funtington, to fight a duel on 28 March 1828 by threatening to horsewhip him. In this longstanding disagreement, Berkeley accused Hounsom of variously shooting over and trespassing on four farms including Berkeley’s own. Berkeley claimed he had given Hounsom written notice but the letter had been returned unopened, and that he was authorised by the Duke of Richmond to give notice against further trespass.
Duelling was part of the honour culture of a small elite particularly those with connections to London and the military. By 1828 it was in decline and had all but died out by 1845. Hounsom’s reported actions were sufficient to provoke a duel and a horsewhip carried or threatened, as by Berkeley, was a clear symbol of intent.
Reportedly, Berkeley and Hounsom were two of the three main landowners in Funtington: the third being the Duke of Richmond. In 1828 neither man was young: Berkeley was 39, Hounsom 60. Berkeley was an incomer and almost certainly the third son of the fifth Earl of Berkeley (a Gloucestershire based family) and a cousin of the Duke of Richmond. At the time, an elder brother, Maurice Frederick Fitzhardinge, was married to the fourth duke’s sixth daughter and acting as a justice of the peace in West Sussex. Berkeley had served in the 10th Hussars and was old enough to have seen service during the Napoleonic Wars, and several of his Lennox and Berkeley relatives either wrote about the honour culture or engaged in duelling themselves.
By 1828 it was not uncommon for the challenged to have recourse to law despite the likely detrimental effect on their own honour. One cannot be sure why there was no further action. At the time, the courts actively prosecuted incitement cases and a guilty verdict could result in a prison sentence, a hefty fine or an even heftier surety to keep the peace. The presentment is covered by a bill of indictment headed “be it remembered” which suggests it was put into abeyance. Two possibilities are that either Berkeley did not attend, although there is no subsequent summons, arrest or distraint order or the experienced bench of justices brought about a reconciliation.
At one point, Berkeley is reported to have said “Funtington cannot hold both of us for long”. But presumably both men managed to live alongside each other in the long run as the deaths of both were registered at St. Mary’s parish church, Funtington: Hounsom’s on 4 August 1847 at 79 and Berkeley’s on 2 January 1873 at 83.
Having been gradually flattened out from their original rolled state by our conservator, the records of the Quarter Sessions are currently being indexed as part of an on-going volunteer project. This work will no doubt provide access to countless more stories like the duelling challenge in Funtington, and allow researchers to uncover the historical value of the records of the criminal justice system in Sussex.
Reference on a history of duelling: “A Polite Exchange of Bullets” by Stephen Banks (Boydell Press 2010)