Local Tales at the Square and Compass

Tuesday, November 06th, 2007

Our Pub Social at the Square and Compass in Worth Matravers, on Dorset’s Isle of Purbeck, was slightly different to our usual Pub Socials. When we discovered that Andy Baggs (who we spent the day with on his dairy farm) was the Hayward of Wareham Common, it opened up a whole can of questioning worms. What the devil is a Hayward? Apparently, like his father before him, under the Wareham Court Leet he is responsible for ‘enclosures and fences’, or the so-called ‘common land’. But what’s all this Court Leet business? Exactly. So we had arranged to meet Hugh Elmes, a self-professed ‘local yokel’ and the Bailiff of the Wareham Court Leet, to find out a bit more about it.

And it was no ordinary night. In part, because the Square and Compass is no ordinary pub. It has been run by the Newman family for generations and, with the bar being little more than a serving hatch, offering local cider and mead, there is often a queue out the door to get served. It’s brilliant though and well worth a visit if you’re ever in the area.

The Square and Compass
Worth Matravers
BH19 3LF
01929 439229

It was also slightly bonkers because, when we arrived at Andy’s farm the night before, we discovered that half of Wareham was coming along and that Hugh had hired an old-fashioned bus for us to go. We even picked up a few stragglers along the way!

Local Tales at the Square and Compass

Hugh Elmes (second from left) and other Wareham residents

So there we were, mead in hand, hearing about Court Leets.  In short, they’re a judicial relic: a present-day survival of an ancient local court established at the time of the Norman Conquest. There are around thirty courts that still exist in England today – Wareham being one of them. At one time, the Court Leet would have been responsible for maintaining law and order in the Manor of Wareham. Duties included weighing the bread to check its freshness and ensuring that there was a consistent two-pound loaf throughout the manor, surveying the chimney and mantles to check that they were clean and did not pose a threat to the town, inspecting the ‘lanes and privies’ of the town to help prevent the spread of infectious disease and, most importantly (and why we suspect so many Court Leets survive today), tasting ale to check its quality.

When the democratic Parliament and local government control were established, the Court Leets gradually lost their powers. To be fair, today they are mostly a bit of ceremonial fun and an excuse to dress up and go to the pub, but the history behind it all is fascinating and the whole event made for a very interesting night in the pub!

Click here for more information about the Wareham Court Leet.  Hugh also offers visitors to Wareham a ‘Ye Olde Wareham Pub Crawl’ – you can contact him on 01929 552603.