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February 2022 Item of the Month

In Pittsburgh this document would be unremarkable but its presence in a legal file in Durham, England, is some cause for comment. The file contains papers that collected during an otherwise unremarkable law case in the Chancery court at Durham, Calvert v Brown and others. Rebecca Calvert alleged the maladministration of her husband John Calvert’s estate by two of the trustees he appointed in his will, Miles and Thomas Brown, both fellow farmers.

Durham Chancery court at this date was one of the few surviving relics of the Bishops’ of Durham extensive temporal powers dating from medieval times. The County Palatine of Durham was a quasi-regalian jurisdiction bishops of Durham held from the crown extending over County Durham and outlying parts of Northumberland. Within this geographic area bishops of Durham maintained a series of courts that mirrored those that developed in Westminster, including from the late 15th century a Chancery Court, and even an Admiralty Court (for which sadly almost no records survive).

Bishops’ criminal jurisdiction was removed under Henry VIII in 1536 and all the bishop’s temporal palatine powers were returned to the Crown in 1836. The Durham Chancery court alone survived as a separate entity within the national Chancery Division until 1971 when its jurisdiction was abolished and its business transferred to Newcastle and Leeds.

While always more convenient for local litigants than the courts in Westminster the power of the bishops’ writs extended only to the borders of his jurisdiction, effectively the rivers Tyne and Tees, and this limited the court’s scope and utility. By the eighteenth century the Chancery court was almost moribund; business, such as it was, tended to concentrate on tithes, rights of way, easements, mortgages, land transfers, inheritance and contract. The courts’ records include a number of decrees by which land was enclosed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Reforms to the court from the 1870s encouraged business in the court to pick up but a Royal Commission on Assizes and Quarter-Sessions in the late 1960s was its death knell.

The records of the Durham Chancery court were formerly held in the Exchequer building on Palace Green where the court also usually sat until 1855 when it moved to Owengate nearby. Following critical reports on the care of records in Durham in 1854 and 1867 most of the Palatinate of Durham Records, together with some other series, were removed to London in 1868 and placed in the Public Record Office, (now the National Archives), where they still remain. Then current records of the Durham Court of Chancery were left in Durham for ease of consultation, and the court subsequently continued to create records. These include records of Chancery causes 1878-1920 from which this document illustrated above is taken.

This death certificate of William Brown was issued by the Board of Health in the City of Pittsburgh (Registration Department), impressed with its seal, and sworn before the city clerk. Brown had died of typhoid fever on 9 November 1881. It was submitted by his brother Miles to the court in Durham in an affidavit sworn at Sunderland dated 22 February 1900. Miles Brown, his brother Thomas and a Robert Crawford were all named as trustees in the will of John Calvert who died in May 1879. By January 1880 no distribution of the estate had been made and Calvert’s widow Rebecca and the co-defendant Robert Crawford sought legal advice to spur the Brown brothers into action. The cause papers linked to this action chronicle the long process of compelling accounts of administration (and costs of litigation) to be submitted and identifying the beneficiaries, of whom William Brown was one; another living beneficiary was then resident in New Zealand, further evidence of the wave of emigration from the British Isles in this period. Rebecca Calvert’s life interest in certain property again had to be distributed through the court upon her death in 1899 and so the last document in the file is not dated until 1900, the legal case having taken twenty years to wind to its close.

Chancery cause papers can include all manner of items as they are adduced in a case and even the most run-of-the-mill legal disputes can throw up some interesting finds.

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.