• Court Sessions and Victuallers' Licences

    Attachment 13692As there was no national licensing system until the mid 16th century, it is not possible to trace the history of the Public House fully before that time.

    It is, however, believed that the Public House, otherwise known as alehouse, has been a feature of English life since Roman times.


    16th Century

    1550s Documents such as Manorial Records suggest that efforts were being made to exert local control over alehouses prior to national legislation.

    The Alehouse Act 1552 (5 and 6 Edward VI c1825) This was the Crown’s first attempt to introduce national legislation to combat what was seen as increasing drunkenness and social disorder. Anyone wishing to sell beer or ale had to obtain the consent of Justices of the Peace, either before two Justices or before the full sessions of the Peace. The licensees entered into a recognizance, or bond, to ensure good behaviour in their alehouses, under penalty of fines or loss of licence if the court’s terms were not upheld. These recognizances were certified at the Quarter Sessions and recorded.


    18th Century

    1729 An Act was introduced formalising the arrangement that licences could only be granted annually at Brewster Sessions, special licensing sessions, and stipulating that Justices might only grant licences to alehouses in their own division. By this means, responsibility was formally moved from county to local level. In Middlesex, the Brewster Sessions were normally held in March.

    The Licensing Act 1753 ordered that Clerks of the Peace at Quarter Sessions should keep a full register of victuallers and their recognizances. This was the beginning of a more complete recording of licensing business.


    19th Century

    The Licensing Act 1828 (9 George IV c61) confirmed that it was necessary to obtain a full licence from the Justices in order to sell any excisable liquor by retail. However, it failed to make provision for the keeping of licensing records by the clerk of the Peace.

    The Beer Act 1830 (I William IV c64) made it permissible for any householder assessed to the poor rate to take out an excise licence, granted by the Excise authorities, to sell beer, ale and cider, removing the requirement that a licence should be obtained from local justices, thus reversing, to a large extent, the main thrust of previous licensing policy.

    As a result of these two Acts, there is no satisfactory record of the history of licensing between the years 1828 and 1872.

    The Wine and Beerhouse Act 1869 (32 and 33 Victoria c27) saw a return of the stricter controls of the previous century. All retailers of beer and wine had to obtain licences from Justices of the Peace, furthermore licences were now also required for sales off the premises.

    The Intoxicating Liquor (Licensing) Act 1872 reinforced the 1869 Act, requiring that Clerks of the Licensing Divisions should keep a register of all licences granted. Generally speaking, the areas of the new Licensing Divisions were the same as those of the Petty Sessions. A County Licensing Committee was established by Quarter Sessions to confirm the granting of all new licences, although most business was conducted at a local level.

    After 1889 when the new counties of London and Middlesex were constituted, similar committees were formed for them.


    20th Century

    The Licensing Act 1902 and The Licensing Act 1904 introduced the requirement that all applicants for new licences should submit plans of their premises to the licensing Justices, and made provision for the payment of compensation to those whose applications for renewal of a licence was refused.



    Other resources







    Back to Records Office Guide

    Back to Research Guides