The Whispering Court

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Funny goings on at the Kings Head, Rochford

Rae Hill

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This article was taken from the Essex Police Magazine of Winter 1986. It was drawn to our attention by Len Bickford, a member of our RDCA Group.

Just before midnight, Wednesday 30th September 1868, the revelry began to abate at the Kings Head public House, West Street, Rochford, but it would not desist entirely for some hours yet.

The street outside the pub was beginning to choke with more people than had ever been in the locality, some indeed may never have been in Rochford before this date.

Childrens faces began to glow as the cooler night air bit their cheeks, their elders invariably had taken the precaution of consuming some internal insulation in the form of beer of Port.

A respectful distance was kept between the crowd and the pub, and a well travelled eye could scan those present and without doubt fall upon the notably Royal, Noble, famous and infamous.

Within the confines of the pub, a select few, chosen purely by accident of birth, composed themselves and added the final touches to their costume and took a tighter grip of their purses.

All eves darted momentarily toward Mr. Gregson, the senior partner of Gregson and Golding Solicitors, of Rochford.

William Gregson showed no sign of tension, a seasoned veteran of the annual event about to take place.

He sat by the street door, looking neither to the left nor the right. As Steward, he had a certain responsibility, a certain detachment from those that would later do his bidding.

Although no tension showed, tension there was. Mr. Gregson felt in his waistcoat pocket for his watch for the fifth time in the past two minutes, and produced it with a florish that drew everyones attention. 'Serve the Punch', he announced.

A maid carried a large silver bowl from the kitchen and placed it upon a table.

Each of the assembled few held forward his glass which was filled with a sweet, strong brew from the bowl. Mr. Gregson wielded the silver ladle that carried each mans share, and as it emptied into the vessel, a gold coin bearing the visage of King George III was revealed, resting in the ladle's rounded base.

As they drank, an elderly man cleared a space for him self amongst the congregation and unaccompanied, sang the same song that he had sang on these occasions for the past 51 years. The song was only to be sung on this night and only by that man.

The pub's staff of serving maids, cooks and the Licencee himself, scurried about clearing the remains of the so recently consumed feast. Each of those present had partaken of boiled fowls, boiled mutton, boiled vegetables, caper sauce, ale, plum pudding, apple tart and sweets. The evening had slipped past, the pipes of tabacco were now glowing their last as William Gregson took one final examination of his watch.

Without sound, as the ceremony was begun, he opened the street door.

He cupped his hand to his ear and leant out, straining for sounds that he did not expect to hear.

The crowd without were hushed with the realization of the occasion, and all but a madman would dare to breath more than a whisper. In deed, the very act of whispering would attract more than a little unwelcome attention.

The Hundred of Rochford, on this night, became an equaliser of station. Only those under Mr. Gregson's protection had entitlement of presentment, all others, irrespective of title or class, were there on sufferance and could be dispatched forth, and would be, should the majority so bid.

'Do I hear a cock crow?' said Gregson as a statement, not a question.

'Cock-a doodle-do!', called the patrons, as they were always to do.

Gregson led the gentlemen into the Market Square, outside the pub where they stood, without sound.

All lights were extinguished, all that is, apart from the flaming brand carried by a man who walked from the shadows on the south side of the Square.

Gregson stepped from the throng, identifying himself to the torch carrier by this action.

The two men stood facing each other, squinting against the irregular glare of the burning stick.

The messenger whispered, 'You will follow my light', and set off a slow pace in the direction from whence he had come.

The group moved in file behind the torch, across the Square to a narrow alley which affords access to North Street.

The procession continued across North Street, into Old Ship Lane, ajacent to the pub of the same name, and into the grounds of a large old house, named Kings Hill.

Photo:Kings Hill

Kings Hill

Outside the house, in a flower bed, stands a wooden post, quadrilateral in section, five feet in height and topped with a conical carving representing a candles flame.

Photo:Whispering Post

Whispering Post

An orderly line is formed about the post as the lighted torch was put out. Gregson produced a scroll and announced, 'Oh yes! Oh yes! Oh yes!, all manner of persons that do owe suit and service to this Court now to be holden in and for the Manor of Kings Hill in the Hundred of Rochford draw near and give your attendance and perform your several suits and services according to the custom of the said Manor. God Save The King'.

His proclaimation would be heard only by those in his immediate surround as all matters would henceforth be dealt with in the quitest whisper.
The Court of Kings Hill, or The Whispering Court, was in session.

Many names have been given to this meeting. The Court Without Cure and The Lawless Court are the most common.

Each of the persons present are landowners, or tenants, of land that had originallv been within the Manor of Kings Hill.

Gregson called out the names of the persons who owed rent and services to the Manor, and as each heard his name, he would answer, admitting his presence. His dues were then paid, and the transaction was recorded upon the post with a mark made by the charcoaled end of the now extinguished brand.

Any person who fails to answer to his name, has his lands forfeited and they are not returned to him until a fine has been paid.

Upon the completion of the roll-call, Gregson whispered, 'Oh yes! Oh yes! Oh yes! all persons who have appeared at this court for the Manor of Kings Hill have leave to depart hence keeping their day and hour upon a new summons, God Save The King'.

The Court now ended, the crowd of onlookers raised their voices, free of the constraints of the Court and followed the Courtiers back to The Kings Head pub, where a more relaxed group resumed their celebrations at their leisure.

The beginning of the Twentieth Century saw the ending of The Whispering Court, its mortal presence declined, although it is claimed that the spiritual presence of the original members of the first Court still survives. Even to this day, as they were sworn to do by their Lord, they attended the post.

The second Earl of Warwick was the Lord of the Manor of Kings Hill, having succeeded Lord Riche, Chancellor to Queen Elizabeth I and resident of Rochford Hall, the family seat of the Boleyn family.

Warwick was preoccupied with the colonisation of The New World, and in particular the Bermudan Isles. He sadly neglected his Estate, to the distress of his tenants.

Once, upon his unexpected return to the Manor, he overheard a plot against his life.

Several of his tenants were holding court in the grounds of his home, and were whispering, hence the title of Whispering Court.

Warwick decreed that on the anniversary of that date, his tenants would return at the 'Lawless Hour', midnight, and repeat in whispers an affirmation of loyalty to him. He erected a post at the place where the plot had been and this was to be the gathering point.

The Court was later to be held annually, on the first Wednesday after Michaelmas.

The first Whispering Post was thought to have been erected in Kings Hill Wood, now known as Kingsley Wood, in Rayleigh, and would have been not too distant from the contemporary Rayleigh Weir Roundabout, although there had been dispute about this due to possible mis-translations from records written in Latin.

It is not known exactly when the post was moved, if in fact it was, to Kings Hill, Rochford, but it was certainly there before the year 1658, the year that Warwick died.

Written into the deeds of the house is the instruction that the post will be preserved in perpetuity. The post that stands there now bears the inscription 'K.H. 1867' and was constructed by a local carpenter named John Allen.

In more recent years, the forming of the Court took on a more social aspect. It was quite the done thing to be associated with the proceedings, and many historically famous people have joined the crowd of Rochfordians who gathered to witness the annual spectacle.

This Court was parallelled only by that held by the Emperor of Almain and the Kings of France who held similar ceremonies to commemorate the receipt of the Imperial Crown of Italy at Roncalia, who would summons with a low voice all those that owed allegience to that Crown, to swear allegience to them. These proceedings would also take place at midnight, and in whispers.

The Whispering Court of Kings Hill, is, or was, unique, and was in danger of fading into obscurity, and thence from memory, as fewer and fewer people were made aware of its existance.

The opening and closing speeches made by the steward of the Court bear remarkable similarity to the statements made by the Usher at the modern Crown Court, and this similarity to a 'Lawful' court extends to the requirement for the sound of a cock-crow to be heard, signifying the start of a new day, before a court could be convened.

The attached plan shows Rochford town centre, around 1900. It has changed very little since this time.

The area marked '7' was left derelict until 18mts ago **, when it was opened to be used as a car repair workshop. Inside the building the original forge still stands unchanged. Tools and anvils lay about and coal still lays in the fire as though it has been but recently used.

The area marked '6' has a modern brick facade. Beneath this brick, box-like structure, has been found a beautiful Tudor oak framed house.

But thereby hangs another tail***.


** i.e. around mid 1984.

*** Maybe an intentional pun. There are some peculiar spellings in parts of the article which have not been "corrected" as they might well be what was intended: after all we are talking about things that happened a long time ago.

This page was added by Robert Stephen on 11/04/2017.
Comments about this page (Add a comment about this page)

Hi Bob, Rae was a police sergeant at Rochford nick back in the 1980's - I don't know exactly when he retired as I never knew him personally, but I know that he is retired and living in Hockley. He used to write many stories in our magazines which came out four times a year - that is before all the cut-backs now in position. I just came across a few of the mags when I was having a sort out and re-read them all and came across the story. I managed to contact Rae and he agreed that it is/was ok to use his article. He told me that he looks at our site but I haven't heard any more from him. Len

By Len Bickford
On 23/01/2017

Hi Len, Have you any idea who Rae Hill is/was? He is the author of “The Whispering Court” but there is nothing further in the magazine about him. I’ll be publishing the article later this morning and just thought if we had anything on Rae I could add it. Addition can be done after publication of course, or put in the comments later on. Regards Bob

By Bob Stephen
On 23/01/2017
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