“BUT all our praises why should lords engross?” asked poet Alexander Pope in 1732 before putting forward the case for John Kyrle (1637-1724) as a non-aristocrat who had made a memorable impact during his lifetime. Kyrle had dedicated time, expertise and a good deal of money into his philanthropic efforts on behalf of Ross-on-Wye, the town where he lived. For this he became known as the “Man of Ross”, celebrated not just in verse, but also in popular culture, with a pub carrying that name in the town.
Over one hundred years later there was evidence that his fame was still recalled when his name was alluded to in the Small Debts Court held in the Leicester Guild Hall. The reporters who wrote up the cases in the Small Debts Court, held on Saturdays and dealing with less than life and death issues, tend to adopt a more informal writing style. the defendant, Ross, is frankly described as ‘a blunt customer’, while the landlady, Mrs. Colton, is described as intervening in a way ‘less conciliatory than her spouse, and in her heat, forgetful of the character of her house’.
The case was brought by a beer-house keeper called Colton who was chasing a £5 debt owed by Shearsby wool-comber Samuel Ross. Colton had brought the amount of the debt down to £5 so as qualify for the attention of the Small Debts Court after Ross (he claimed) had stood surety for his drinking companions who had spent the whole day drinking at Colton’s House.
Ross countered that while he might, as he put it, have “passed his word” for a pint or two of ale for a friend, but that he had not been present for a good part of that day and had not intended for the publican to carry on the supply of beer until two in the morning at his expense. One of Ross’s companions that day, another wool-comber, explained that they had been attending a village wake held about eleven miles from Leicester. They had spent the day drinking and gambling, as was their habit, but that it was unfair for the whole charge to fall onto Ross.
The Commissioner asked if the witness would admit to any share in the ale included in the bill. Somewhat reluctantly, he agreed to having drunk his portion with the rest.
Colton tried to coax payment out of Ross with friendly phrases: “Come, come! Ross is an honourable name, Sam: the ‘man of Ross,’ you know”. Sam Ross replied: “Honourable name, indeed! Are you to fix this debt upon me because they call me Sam Ross? If that is to stand good, an honourable name would be the ruin of a man.” His view was that the landlord had trusted the men doing the drinking and should have looked to them for payment.
Mrs Colton, the landlady, was roused by this response: “Looked to them for the money! was it likely that we would trust such a set of scoundrels , without some security?”
The witness brought in by Ross, joined in: “Why, mistress, you encouraged the scoundrels, as you call them, to drink your ale when Sam and your husband were at the Shearsby feast; and they got so drunk in the house, that they began to fight with the poker and tongs”.
The Commissioners found in Colton’s favour, but fixed the re-payments in monthly 10s installments. They took the opportunity to express their opinion of the reprehensible conduct of the landlord: there did, after all, appear to have been a good deal of Sunday drinking on his premises. Ross said that it was hard on him to have to pay the bill for a score of drinkers, most of whom had left town and would not be seen again. The Commissioners told him that at least he would have the assistance of his witness, who had admitted to swelling the bill with his share of the drinking.
SMALL DEBTS COURT, TOWNHALL, AUG. 29.
The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser (Leicester, England), Saturday, September 02, 1837
Pope, Alexander (1732) The Man of Ross [Online] http://www.poetryatlas.com/poetry/poem/2833/the-man-of-ross.html [accessed 13 April 2017]