Savagery and Sadness in Eighteenth Century Sunderland Part 2: The eccentric Justice Ettrick

William Ettrick (1726-1808), a justice of the peace, inherited his estate at High Barnes, Bishop Wearmouth, in 1752 at around 26 years old. The Ettrick family rented the rights to run the Sunderland ferry from the Bishop of Durham. This made a very decent profit as it was the only way to cross the River Wear.[1]

sunderland ferry

It was this wealth that allowed William to defend himself against his wife’s cruelty separation case and which therefore produced such voluminous records. After immersing myself in the rich evidence about William, his life and his outlook on his world, I could not help but be slightly besotted by him. As I’ve tweeted recently, I can’t help but be fascinated by him, despite his many unpleasant deeds towards his family. This kind of attachment may not be bad thing for a historian, perhaps inevitable when we spend so long spying into past people’s lives, but it feels weird when we are drawn to the nasty subjects of our studies.

Anyway, I don’t think I am alone where William was concerned. Today’s post gives you a sense of how those outside his household-family saw him: eccentric to say the least, with a sneaking sense of joy in his peculiarities. He was known to be bad tempered and irascible. The History and Antiquities of Sunderland reported the stories that still circulated about him into the nineteenth century:

He was a man of independent spirit, somewhat of a humourist, but both feared and respected, and notwithstanding his eccentricities, he was possessed of great talents, and one of the best and most upright magistrates that the town of Sunderland or the county of Durham ever produced.

(For more on Justices of the Peace, see London Lives here)

The writer went on to repeat a couple of the most well-known anecdotes about Mr. Ettrick, which had lingered in local history for decades:

One day, coming to town upon magisterial duty, he observed a crowd of people surrounding one man, and gazing at him very intensely. He enquired who he was; upon being informed he was a great boxer come to town, he thought proper to send him a challenge to meet him. The boxer knew not from whom the challenge came; upon enquiring, he was told he was our most active magistrate; this alarmed him greatly, and he thought proper to leave the town. Mr. Ettrick, on his way home, seeing a crowd of people assembled, enquired the cause, and was told the boxer was leaving the town. Oh! oh! said he, tell him from me he is a great coward. I sent him a challenge, but he durst not accept it!

Boxing for Ettrick post

I love this report. It seemed to occur after prize-fighting was formalised somewhat by Jack Broughton’s Boxing Rules in 1743. The ‘sport’ was still illegal, yet here was William – the magistrate – offering to go a round with a famous boxer!

The story seems to convey much about William: a gentleman who cultivated a tough manliness. Not for him the polite rules of conduct, or the emotional expressiveness of sensibility that was gripping genteel society from the 1760s. As I’ll discuss in future posts, William’s personae quite consciously rejected the polished side of life. If anything, he was a man who liked and spent time with men of noticeably lower social rank.

Here’s another local story of the Justice’s single-mindedness:

Upon another occasion, whilst sitting upon the bench, a cart-man was brought before him for not having his name upon his cart according to law: as a matter of course he was fined, but in a mitigated penalty. The man thinking he had been rather harshly dealt with determined to be revenged the first opportunity:– he had scarcely got his fine paid, and was leisurely driving up the High Street, when he met Mr. Ettrick’s cart-man driving his dung cart in an opposite direction. Here was a chance not to be neglected, so, getting off his own vehicle, he inspected that of the justice, when lo and behold his name was found wanting! Off he went to the magistrates’ room, George Inn, High Street, [and] laid an information, Mr. Ettrick who was still on the bench, tried his own case and fined himself! This proceeding afforded him infinite amusement.


I bet it did! This dung-cart will appear again as it featured in William’s thwarted instructions for his own funeral!

Next time, you’ll meet the highly opinionated William’s wife Catherine.