Dale Abbey - a look at the village’s historic ‘Association for the Prosecution of Felons’

PUBLISHED: 11:38 08 April 2014 | UPDATED: 11:38 08 April 2014

Remains of the Chancel East Window

Remains of the Chancel East Window

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Dale Abbey is a beautiful place. Its many famous landmarks – notably the magnificent east window arch which is all that remains of the original abbey – have made it a popular site for tourists visiting Derbyshire over the years... Photographs by Roger Summers

The old Abbey Gatehouse which was once used to secure prisoners in transit between Derby and Nottingham CourtsThe old Abbey Gatehouse which was once used to secure prisoners in transit between Derby and Nottingham Courts

A real sense of community spirit is also in abundance here; something which has been growing ever since the first Augustinian monks established a priory in the heart of the Dale and which 226 years ago led the villagers to stand together in defence of their homes and property and found the Dale Abbey Association for the Prosecution of Felons.

The Association was formed at a time when the Parish Constable system, consisting of unpaid Magistrates or Justices of the Peace and Parish Constables, was at its height. The Government stance was that counties should be left to ‘run their own affairs’ and JPs were provided with a framework of procedure, the power to levy rates and then left to get on with it. They were responsible for everything from making repairs to roads and bridges, issuing licenses to ale houses and investigating breaches of the peace to dealing out summary justice to petty criminals such as poachers and thieves. Although a JP’s role was to see that jobs were done, the Parish Constables were responsible for actually doing the work, and a lack of money and training for these influential figures was one reason why villagers decided to form their own justice associations.

As the Industrial Revolution took hold, social unrest spread and old well-tried systems of justice began to break down at the same time as there was a huge increase in crime, so in many towns and villages people decided to step in and lend a hand. One of the crimes that caused the most trouble for farming communities was felony or theft of tools and livestock. In the 18th century victims of felony had to pay all the costs of bringing a criminal to justice, so an ‘Association for the Prosecution of Felons’ or ‘Felons Association’ was started. Each member of the Association paid subscriptions into a joint fund, and the money was used to offer a reward, cover the cost of catching a criminal and bringing them to trial and compensation for stolen possessions.

The majority of these Associations were founded between 1780 and 1820, and the Dale Abbey Felons Association was one of the first to be set up in the county in 1788. Others were established in Brassington, Wirksworth and Middleton, Bakewell, Repton, Baslow and Eyam – to name but a few. However, catching and apprehending criminals took a huge amount of voluntary effort. Paid officials were rare and so the easiest way of enticing people to help was to offer a reward. In the days when the average farm worker’s wage was three guineas (£3.3s) a year, a reward of 10 guineas was a strong incentive. As to compensation, the first recorded compensation given by an Association in Baslow was half a crown (12.5p) for a stolen rope.

Last year's 225th anniversary meeting with Jill Tucker, Lord Lieutenant Willie Tucker, Mick Barker, Mayor of Erewash Jennifer Hulls, Mayor's Consort Bob Hulls and Erroll ScottLast year's 225th anniversary meeting with Jill Tucker, Lord Lieutenant Willie Tucker, Mick Barker, Mayor of Erewash Jennifer Hulls, Mayor's Consort Bob Hulls and Erroll Scott

The Dale Abbey association’s founder members each paid 4s a year membership and although most of it went on advertising rewards, from the start sociability was an important aspect. Members would meet each year for a Whitson Feast and a Michaelmas feast when a goose was the centrepiece; one year, three of the Michaelmas geese were stolen and the farmer, in defence of his property, was shot and wounded. Amusingly, the rewards offered reflected their view of the seriousness of the crime: £5 for the capture of the thieves and £10 for the safe return of the geese. In 1812 the list of offences for which they could take action was revised and cock fighting and ‘water felony’ (illicit fishing?) were excluded – presumably pastimes the members of Dale Abbey’s Felons Association viewed sympathetically!

The Associations died out as each county established its own force – Derbyshire Constabulary was set up in 1857 – certainly by the middle of the 19th century any crime wave at Dale seemed to be over. The Association has paid no reward since 1906 when a new member received 11s 6d (57.5p) for information which led to a conviction for stealing fruit but the Dale Abbey Association for the Protection of Felons is one of only 30 remaining in England. As Dale Abbey prepares for its annual spring meeting, its guiding force is a strong sense of tradition and the love of a good night out – although of course its members still retain the right to make a citizen’s arrest, should the need arise!

Discovering Dale Abbey

The village’s early history is largely unrecorded, although the Canon of Dale Abbey, Thomas de Muskham, tells of a baker from St Mary’s Gate, Derby, who had a dream in which he was told by the Virgin Mary to leave all his possessions and spend a life in God’s service in Dale. The baker did so and on arriving in the Dale dug a cave in the soft sandstone rock. Later, the ‘hermit’ (as he became known) discovered a spring to the west of his cave and built a cottage and oratory nearby. It is on this site that the present Dale Abbey church is said to have been built.

On a visit to the abbey by Bishop Redman in 1482 he was forced to issue a prohibition of gambling! On a final visit in 1500, he could not leave any precepts because the majority of the brethren had been struck down with plague.

In the 16th and 17th centuries Dale Abbey church was outside the control of the Bishop so marriages could be conducted with minimal notice, as a consequence Dale Abbey became the Gretna Green of the Midlands with 50 or more weddings a year.

Although Henry VIII closed the abbey in 1539, until the 18th century most of its ruins were still standing.

By 1789, John Byng visited the site and recorded that little remained except the ruins of the great east window. The window remained due to the tradition that for as long as it stood the parish would remain exempt from paying the tithe. The window arch was restored in the 19th century and still stands today.

Other interesting places in and around Dale Abbey include: All Saint’s Church (where there was once a door through to the adjoining inn), the Sand Quarries and Wharf, the Cat and Fiddle Windmill – one of the few remaining post mills in the country, and nearby Locko Park.

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