In this image from the early 19th century artist and cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson depicts the Court of Common Pleas, located in the Palace of Westminster. Since medieval times the court had dealt with complex cases of grievance relating to unsettled debts and property matters, and as such was the principal seat of common law in the country.
The court was presided over by a Chief Justice, several lesser judges and an army of legal officers, all of whom dealt with an astonishing amount of business each year. By the 1820s, for example, the court was dealing with over 13,000 actions every twelve months. Many court officers were appointed for life and were supported financially by a web of sinecures and fees. Thus the opportunity for corruption among court officers was high. The Court of Common Pleas was finally abolished in 1873, when it was merged with other common-law courts to form the High Court of Justice.
Background to the Microcosm of London collection of prints
The Microcosm of London was published in three volumes between 1808 and 1810 as a result of an ongoing collaboration between publisher Rudolph Ackermann, cartoonist and illustrator Thomas Rowlandson and architectural draughtsman Auguste Charles Pugin. The image shown here was first issued as a loose leaf number that was collated later into separate volumes, all of which proved highly successful as a commercial publishing enterprise.
The Microcosm of London tapped into the demand for highly-coloured prints of real-life subjects that proved something of a publishing sensation during the Regency period. As such, the prints stand as a fascinating historical record of London life in the early years of the 19th century. While Pugin’s fine architectural drawings capture the size and shape of the capital’s principal buildings (both externally and from within) Thomas Rowlandson’s keenly observed figures depict the sheer colour and vitality of late Georgian society, rich and poor alike.