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Identity Statement

Reference code(s): CLA/002
Held at: London Metropolitan Archives
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Date(s): 1586-1773
Level of description: collection
Extent: 34 linear metres
Name of creator(s): Corporation of London


Administrative/Biographical history:

The London court of orphans was established in the middle ages, with the first recorded case heard in 1276. The mayor and aldermen, sitting in the Inner Chamber of the Guildhall, handled cases relating to the care of the orphans of freedmen. When a freedman died with children who were underage, the executor of his will was obliged to report the death at the Guildhall. He then agreed to produce an inventory of the dead man's estate, from which the worth of the dead man was calculated and then divided between the widow, any legitimate children and finally anyone else specified in the will of the deceased. The court appointed guardians, usually the widow or close relatives, to care for the orphans and their inheritance until the orphan reached the age of majority. The guardian had to give a recognizance, or promise, guaranteeing that they would pay the orphan their full inheritance when they came of age. The recognizance had to be confirmed by at least three sureties, people who would pay the monies owed in the event of the guardian becoming bankrupt. In 1492 the court began the custom of meeting on every second Monday during Lent and summoning all sureties to make sure they could still meet their obligations. Guardians were monitored to ensure that they did not cheat the orphan out of their money, and, in the case of female orphans, were not married inappropriately. Guardians who did not obey the court could be imprisoned or fined.

By 1560 the number of cases handled by the court had expanded rapidly although no single officer was ever responsible for the court. Instead several officers were responsible for seeing that court business took place: the mayor and aldermen heard cases; the common serjeant acted as advocate for the orphans; the common crier made inventories and ensured that new cases were reported; the chamberlain took recognizances and took deposit of the inheritance if it was decided not to give it to the care of a guardian, and the clerk of orphans performed a range of administrative duties in this, as well as other, courts. Tables and scales were introduced which determined how much a funeral could cost, how much a guardian could deduct from the inheritance to cover the cost of maintenance of the orphan, and what fees could be charged by the court.

The court of orphans played an important financial role within the City of London because inheritances were increasingly deposited with the chamberlain, who used the money as loan capital when borrowing to help shore up the city's worsening finances. The court therefore suffered a decline during the 1680s and 1690s, when the city experienced a financial collapse and money due to orphans could not be paid. Several orphans petitioned Parliament for payment of their inheritance, leading to the passing of the Orphans' Act in March 1694. This led to the formation of an Orphans' Fund which consolidated all the city's debts for ease of repayment. The incident marked the end of the traditional court of orphans and the government curtailed London's medieval legal practices in 1724, although some intestacy functions did continue until the 1850s. The legal functions of the court were taken over by Chancery.


Scope and content/abstract:

Records relating to the Court of Orphans, City of London, including Common Serjeant's Books, 1586-1773 (series CLA/002/01), Orphans' Inventories, [1600]-1773 (series CLA/002/02), Inventories: Indexes and Transcripts, 1666-[1926] (series CLA/002/03), Orphanage Bonds and Deeds, 1599-1704 (series CLA/002/04), Recognizances, 1590-1747 (series CLA/002/05), Satisfactions, 1548-1702 (series CLA/002/06), and Miscellaneous items including receipts and other papers regarding orphans, 1619-1697; legal customs including precedents in orphanage matters and divisions of estates; accounts, 1671-1728; committee papers and statements of the Orphan Fund, 1690-1750, custody of goods by orphans, 1401-1448 and journal articles based on the Court of Orphans records, 1934 and 1970 (series CLA/002/07).

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

In sections according to catalogue.

Conditions governing access:

Available for general access.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Copyright City of London

Finding aids:

Please see online catalogues at:

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Corporation of London Records Office.

Allied Materials

Related material:

See also COL/CHD/OA: Chamberlain's Orphans Accounts.

Publication note:

"The Court of Orphans" by Charles Carlton (Leicester University Press, 1974) made use of the Court of Orphans records.

Description Notes

Archivist's note:

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
February 2009

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