Before 1888 most county administration was carried on by Justices of the Peace. The office evolved through the Middle Ages, but was formally established by legislation in 1361. Justices were appointed by the sovereign. Their role was not salaried, but they were entitled to claim some expenses.
By the sixteenth century J.P.s were appointed from among the middling sorts of county gentry. They were not necessarily very wealthy but needed to have sufficient education and time to spare from their own affairs to carry out the role effectively. Not all men who were appointed were active as J.P.s, but a conscientious gentleman might spend several days a month on Justice's affairs, more at certain times of the year and in certain circumstances.
As local government developed in the Tudor period Justices of the Peace acquired more and more responsibilities. A county might have a hundred or more Justices. Each would have county wide powers and responsibilities but would also pay special attention to affairs in his own home area.
In addition to dealing with criminal matters, as and when required by legislation they oversaw the administration of the Poor Law, the repair and maintenance of highways, and apprenticeships; regulated markets and fairs and weights and measures; fixed prices, especially of corn and bread; licensed theatres, alehouses, dissenters' meeting houses, gamekeepers and corndealers; maintained the county gaol; maintained bridges in the county; appointed, or confirmed the appointment of, various local officials, and dealt with matters relating to bastardy, among other things.
The 1580s were a critical decade for national security. William Lambarde, a J.P. in Kent, assisted the Lord Lieutenant with the muster. He also mediated in disputes about the beacon watch. In the difficult decade of the 1590s, when there were near famine conditions due to bad harvests, Lambarde and others toured the county ensuring that farmers were taking their corn to market and selling it at fair prices, rather than holding it back hoping that prices would rise further.
Four times a year Justices of the Peace attended the Quarter Sessions, usually held in the county town. The Sessions dealt with criminal cases, as well as civil and administrative matters. Not all Justices attended every sessions, but for those who did, it could be a social occasion and an opportunity for gentlemen to meet to discuss politics and other matters not directly related to Justice's business.
Local government could not have operated and law and order could not have been maintained without the Justices of the Peace. Many gentlemen held other offices, in addition to that of Justice. They gave their time to this work as well as managing their own estates and family affairs. They knew their counties intimately and in their own home areas would have known everyone at all levels of society. They and their work deserve to be remembered.