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Quarter Sessions: The Judicial side
For at least three hundred years prior to the creation of elected county councils in 1888 the people who had the most authority in the county and generated the most records were the Justices of the Peace.
They transacted some business individually or in pairs but, for the main part, their work was done in quarterly meetings, called Quarter Sessions. In these Sessions, with the sheriff or, more often, his deputy (a local solicitor) in the chair, the Justices (or magistrates) discussed and agreed not only the administration of the county but, at the same time, acted as a court, deciding a wide variety of cases which were not serious enough to go to the Assize Courts.
The records of Quarter Sessions form the basic core around which the collections in most county record offices have been built.
Justices of the Peace
The origins of the Justices of the Peace can be traced back to 1195 when Richard I appointed knights in each county to keep the king’s peace. They gradually established their authority in the fourteenth century and by Tudor times they had almost replaced the Sheriff as the effective rulers of the county.
Many administrative functions were then added to their judicial powers, their authority reaching a peak in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Their powers of administration in corporate towns were taken away in 1833 and in the counties in 1888, but they continued to retain their judicial (and licensing) powers until 1971, then evolving into magistrates courts.
To be nominated as a Justice of the Peace by the Crown (in documents called Commissions of the Peace) you had to have an estate in the county with an annual value of £20. This estate qualification had been fixed in 1439, was increased to £100 in 1731, and not abolished until 1906, after which they had only to reside within seven miles of their county. They had no legal training and were paid four shillings a day if they attended the Sessions, but most did not bother, many appointments being regarded as honorific. This payment had been fixed in 1388 and was still the same in the eighteenth century though by then it seems that most justices assumed that no payment was involved.
It is important to note that Justices were also appointed for Liberties and other areas such as ridings or borough towns. In Hertfordshire, for example, there were separate Sessions for the two Boroughs of St Albans and Hertford, for the Liberty of St Albans (twenty-two parishes surrounding the Borough), and for the remainder of the County.
From 1745 the Justices all took an oath on entering office (called Oaths of Qualification) but the record usually shows only their address at that time, though a few include details of their property qualification.
By Act of 1350 the Sessions were held at the Town or County Hall at least four times a year at Easter, Trinity or Midsummer, Michaelmas (29 September) and Epiphany (January), though in Middlesex, where the Assize courts dealt with most of the criminal cases, the Justices met only twice a year.
As the population grew the counties might be divided, each Division holding Sessions by adjournment outside the usually appointed times so that each Session might last three or four days, spread over two or three months. In Nottinghamshire monthly meetings were held. In the West Riding of Yorkshire the Sessions moved about, meeting at ten different centres.
Standing Committees were often appointed to transact administrative business and from 1819 the judicial side was speeded by allowing the Justices to divide their number and sit in two courts simultaneously.
The man who nominally had charge of the records was the Custos Rotulorum, generally an important landowner or a nobleman, though in earlier times he had been the principal justice. In practice the records, by Act of 1545, were looked after by his nominee, the Clerk of the Peace.
The Clerk of the Peace was usually an attorney with a private practice. He and his clerks looked after all the work arising from the Sessions. He received two shillings a day for attending (by Act of 1388) and although after 1688 he was generally appointed for life, he could still charge fees for other legal services and these often became a matter of dispute.
In most counties the Clerk of the Peace did not become a full time salaried officer until the nineteenth century, the payment of a salary in lieu of fees being permitted in 1851 and made compulsory in 1877. Fees were still charged but not retained by the Clerk. After 1888 the Clerk of the Peace usually became also Clerk of (and was appointed by) the County Council.
The judicial side
As the church courts (of the bishops and archdeacons) and the manorial courts declined in the seventeenth century, the ‘county courts’ of Quarter Sessions took over many of their functions, but much overlap remained.
In early times absentees from church (recusants) and those who profaned Sundays or holy days by working or trading on those days would have been taken to the church courts. Similarly, failure to clean ditches and to lop trees by the roadside, and the obstruction of highways and footpaths would have been dealt with by the manorial courts.
By the late seventeenth century all these matters were coming before Quarter Sessions. The gravest offences always went to the Assize courts and included trials for murder, sedition, treason, riots and conspiracy to effect political change, anything which was a capital offence or involved transportation for life.
In the eighteenth century the type of case hard in Quarter Sessions changed considerably, the numbers in certain categories falling rapidly.
By comparing the number of cases dealt with at Hertford Quarter Sessions in the 25 years 1658-83 with the 50 years 1700-52 it has been shown that the number of Sunday and religious offences fell from 804 to 9, the presentments for repairing roads and bridges from 247 to 67, those for keeping unlicensed and disorderly alehouses from 226 to 44, those for trading without due apprenticeship from 117 to 24, those for trading without a licence from 142 to 8, and those for building houses without four acres of land attached fell from 46 to 15. The figures for assault had also fallen somewhat from 156 to 240 over the longer period, though they represented about half of all the cases in that half-century. The figures for larceny (theft) fell also, with 63 cases in both periods.
At the Sessions for the Borough of St Albans in the 1780s David Dean calculated that some 41% of cases recorded on the Sessions Rolls were for assaults, 30% for larceny, 8% for bastardy, 4% for fraud, and the remainder for a wide variety of other matters.
Part of the reason for this change is that the Justices settled many things outside Sessions. Summary conviction of offenders by Justices, acting alone or in twos or threes, developed in the eighteenth century. For instance, from 1694 a single Justice could fine anyone for swearing or cursing profanely in his hearing or on the oath of one witness. The Justices were supposed to file certificates of their convictions with the Clerk of the Peace but this was not always done.
The early statutes also allowed the Justices to meet for special purposes in local ‘Divisions’ which approximated to the old Hundreds. From these parish groupings, which are found in some counties as early as the sixteenth century, developed Highway Sessions in 1691 for the administration of the roads and Brewster Sessions in 1729 for the licensing of alehouses. Few records of these petty sessional groups, however, survive before the nineteenth century.
Formal Petty Sessional Divisions were set up in 1828. Their powers were defined by the Criminal Justice Act in 1855 and the Summary Jurisdiction Act 1879. It was the latter Act which made the first provision for juvenile offenders.
The oldest records surviving locally date from about 1540 though some counties are not so fortunate, with Order Books commencing in the 1670s or 1680s. Except during the Commonwealth the writs, indictments and recognizances are in Latin before 1733, but in some places English is partly used from 1660 onwards.
The judicial records can be divided into five groups:
At the end of each Session the loose court papers were strung together on a piece of parchment or tape and tightly rolled up to form a Sessions Roll. This would include:
- Lists of the Justices present, of the men who formed the juries and of the parish officials who came on business.
- Writs to the Sheriff to summon the juries, officers and defendants.
- Bills, or claims for expenses, from those responsible for gaols, county buildings and bridges, transport of military personnel and vagrants, and from coroners (often naming the person on whom the inquest had been held).
In early Sessions Rolls many other records were included which, sooner or later in most places, came to be entered into separate files of books. These would include:
- Presentments (i.e. informal charges) of offences of the ‘nuisance’ type, to do with roads, bridges, ditches, obstruction or highways, unlicensed or disorderly alehouses, and absence from church.
- Indictments (i.e. formal accusations) for larceny, assault, poaching and false weights and measures.
- Depositions by defendants and any witnesses, also called ‘Informations’ and ‘Examinations’.
- Informations from informers about trading offences.
- Recognizances or bonds, in amounts ranging from £5 to £100, to secure the appearance of prosecutors, defendants and witnesses at the next Sessions, or to keep the peace; for defendants two sureties were required, husbands usually appearing for married women.
- Calendars or lists of prisoners in gaols and in houses of correction or bridewells (where hard labour was performed), often stating the offences involved; details of imprisoned insolvent debtors may include (from 1748) lists of their assets and creditors.
- Petitions from individuals, or from those following a certain trade or the inhabitants of a parish, often asking for the redress of some complaint.
- Licences to travelling salesmen.
- Removal orders for paupers following disputes between two parishes about their place of settlement.
- Reports from inspectors of weights and measures.
- Certificates that those holding civil and military offices have taken the sacrament, signed by a minister, churchwarden and two witnesses (the ‘Sacrament Certificates’ required by the Test Act from 1673 to 1828).
Similarly, either rolled up or in separate files or books will be found:
- Certificates of summary convictions by Justices acting outside Sessions.
- Certificates of dissenters’ meeting houses.
Sessions or Minute Books
These are the rough minute books kept by the Clerk of the Peace, outlining all the procedures, with notes of those present, the verdicts, fines, and orders made, but usually hastily written and difficult to read.
Process or Indictment Books record the names of those indicted (or charged), their addresses and occupations, their offences, pleas, and the verdicts and sometimes the sentences they received. This purely judicial business may not appear in the Order Books. Lists of the fines collected (sometimes called ‘Estreats’) are also found.
The formal record of the main proceedings in Sessions is, however, the Order Book and as this generally has a contemporary index it is where most searchers start. As time goes on it will include the reports from committees, individual justices and paid officers, followed by the necessary orders, dealing with bridges, gaols, houses of correction, hospitals and asylums, roads, fairs, markets, fires and robberies, the appointment of county officers, their salaries, and the relief of the poor, together with the rates to be collected and, in earlier times, wages and land carriage costs. Orders in settlement cases and appeals will be of particular interest to the genealogist.
The money needed for repairs to county buildings and bridges was originally collected by an ad hoc rate but, in the seventeenth century, annual rates became necessary and treasurers had to be appointed. The system was tightened up in 1739 and from that date proper account books and quarterly reports to Sessions should be found, showing the amount levied on each parish and the expenditure under various headings. If the original bills and vouchers have survived (as they do in Essex, for example) they may show the cost of the relief and conveyance of vagrants, the maintenance of militiamen’s families, and the transportation of felons, with the names of those involved.
Between 1699 and 1827 a person who successfully prosecuted someone who was eventually hung could claim a certificate popularly known as a ‘Tyburn Ticket’ and enrolled with the Clerk of the Peace, exempting him from holding any office (such as overseer of the poor or constable) in the parish where the crime took place. It would fetch a good price and he was allowed to sell it to one other person.
Quarter Sessions: Administration
Although some of the records generated by the administrative work of Quarter Sessions are not particularly of a genealogical nature they are all important for the local historian and, for completeness sake, they are mentioned here. The need for a permanent record which might be consulted locally led to the registration with the Clerk of the Peace of various records of importance, but the form and regularity with which this was done varies greatly from place to place.
Bridges and Buildings
By the Statute of Bridges of 1531 the maintenance and repair of any bridge for which there was no traditional provision fell to the county authorities which were also responsible for the oversight of the remainder. They consequently appointed a Bridgemaster, a post which later developed into that of County Surveyor. He also reported on the state of the shire hall, gaol and house of correction. When new ones were built, contracts, plans and title deeds would be filed. Reports on the conditions of the prisoners themselves begin to appear in 1823. The administration of prisons and houses of correction remained with the Justices until the Prisons Act in 1877. The prison registers and the journals of the governor, chaplain and surgeon may be available.
From early times parishes were responsible for the upkeep of the roads which passed through them, and from the sixteenth century each parishioner was obliged to give six days’ free labour, the owners of oxen or horses providing carts. The system continued until 1835 but it was clear even by 1700 that local unpaid labour was not sufficient to maintain the busier roads. Most main roads were turned into toll-roads or ‘turnpiked’ in the eighteenth century but these ceased to be profitable with the coming of the railways. The 1835 Act had, meanwhile, authorised the creation of Highway Districts with paid surveyors but it was not until 1894 that responsibility for the main roads passed from the parishes to District Councils. List of those providing labour on the roads survive only rarely. The closure of a road, bridleway or footpath leads to the deposit of a detailed plan showing the properties affected. Copies of the accounts of the turnpike trusts were deposited with Sessions from 1823 onwards.
Victuallers and alehouse keepers had by Act of 1552 to obtain two sureties and provide bonds for good behaviour, sworn before two Justices and recorded at the next Sessions. Notes that they had done so appear frequently in the records. As many licences were granted by Petty Sessions there is rarely any succession of entries until 1753 when the recognizances were supposed to be registered annually with the Clerk of the Peace. The entry normally gives the name of the landlord and, in some areas, the inn sign. Since 1753 also establishments for music and dancing have required similar licences.
Restrictions on opening alehouses were lifted in 1828 and although there was some control of Beer Shops strict control of all licensed premises did not resume until 1872. It remained with Quarter Sessions even after the establishment of County Councils in 1888. Surviving records are surveyed in the Gibson Guide, Victuallers’ Licences (Federation of Family History Societies, 2000) [FHL book 942 P23].
Dealers, Drovers and Shops
Travelling dealers in corn and victuals known as badgers, kidders and higglers, as well as cattle drovers (required to be married men), were also licensed between 1563 and 1772, and the registers of fees taken by the Clerk of the Peace usually show their home parish, occupation and the names of two sureties. The later records sometimes include other small shopkeepers. Licences to pedlars after 1871 and to hawkers after 1888 (as well as to chimney sweeps after 1875) may be found amongst the police records mentioned below.
Slaughter houses were licensed by Sessions from 1796 and in the course of the next century several other categories of dealer came under regulation, including those selling game in 1831, explosives and fireworks in 1860, petroleum in 1862 and the owners of bakehouses in 1863. Pawnbrokers were supposed to have a Justice’s certificate of good character after 1872.
Barges and Printers
The owners of barges and wherries which were over thirteen tons and on navigable rivers had to be registered with Sessions from 1795 to 1871. Similarly the names and addresses of the owners of printing presses were registered from 1799 to 1869.
A landowner who wished to carry a gun and had the right property qualification (from 1670 to 1831 a £100 freehold or £150 long leasehold) would obtain a licence from Sessions. After 1831 anyone who paid for a game certificate was entitled to kill game subject to the law of trespass. By Act of 1710 the lord of a manor could appoint a gamekeeper with authority to kill game provided his name was recorded with the Clerk of the Peace. This Act remains in force but entries of ‘Gamekeepers’ Deputations’, which show the name of the lord of the manor as well as of the gamekeeper, mostly peter out in the mid-nineteenth century.
By Act of 1799 the names of Freemasons were to be certified annually to Quarter Sessions. Lists and registers from the various Lodges continued to be deposited into the twentieth century, though some counties have very incomplete runs.
From 1812 charities were required to register with the Clerk of the Peace who sent copies to the Court of Chancery. Amongst other details the names of founders and trustees are given and, from 1853, their annual accounts may be filed.
The Clerk was required to collect similar details of Friendly Societies from 1793. From 1844 the rules of Scientific and Literary Societies were also filed, they then receiving exemption from rates.
The rules of small local savings banks had also to be deposited after 1817 and similarly give the names of trustees and officers, but not of depositors.
Under the Toleration Act 1789 the meeting places in private houses and chapels of Protestant dissenters had to be registered with the Clerk of the Peace (or with the Bishop of Archdeacon). The requirement was extended to Roman Catholics in 1791 and continued until 1852 when it passed to the Registrar General. The certificates provide the names of trustees and ministers and may indicate the existence of meetings even when no registers have survived.
Returns of pauper lunatics were supposed to be submitted to Sessions by the overseers of the parish from 1815 and then by the Boards of Guardians from 1834. Any privately owned asylums were inspected and reported upon from 1832.
Before the mid-nineteenth century there were generally one or two high constables in each Hundred and one or two petty constables in each parish or township, all untrained and unpaid, but responsible for keeping the peace. They were sometimes appointed by Quarter Sessions and sometimes took an oath before a Justice of the Peace. Their account books may survive in parish records. In some areas such appointments continue until about 1870.
The County Police Act of 1839 had empowered Sessions to appoint and employ chief and petty constables but delay in some areas led to a further Act in 1856 obliging them to do so. Their records of personnel and organization often survive with other county records but may remain with the local police authority. They are listed in Antony Shearman, My ancestor was a policeman: how can I find out more about him? (London: Society of Genealogists, 2000) [FHL book 942 U2].
Between 1744 and 1824 a single justice could order the removal of a vagrant, after questioning, to his or her last place of legal settlement or birthplace. A copy of the removal order and of the result of the examination was filed with Quarter Sessions.
An ambitious scheme in 1536 required deeds of bargain and sale (i.e. conveyances of land) either to be registered at Westminster or with the Clerk of the Peace of the county. The practice had fallen into disuse by the middle of the next century though late stray deeds are sometimes found. The Act was repealed in 1924. See the article England Land and Property.
By Act of 1715 (and until 1788) the estates of Roman Catholic were registered in Quarter Sessions.
When enclosure of the open fields and meadows or of commons, forests and wasteland took place by Act of Parliament (mainly between the early eighteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century), the Acts usually required that a copy of the Enclosure Award re-allotting the land should be deposited with the Clerk of the Peace. From about 1780 this would normally include a detailed map of the area involved. See the article England Land and Property.
A public undertaking involving the construction of a canal, dock, railway or tramway, the ‘turnpiking’ of a road, or the provision of water, electricity or gas, usually involved the drawing of a detailed plan which would be deposited with the Clerk of the Peace. The owners and occupiers of the buildings or properties affected would be recorded in ‘books of reference’. See the article England Land and Property.
The qualification for jury service (at Sessions and Assize) was an estate worth forty shillings. In 1692 this was increased to freehold or copyhold land worth £10 and in 1696 the parish constables were required to send to Quarter Sessions lists of eligible parishioners aged between 21 and 70. In 1730 the property qualification was increased and in 1825 the age limit was reduced to 60 and overseers and churchwardens made responsible for the returns. In 1922 the County Councils took responsibility for listing jurors through Registration Departments.
Although the Clerk of the Peace copied the lists into ‘Freeholders’ Books’ for the Sheriff the early lists may not survive but from 1825 printed forms were used for what became ‘Jurors’ Books’ and many good runs exist, reaching into the twentieth century. These may show where the Juror lived, where his property was situated and sometimes his occupation. The Sheriff used his copy to select those required to serve on Jury panels.
From 1694 to 1832 the sole qualification to vote at parliamentary elections (except in borough towns) was the ownership of freehold land within the county worth forty shillings a year. In order to lessen dispute the names and addresses of those who actually voted were often taken down at the booth, and a note made of the parish in which their freehold lay, sometimes its nature (land, house, mill, orchard, etc.), sometimes the name of its occupier, and the name of the candidate voted for. These lists or ‘poll books’, which are found from 1696 to 1872, were often published by local printers. Where manuscript or printed copies survive they are usually found in the county record office. The surviving printed Poll Books are listed in Jeremy Gibson and Colin Rogers, Poll Books 1696-1872: a directory of holdings in Great Britain (Family History Partnership, 4th ed. 2008) [not in FHL].
After the Reform Act of 1832 Registers of Electors were printed annually in most counties and continue to show their places of residence and the parish in which their property lay. As late as the First World War the printed Absent Voters’ List provides a record of those serving in the Forces and shows by parish their service identification. The whereabouts of surviving registers is listed in Jeremy Gibson, Electoral Registers 1832-1948; and Burgess Rolls (Family History Partnership, 2008) [not in FHL].
The government’s main source of income from 1662 to 1688 was the Hearth Tax. Returns were sent to Quarter Sessions and a duplicate transmitted to the Exchequer and they generally survive for 1662-6 and 1670-4. The entries provide a very valuable directory of householders. A scheme to print at least one year for each county is in progress and the surviving returns are listed in the Gibson Guide, Hearth Tax Returns, other later Stuart tax lists, and the Association Oath Rolls (Federation of Family History Societies, 1996) [FHL book 942 R43].
Land and Window taxes
By Act of 1745, made more effective in 1780, any person who claimed to be a forty shilling freeholder had to be assessed for the land tax. Duplicate copies of the assessments from each parish were then filed with the Clerk of the Peace. They usually survive from 1780 to 1832 and in this period usefully show the name of the occupier as well as that of the owner. The tax had been introduced in 1792 and was not abolished until 1963 but surviving returns outside the above period are not common. Returns of the window tax which lasted from 1696 to 1851 usually only survive for parts of the eighteenth century. The surviving records are surveyed in the Gibson Guide, Land and Window Tax Assessments (Federation of Family History Societies, 2nd ed. 1998) [FHL book 942 R4].
Hair Powder Duty
From 1795 to 1869 gentry, other than clergy and non-commissioned officers, who used hair powder had to have an annual certificate, the stamp duty on which was a guinea. Returns for the first year or so only may survive.
By an Act of 1696 those who held public office had to subscribe to a form of ‘Solemn Association for the better preservation of His Majesty’s royal person and government’ and the resulting Association Oath Rolls are found either in Quarter Sessions Records or in The National Archives. The Sessions records may contain other similar records of oaths of loyalty to the Crown.
An important Act which usually provides a large number of names is that in 1722 which required every male over 18 who had not already done so, to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown. The oaths were taken at various centres with the county, however, and the place of residence is not always given.
There may also be oaths taken by papists, by dissenting ministers subscribing to the Thirty-Nine Articles and, from 1812, taking an oath of allegiance, as well as the sacrament certificates and oaths taken as a result of the Test Act mentioned above.
Sheriff and Lieutenant
The sheriff was formerly the King’s military representative in the county but by Tudor times he was little more than a figurehead and, as mentioned above, most of his work was carried out by the undersheriff, a local solicitor.
The sheriff’s military functions were then taken over by the Lieutenant of the County, later known as the Lord Lieutenant, and in 1662 he was given control of the county militia. Lieutenancy records are closely connected to those of Quarter Sessions in that the Clerk of the Peace was usually also the clerk to the Lieutenant. His records may include minute books, returns of men over eighteen who were liable for service (particularly in the years 1797-1815, but quite frequently covering a much wider period) and muster rolls. The surviving records are described and listed by county in the Gibson Guide,Militia Lists and Musters 1757-1876 (Federation of Family History Societies, 4th ed. 2000) [FHL book 942 M2].
The Gibson Guide Quarter Session Records for Family Historians (Federation of Family History Societies, 4th edn. 1995) [FHL book 942 P23] shows the whereabouts of the main classes of records and the indexes available. The short booklet by F.G. Emmison and Irvine Gray, County Records (Historical Association, 3rd ed. 1987) [FHL book 942 H2ha] is a valuable outline guide with a range of examples and a summary guide by county to survivals. Many record offices have published guides to their Quarter Sessions records and these should always be consulted before research is carried out, the lack of surname indexes being a considerable drawback in many places.
More extensive examples of Quarter Sessions records are found in H.H. Copnall, Notes and extracts from the Nottinghamshire County Records of the 17th century (1915) [not in FHL] and its companion volume for the eighteenth century by K.T. Meaby (Nottingham: Thomas Forman, 1947) [FHL book 942.52 N2] and in the ten volumes of printedHertfordshire County Records 1581-1894 (Hertford: C.E. Longmore, 1905-57) [FHL book 942.58 P2].
The original records are deposited in the respective county or council record offices. Copies of some Quarter Session records are in the Family History Library. Use the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under ENGLAND - [COUNTY NAME] - COURT RECORDS.
This article has been revised and adapted with permission of Family Tree Magazine (U.K.; http://www.family-tree.co.uk) from two articles by Anthony Camp on ‘County Records: ‘Justices of the Peace in Quarter Sessions Assembled’’ in Practical Family History, no. 58 (October 2002) pages 20-22 and no. 59 (November 2002) pages 48-50.
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