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Quarter Session Records (Crime, Criminals & Courts)

Nature of Source

Records from the session court rolls including the criminal trials, the indictment and juror lists and the minute and order books which will contain name indexes. The sessions were presided over by at least two Justices of the Peace (JPs) and were held quarterly in each county at Epiphany (December/January), Easter (April), Midsummer (July) and Michaelmas (October).

The court not only dealt with criminal cases but a variety of other local matters similar to the business of a modern day local council. The JPs also dealt with other disputes such as poor law disputes, settlement issues, bastardy cases, bankruptcy, planning, licensing and the transportation of criminals. The licensing element of the JPs work included the granting of victualler licences for those wanting to run a public house and for certain traders such as badgers (corn dealers) and drovers (cattle dealers). The range of records of interest to the family historian also include Land Tax Assessments providing the names of landowners and occupiers resident in every parish as well as tax assessments for more obscure items such as the hair powder tax.

Some digitised published volumes of Quarter Session records can be found at the Internet Archive.

The court order of precedence, in descending order, for dealing with the majority of cases is as follows:

Lower Courts
Petty Sessions/Magistrates Courts
Quarter Sessions/Crown Courts
Assizes/Crown Courts
Higher/Senior Courts
High Court of Justice (Including the King's Bench/Queen's Bench, Chancery Division and the Family Division)
Crown Court
Court of Appeal

Most non-judicial functions were transferred to county councils in 1888 and in 1971 the sessions were replaced by crown courts. Within the county boundary it was possible that some administrative areas such as Liberties and Boroughs ran their own Quarter Sessions, so separate records exist for these areas. Minute books contain a summary of the business and order books contain case judgements. The records also contain licences for public houses, trader and gamekeepers as well as lists of voters and tax and rate payers.

Depositions (witness statements) and indictments provide much personal information on individuals. Depositions (sometimes referred to as session papers) were pre-trial accounts by witnesses of the facts of details of a matter, sworn on oath or by affirmation. A person giving the statement is known as a deponent. The deposition should provide the deponent's name, address, age and occupation and other personal information.

Nonconformity issues such as registration of meeting houses, Catholic recusancy and non-attendance at church were dealt with at the sessions. Up to 1642 most of those presented for church non-attendance were Catholics after which other nonconformists began appearing. Also consult local newspaper reports of the session proceedings.

Those appearing in court included:

Plaintiff

A plaintiff is the person who brings a legal action and could appear in the following documents: Charge/Summons/Indictment form (the formal accusation against a person that an offence has been committed); Minute Books (sometimes referred to as crown books or gaol books); Calendars of Prisoners & Criminal Registers (only applicable to those tried by jury); Pleadings (statements made by both parties setting out the claim/defence of parties involved in civil proceedings)

Defendant/Respondent

The defendant is the person being sued, standing trial or appearing for sentence and could appear in the following documents; Charge/summons/indictment form (the formal accusation against a person that an offence has been committed); Pleadings (statements made by both parties setting out the claim/defence of parties involved in civil proceedings); Minute Books (sometimes referred to as crown books or gaol books); Newspaper reports and other printed books and pamphlets, some of which have been republished for example by Chadwyck-Healy; Calendars of Prisoners & Criminal Registers (only applicable to those tried by jury); Court orders for imprisonment or transfers from prison to prison; Prison Registers (Records of those incarcerated awaiting trial or sentenced to prison; Registers of Habitual Criminals (Registers compiled by prison authorities naming locals deemed likely to re-offend having been released from prison); Transportation records; Criminal Petitions (petitions made by convicted persons seeking the revocation or reduction of their sentences); Applications for clemency (mainly relates to those sentenced to death or transportation); Licence Registers/'tickets of leave' (Records of licences issued to criminals in prison released on grounds of good behaviour before the end of sentence)

Also see
Assize Records
Bastardy Documents (Parish & Poor Law)
Calendars of Prisoners

Criminal Petitions
Criminal Registers
General Eyre
License Registers/'tickets of leave'
Petty Sessions
Prison/Hulk/Gaol Registers
Publican, Brewery and Licensed Victuallers Records
Registers of Habitual Criminals
Settlement Certificates/Examinations and Removal Orders
Transported Convicts

Where Found

County Record Offices
London Metropolitan Archives (Old Bailey Proceedings)
British Library (Legal cases, law reports and judgments)
National Library of Wales (Great Sessions of Wales records)
National Records of Scotland (The National Records of Scotland was created on 1 April 2011 by the amalgamation of the National Archives of Scotland [NAS] and General Register Office for Scotland [GROS])

Period Covered

1361 - 1971

Genealogical Value

Name, address and occupation of defendant and plaintiff. Family relationships may be cited. Names, addresses and occupations of those involved in the non judicial business of the sessions such as licensing, land tax returns and illegitimacy issues.

Further References

Bard, Robert. Tyburn: The Story of London's Gallows: Amberley Publishing, 2012

 

Bevan, Amanda. Tracing Your Ancestors in the National Archives: The National Archives, 2006

 

Brandon, David & Brooke. Alan. London West End 1800-1850 Murders And Misdemeanours: Amberley Publishing, 2009

 

Cale, Michelle. Law and Society : an introduction to sources for criminal and legal history from 1800: PRO Publications, 1996

 

Campbell, Charles. The Intolerable Hulks: Fenestra Books, 2001

 

Decharne, Max. Capital Crimes : Seven Centuries of London Life and Murder: Arrow Books, 2012

 

Gilfillan, Ross. Crime and Punishment in Victorian London: A Street-Level View of the City's Underworld: Pen & Sword Books, 2014

 

Gray, Adrian. Crime and Criminals of Victorian England: The History Press, 2011

 

Hall, Malcolm. Gloucestershire Murders and Misdemeanours 1820-1829: Amberley Publishing, 2008

 

Hawkings, David. Criminal Ancestors: A Guide to Historical Criminal Records in England & Wales: The History Press, 2009

 

Hawkings, David. Bound for Australia: Phillimore, 1987

 

Herber, Mark. Criminal London: Phillimore & Co, 2002

 

Higgs, Michelle. Prison Life in Victorian England: The History Press, 2007

 

Hitchcock, Tim & Shoemaker, Bob. Tales from the Hanging Court: Hodder Arnold, 2006

 

Howse, Geoffrey A History of London's Prisons: Wharncliffe True Crime, 2012

 

Jack, Elizabeth. A Victorian Prisoners of Gloucester Gaol: A Rogues' Gallery: The History Press, 2009

 

Jeaffreson, John Cordy (ed). Middlesex County Records. 4 Vols: Greater London Council, 1972 (1886) (Volumes available to download and view at the Internet Archive or at British History Online)

 

Knapp, Andrew & Baldwin, William. The Newgate Calendar: London, 1828 (Available from: Google Books)

 

McLaughlin, Eve. Quarter Sessions: Your Ancestor & the Law: Varneys, 1995

 

May, Trevor. Victorian and Edwardian Prisons: Shire, 2008

 

Moir, Esther. Local Government in Gloucestershire 1775-1800: A Study of Justices of the Peace: Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological society, 1969

 

Moir, Esther. The Justice of the Peace: British Institutions: Penguin Books, 1969

 

Ratcliffe, Richard. Basic Facts About Quarter Session Records: Family History Partnership, 2007

 

Stevens, Mark. Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum: Pen and Sword Books, 2013

 

Storey, Neil. The Victorian Criminal: Shire Publications, 2011

 

Wade, Stephen. Tracing Your Criminal Ancestors: Pen & Sword Books, 2009

 

Wade, Stephen. Tyranny and the Lash : Prisoners & Punishment in British History: Robert Hale Publishers, 2011

 

Watson, Katherine. Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and their Victims: Hambledon Continuum, 2006

 

Woolf, Alex. Past In Pictures : A Photographic View of Crime and Punishment: Wayland Publishers, 2013

 


TNA Research Guides

National Archives of Scotland Research Guide: Justice of the peace records

Websites

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quarter_Sessions (Quarter Sessions entry from Wikipedia)
www.thefamilyhistorypartnership.com/hints-tips/introduction-to-quarter-sessions-records.php (An Introduction to Quarter Sessions Records, byRichard Ratcliffe)
www.manchester.gov.uk/info/448/archives_and_local_studies/3808/court_and_prison_records (Manchester Archives and Local Studies: Court and Prison Records)
www.wolverhamptonhistory.org.uk/politics/law/courts (History of Wolverhampton: The Courts)
www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/looking-for-person TNA Guide: Looking for a person? Criminals, bankrupts and litigants)
www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/looking-for-subject/crime-and-punishment.htm
(TNA Guide: Looking for records of crime and punishment)
Your Archives Guide (Calendars of Prisoners, Prison Registers and Prison Returns in The National Archives)
www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/victorians/crime/crimepunishment.html (British Library Learning, Victorians: Crime including Victorian Prisons and Executions and Transportations)
www.londonlives.org/static/Crime.jsp (Researching Crime)
www.londonancestor.com (Descriptions of London places and buildings including prisons)
www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Linked-records.jsp (Guide and links relating to records and sources for researching criminal cases)
www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Crime.jsp (The Historical Background to the Proceedings of the Old Bailey: Includes a glossary of judicial terms, explanations of types and categories of indictable offences, trial procedures, verdicts, punishments and other topics)
http://217.154.230.218/NR/rdonlyres/958FFEF6-42D3-4484-A701-53AFCEC030E7/0/7SourcesforLondonCriminalsPCRMar2010.pdf (Guildhall Library: Old Bailey Sessions Papers and other printed sources for London Criminals)
www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/visiting-the-city/archives-and-city-history/guildhall-library/family-history/Pages/Sources-for-tracing-London-criminals.aspx (Guildhall Library: Sources for tracing London criminals)
http://217.154.230.218/NR/rdonlyres/3D1EB9E4-C733-474B-9678-FA8FEC4908A0/0/40SESSIONSRECORDSFORTHECITYOFLONDONANDSOUTHWARK.pdf (London Metropolitan Archives: Information Leaflet Number 40: Sessions Records for the City of London and Southwark)
www.cyndislist.com/prisons.htm (Links to relevant sources and resources)
http://vcp.e2bn.org (Victorian Crime and Punishment resources for crime and punishment in the 19th Century)
www.exclassics.com/newgate/ngintro.htm (Free download of the Newgate Calendar based chiefly on the Navarre Society 1926 edition)
http://blacksheepancestors.com/uk/prisons.shtml (Prisons, Prisoners & Convicts in the United Kingdom)
http://blacksheepancestors.com (Links to UK, US and Canadian criminal resources)
www.victorianweb.org/history/crime (Crime related essays covering Victorian England)
www.genuki.org.uk (information covering UK and Ireland including mugshots and prisoner lists)
http://homepage.ntlworld.com/hitch/gendocs/institute.html (Victorian London Public Institutions)
www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/index.html (Capital Punishment U.K.)
www.nas.gov.uk/guides/crime.asp (National Archives of Scotland Research Guide: Crime and Criminals)

Online Databases

Online Catalogues (Listing of online catalogues for the partial whereabouts of records including Access to Archives [A2A])
TNA Online Collections (Victorian prisoners' photograph albums 1872-1873. TNA Online Collections is produced by The National Archives and contains online access to indexes, transcriptions and digital images of some of the TNA's most important holdings. Searches are free but a fee is levied for each downloaded item. However downloads are free if used at TNA or the Society of Genealogists)
www.oldbaileyonline.org
(Old Bailey Proceedings Online: Online edition of the Old Bailey Proceedings containing accounts and calendars of trials held at London's central criminal court, equivalent to the assizes. Expect to find the names, address and occupations of the accused, the victims and witnesses as well as the names of judges and jurors. These are accounts of the trials written by journalists and are not public records. The contents of Old Bailey Online can also be searched at Connected Histories together with a number of other databases)
www.familysearch.org (Kent, Quarter Sessions and Court Files, 1600-1883: Browsable image collection comprising of order books, indictments, minute books. sessions rolls or files [including petitions, depositions, jury lists and examinations] as well as any other documents that were lodged with the clerk of the peace)
www.origins.net (London Poor Law Abstracts, 1581-1899. Genealogical Abstracts from the City of London Parochial Poor Law Records including Quarter Sessions and Quarter Sessions Appeals. These poor law abstracts contain a complete summary of the details contained within each entry and includes all details including names and places plus incidental information such as relationships and occupations where found in the original documents)
www.gloucestershire.gov.uk/archives (Gloucestershire Archives' Genealogical Database: Gaol calendars, 1815-1879)
www.batharchives.co.uk/what_we_hold/records_for_family_history/bath_ancestors_database.aspx
(Bath Record Office: Bath Ancestors Database: Quarter Sessions Court Minutes, 1785-1931)
www.ancestry.co.uk (Warwickshire Occupational and Quarter Session Records, 1662-1866. Produced in association with Warwickshire County Record Office)
www.ancestry.co.uk (Middlesex County Records - Calendar of the Sessions Books, 1690-1709. This book, originally published in 1905, is a calendar of the Sessions books for Middlesex County. This calendar serves as an index that notes volumes and pages where items can be found in the Session books at the London Metropolitan Archives)
www.ancestry.co.uk
(Dorset, England, Quarter Sessions Order Books, 1625-1905. This database contains records of the Quarter Sessions from the county of Dorset)
www.fhindexes.co.uk (Criminal Register Index)
www.british-history.ac.uk/catalogue.aspx?gid=114&type=2 (Middlesex Quarter Session transcripts, edited by William Le Hardy and John Jeaffreson)
www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=38828 (Online Hackney Petty Sessions Book 1730-1753, with index)
www.genhound.co.uk (Genhound: Hertfordshire Quarter Sessions: Minute Books, Rolls and Calendars 1719 to 1850; Hertfordshire calendar to the sessions minute books 1689-1831; Liberty of St Albans Quarter Sessions: Minute Books, Order Books, 1758 to 1840; Calendar to the Middlesex Quarter Sessions, 1603-1616; North Riding Quarter Sessions, 1750-1753; Lincolnshire, Kesteven, Quarter Sessions Minutes)
www.worcestershire.gov.uk/cms/community-and-living/records/search-our-records/online-indexes.aspx (Worcestershire Record Office - Online Indexes: Quarter Sessions index 1830, 1850-1852)
www.thegenealogist.co.uk
(Worcestershire Calendar of the Quarter Sessions, 1591-1643)
www.llgc.org.uk/sesiwn_fawr/index_s.htm (Index to the Gaol Files of the Court of Great Sessions in Wales, 1730-1830. The database contains information on criminals and their crimes and punishments as well as details on the victims. Records from less serious crimes heard at Quarter Sessions are held at county record offices and can be searched at Archives Wales. Monmouthshire formed part of the Oxford circuit and are available from The National Archives at Kew)
https://familysearch.org
(Wales, Court and Miscellaneous Records, 1542-1911. This collection contains browsable images of Court Records and Marriage Bonds from the National Library of Wales. Records include Consistory Court papers, Court records-Crown Books, Court records-gaol files, Marriage bonds and Memoranda of the Great Sessions)
http://vcp.e2bn.org (Prisoner records 1799-1898)
http://blacksheepancestors.com/uk (Online prisoner and execution lists) 
www.nas.gov.uk/guides/highCourt.asp (Online access to catalogued and indexed criminal trials held in the High Court of Justiciary in Scotland, 1800-1930)
http://digital.nls.uk/broadsides (National Library of Scotland Digital Gallery: The Word On The Street: Online collection of nearly 1,800 Scottish broadsides between 1650 and 1910)
http://broadsides.law.harvard.edu (Online collection of more than 500 broadsides)
www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/ballads/ballads.htm (Online collection of 30,000 broadside ballads)
www.staffsnameindexes.org.uk (Staffordshire Name Indexes, brought to you by Staffordshire & Stoke On Trent Archive Service: Calendars of Prisoners at Staffordshire Quarter Sessions, 1779-1880)
www.yorkcastleprison.org.uk/family-history.html (Database of almost 5000 convicted criminals imprisoned York Castle Prison 1700s. Includes transported criminals, Criminals executed and debtors who pleaded insolvency)
www.manchester-family-history-research.co.uk/new_page_18.htm (Manchester And Lancashire strays in Millbank Prison)
http://genuki.cs.ncl.ac.uk/DEV/CourtRecords/Prisoners.html (Calendars of Prisoners extracted from Devon Quarter Sessions, 1655-1882; transcribed by Brian Brassett)
www.ancestry.co.uk (Dorset Records: Jury Lists, 1825-1921)

CD Roms

www.midlandshistoricaldata.org (Worcestershire Quarter Sessions, 1591-1643)
Oxfordshire Family History Society (Oxfordshire Quarter Session summaries and calendars compiled by Canon Oldfield, 1687-1830)
Hertfordshire Family History Society (Hertfordshire Quarter Sessions 1588-1619)
Cambridgeshire Family History Society
(Cambridge Quarter Sessions 1733-1945)
Archive CD Books (Newgate Calendar)
Back to Roots (Surrey Quarter Sessions 1663-1666)
Peterborough & District Family History Society
(Index to Peterborough Quarter Sessions, Inquests & Workhouse Indentures)
Anguline Research Archives (North Riding of Yorkshire, Quarter Session Records Of the 17th and 18th Centuries, edited by the Rev. J. C. Atkinson)
Shropshire Family History Society (Shropshire Quarter Sessions Index 1830-1920)
www.genfair.co.uk
(East Sussex Quarter Sessions 1810-1854)
 
Check with local family history societies for transcriptions published on CD.