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Petty Sessions (Crime, Criminals & Courts)

Nature of Source

Records from local courts that mainly heard cases without a jury (summary jurisdiction). The court was presided over by one or more volunteer justices of the peace or stipendiary magistrates (later district judges) who were paid officials. Petty Sessions were the lowest tier in the court system and developed at the beginning of the 18th century to take on some of the work previously undertaken by the Quarter Sessions. The session's work dealt with matters such as minor theft and larceny, assault, drunkenness, bastardy examinations, arbitration and deciding whether to refer a case to the Quarter Sessions. From 1872, they were also responsible for approving licences to sell alcohol in ale houses and public houses. The areas or divisions under the jurisdiction of the petty sessions were based on the old administrative units known as Hundreds. Petty Sessions were abolished in the early 1970s and replaced by Magistrates Courts.

The survival rate of records is poor but increases after 1848 when Petty Session records had to be passed to the Quarter Sessions.

Those appearing in court included:

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)

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)

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

Also see
Assize Records
Calendars of Prisoners

Criminal Petitions
Criminal Registers
General Eyre
License Registers/'tickets of leave'
Prison/Hulk/Gaol Registers
Quarter Session Records
Registers of Habitual Criminals
Transported Convicts

Where Found

Period Covered

1700 - 1974

Genealogical Value

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

Further References

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

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Bard, Robert. Death in London: Places of Execution, Then and Now: Historical Publications, 2007 Buy Now on Amazon

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

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

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Brandon, David & Brooke. Alan. Olde London Punishments: The History Press (30 April 2010 Buy Now on Amazon

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

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Campbell, Charles. The Intolerable Hulks: British Shipboard Confinement 1776-1857 Fenestra Books, 2001

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Decharne, Max. Capital Crimes : Seven Centuries of London Life and Murder: Arrow Books, 2013

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Emsley, Clive. Crime and Society in England: 1750-1900: Routledge, 2010 Buy Now on Amazon
Emsley, Clive. Crime and Society in Twentieth Century England: Routledge, 2011 Buy Now on Amazon

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

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

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

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Hawkings, David. Bound for Australia: A Guide to the Records of Transported Convicts and Early Settlers: The History Press, 2012

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Herber, Mark. Criminal London: A Pictorial History from Medieval Times to 1939: Phillimore & Co, 2002

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

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

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

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

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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)


Marson, Edward. Prison: Five Hundred Years of Life Behind Bars: The National Archives, 2009  Buy Now on Amazon

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

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

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Moir, Esther. The Justice of the Peace: British Institutions: Penguin Books, 1969  Buy Now on Amazon
Oates, Dr Jonathan. Tracing Villains and Their Victims: A Guide for Family Historians: Pen and Sword Books, 2017
Paley, Ruth & Fowler, Simon. Family Skeletons: Exploring The Lives of our Disreputable Ancestors: The National Archives, 2005 Buy Now on Amazon
Reake, Janet. How to Trace Your Convict Ancestors: Their Lives, Times and Records: Hale & Iremonger, 1999 Buy Now on Amazon

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

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

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Wade, Stephen. Tracing Your Criminal Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians: Pen & Sword Books, 2009

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

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

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

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TNA Research Guides

Websites (TNA Guide: Looking for records of crime and punishment) (TNA Guide: Looking for a person, Criminals, bankrupts and litigants)
(TNA Guide: Looking for records of crime and punishment)
Your Archives Guide (Calendars of Prisoners, Prison Registers and Prison Returns in The National Archives) (Descriptions of London places and buildings including prisons) (Manchester Court  Records) (Guide and links relating to records and sources for researching criminal cases) (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) (Guildhall Library: Sources for Tracing London Criminals including Old Bailey Sessions Papers, Accounts of the Ordinary of Newgate, the British Trials microfiche and the Criminal Register Indexes) (Researching Crime) (British Library Learning, Victorians: Crime including Victorian Prisons and Executions and Transportations) (Links to relevant sources and resources) (Victorian Crime and Punishment resources for crime and punishment in the 19th Century) (Free download of the Newgate Calendar based chiefly on the Navarre Society 1926 edition) (Prisons, Prisoners & Convicts in the United Kingdom) (Links to UK, US & Canadian criminal resources) (Crime related essays covering Victorian England) (information covering UK & Ireland including mugshots & prisoner lists) (Capital Punishment U.K.) (National Archives of Scotland Research Guide: Crime and Criminals)

Online Databases (Prisoner records 1799-1898) (Online Hackney Petty Sessions Book 1730-1753, with index) (Genhound: Hertfordshire Petty Sessions: Calendar to the Sessions Books)
(Genhound: Hertfordshire: Vagrants' Convictions and Passes, 1816-1820)
(Dorset Records: Vagrant Passes, 1739-1791) (Lancashire, Vagrant Passes, 1801-1835 This collection includes lists of people being transported back to their place of settlement in Ireland. Individual records include the name of the vagrant, date shipped, description, whether accompanied by a wife and children, number of passes per family, allowances and expenses and the name of the ship. In some cases, they also listed the parish from which the vagrant was passed) (Irish Petty Sessions Court Registers 1828-1912: Records from the lowest courts in the country which dealt with the vast bulk of legal cases both civil and criminal. The originals records are held at the National Archives of Ireland) (Irish Prison Registers 1790-1924. In 1822 there were 178 prisons in Ireland. These records cover 3,127,598 prisoners who spent time there between 1790 and 1924)
(Gloucestershire, England, Prison Records, 1728-1914) (National Library of Scotland Digital Gallery: The Word On The Street: Online collection of nearly 1,800 Scottish broadsides between 1650 and 1910) (Online collection of more than 500 broadsides) (Online collection of 30,000 broadside ballads) (Online access to catalogued and indexed criminal trials held in the High Court of Justiciary, 1800-1930) (Transcribed data covering 40 square miles around Wirksworth and Matlock, Derbyshire. Data sets include Parish Records 1600-1900, Derbyshire Wills 1525-1928, census returns, Petty sessions, Memorial Inscriptions, Board of Guardians, Hearth Tax and others) (City of Exeter Police Charge Book, Sep 1847-21 Feb 1849; transcribed by Brian Brassett)

CD Roms

Archive CD Books (Newgate Calendar)