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An Introduction to Quarter Sessions Records


Contributed by Richard Ratcliffe

Quarter Sessions records are the oldest public records of the historic counties of England and Wales that survive. In some counties they survive from the 15th century through to 1972 when the Quarter Sessions were replaced by Crown Courts, but in most counties records survive from at least the 17th century through to 1972.

Quarter Sessions records can be found in County Record Offices, the British Library and smaller City and Town Record Offices. They have been largely ignored by family and local historians despite the publication of excellent guides to their contents by County Record Offices and County Record Societies. Many of these guides can now be found on the Internet via the Access to Archives [A2A] website or on the websites of the County Record Offices.

A comprehensive list of holdings at County Record Offices and other depositories can be found in Quarter Sessions Records for Family Historians [Fifth Edition 2007] by Jeremy Gibson, published by the Family History Partnership.

To discover what business was transacted at the Quarter Sessions for a particular County/City/Town, the researcher should start by checking the Sessions Minute Books. These books which are also known as Sessions Books, Order Books or Court Books contain a summary of the business that had been transacted. They show that the Quarter Sessions dealt with administrative cases as well as judicial cases.

Among the administrative records it is possible to find papers relating to the following subjects

  • Alehouse Licences
  • Traders’ weights and measures
  • Dissenters’ Meeting Houses
  • Printing Presses
  • Mad Houses
  • Registration of Boats and Barges on navigable rivers and canals
  • Aliens' Certificates
  • Supervision of Highways
  • Supervision of the Elizabethan Poor Law:
    • Overseers of the Poor Appointments
    • Parish Constables’ Appointments
  • Surveyors of the Highways
  • Apprenticeship Indentures
  • Control of Animal Disease
  • Supervision of Gaols and Houses of Correction
  • Supervision of Registered Charities
  • Gamekeepers’ Depositions
  • Lists of Jurors to serve at Assizes and Quarter Sessions
  • Supervision of Parliamentary Elections
  • Supervision of Public Undertakings
  • County Constabulary Records
  • Local Militia Lists
  • Lists of Deputy Coroners
  • Wages for Farm Servants
  • Hair Powder Certificates
  • Insolvent Debtors
  • Corn Tax
  • Hearth Tax
  • Dog Tax
  • Gun Tax

Many of the administrative duties were introduced during Tudor times and were brought in by the Poor Law Act of 1597 and 1601.

The main business of the Quarter Sessions was dealing with judicial matters. The main cases included:

  • Offences against Bye-Laws and Licensing Laws
  • Non-payment of Tithes and Taxes
  • Offences against the Poor Laws:
    • Bastardy Orders
    • Maintenance problems
    • Vagrancy
    • Settlement and Removal problems
  • Coroners’ Reports on Inquests
  • Crimes designated as felonies including:
    • Burglary
    • Highway Robbery
    • Horse Stealing
    • Cattle Stealing
    • Wounding or maiming Cattle
    • Sheep Stealing
    • Stealing Fowls and Ducks
    • Breaking down fences, hedges, gates, stiles, posts and railings
    • Pound breaking
    • Trespass and threatening Gamekeepers
    • Destroying any Wagon, Cart or Plough
    • Destroying grain and root crops
    • Robbing orchards and gardens
    • Murder
    • Manslaughter
    • Assault [especially on Parish Constables]
    • Rape
    • Theft of clothes
    • Theft of Furniture
    • Eavesdropping
  • Other records may include:
    • Calendars of Prisoners
    • Punishment Orders
    • Policeman’s Journals
    • Debts owing to Keepers of Houses of Correction
    • Transportation Orders

Local Newspapers, some of which date from the middle of the 18th century, are sources which should be checked in parallel with Quarter Sessions papers. These often include detailed reports of judicial cases tried at the sessions and are much easier to read than some of the handwritten case papers. A selected list of local newspapers that survive from 1750 onwards and can be found in the British Library Newspapers Library, in County Record Offices and Local Studies Libraries can be found in Local Newspapers 1750-1920 [Second edition 2002] by Jeremy Gibson et al, published by FFHS Publications but now available from the Family History Partnership.

Other useful references are:

  • Basic Facts About Quarter Session Records by Richard Ratcliffe [ISBN 1 86006 206 3], published by FFHS Publications, 2007
  • Coroners' Records in England and Wales [Third Edition 2009] by Jeremy Gibson and Colin Rogers, [ISBN 978 1 906280 13 0] published by the Family History Partnership.
  • Poor-Law Union Records – All by Jeremy Gibson and others:
    • Volume 1: South-East England and East Anglia [Second Edition 2005] ISBN 1 86006 038 2.

    • Volume 2: The Midlands and Northern England [Third Edition 2008] ISBN 978 1 906280 10 9.
    • Volume 3: South-West England, The Marches and Wales [Second Edition 2004] ISBN 1 86006 040 4.
    • Volume 4: Gazetteer of England and Wales [Second Edition 1997] ISBN 1 86006 062 5.
  • Land and WIndow Tax Assessments [Second Edition 2004] by Jeremy Gibson, Mervyn Medlycott and Dennis Mills, [ISBN 1 86006 054 4].

N.B All these publications can be obtained from the Family History Partnership.


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