I. Historical Background:
Quarter Session includes civil and criminal proceedings covering a time frame from c.1350 to 1971 when the court system was reorganized. Information provided is diverse but generally gives names, dates, places, and sometimes relationships. Some of these records are available in print, some on microfilm, and at County Record Offices.
Quarter Sessions were held in each county with the exception of Middlesex. The court for Middlesex was jointly held with the City of Westminster. It must be kept in mind that certain towns and cities had the right to hold separate borough or city Sessions as well.
Because of the heavy work load for the regular Quarter Sessions to handle, in the 15th century, various statutes gave Justices authority to meet in divisions of each county, six weeks before the Quarter Sessions to deal with minor matters. These in between courts became known as Petty Sessions.
There was a Clerk of the Peace appointed to keep the records generated by Quarter Sessions. The surviving records as mentioned above are at County Record Offices or in City and borough archives.
The records of the Quarter Sessions are many and varied. Following are some of the types of records included.
- Order Books contain court orders relating to cases heard by Justices as well as some Information also found in the Sessions rolls, explained below, such as juror’s lists, calendars of prisoners and petitions.
- Sessions Rolls contain examinations of suspects and witnesses taken before Justices prior to the Sessions themselves. They also contain draft orders, letters to the Clerk or Justices, petitions, memoranda, and bastardy orders. In summary, Quarter Sessions Rolls are bundles of all the paperwork created by one sitting of the court. Original presentments, witness statements, etc. may be found in the rolls.
- Indictment Rolls were normally small parchment slips giving the charges being brought against the accused. Also these records have lists of Justices and jurors, presentments at Assizes and recognizance’s.
- Recognizance Rolls consist of bonds and those found in Quarter Sessions are mostly of Alehouse Keepers. The keepers and their sureties had to promise to keep order in their establishments and the promise was secured with a bond.
The Quarter Sessions were responsible for local government before the creation of County Councils.
Quarter Sessions were charged to administer Acts of Parliament relating to national security. The Test Act of 1673 stated that anyone holding public office had to be members of the Church of England and proof was supplied by the minister and church wardens to the effect that the official had taken communion. Finally, private companies that contracted do public services for the local communities were required to deposit their accounts with the Quarter Sessions.
As previously stated most records were deposited with the County Record Office. The Family History Library has microfilmed many of these records and they are accessible through a visit to the library or to a family history center. It should be noted that the records are in English.