England Petty, Borough, and Quarter Sessions (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Court Records-Criminal, Civil and Ecclesiastical  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Petty, Borough and Quarter Sessions

These courts had judges (magistrates) and dispensed summary justice (that is, without juries). Higher level courts had juries and tried indictable offences (Martin 1994).

  • A summary offence is one that can only be tried summarily, that it before magistrates. Most minor offences are summary, and in 1855 summary jurisdiction for criminal offences became possible.
  • A summary conviction is a conviction in magistrates court.
  • An indictable offence is a serious one that may be tried by jury in a higher court than petty sessions.
  • An indictment is a formal document accusing one or more persons of a specified indictable offence or offences.

Petty Sessions

Petty sessions were minor courts presided over by two or more magistrates (JPs) and have been held in some, but not all, counties since Tudor times. They were open courts trying lesser offences and enquiring into (summary trials of) indictable ones, and are now called magistrates courts or police courts.

However in London the Police Courts are called the Metropolitan Courts and deal only with criminal cases, whilst the petty sessions handle administration and other cases (Bird).

Petty crimes included such things as poaching, stealing turnips, cutting wood, neighbourhood disputes, drunkenness, begging, alehouses staying open after hours, evasion of turnpike tolls, apprentices absconding and abandonment of families, workhouse rule infringement, and maintenance of bastards (Cole 1998a).

Since the petty sessions met frequently, perhaps every two weeks, these local matters were dealt with quickly and at the grass-roots level. By the 19th century the numbers of settlement and bastardy cases declined, but more poaching and drunkenness occurred. There were also new cases such as non-attendance at school, and under-age employment, and then bicycles and motoring offences.

Summons to Appear at Petty Session for Non-Payment of the
Poor Rate
Liberty of St. Peter, York 1834
Film 1545354
To Wit:
To Joseph Scott of the Township of Brotherton in the said Liberty.
We, whose names are hereunto set and seals affixed, two of his
Majesty’s Justices of the Peace in and for the said Liberty, do
hereby summon you personally to appear before us at the Hall of
in the said Liberty on Saturday the twelfth day of July instant
at the hour of twelve in the forenoon of the same day, to shew
cause why you refuse to pay the sum of Four pounds four shillings
and ninepence
duly rated and assessed upon you in the rate or assessment made for the relief of the poor of the said parish for this present year; otherwise we shall proceed as if you had appeared.
Given under our hands and seals the fifth day of July in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirty four.
[signed] Danson R. Currer
Robt Sutton

Records were kept by the clerk of the peace but survival of the 17th-18th century ones is not good, but occasionally a journal or private papers of a clerk of the peace or magistrate have survived and can be utilized instead. Petty session minutes are available at county archives and much has been filmed and can be found in the FamilySearch Catalog under COUNTY - PLACE - COURT RECORDS.

Some minutes have been transcribed and published, for example for the Surrey hundreds of Copthorne and Effingham 1784-1793 (Webb 1989), and the Marlborough, Wiltshire petty sessions (Cole 1998a). Indexes are appearing as well, for example for the Sevenoaks, Kent petty sessions 1812-1850.

Borough Sessions

The equivalent of the hundreds’ petty sessions for the boroughs, which were towns administered by a corporation and having privileges confirmed by royal charter of defined by statute, were the borough sessions. The mayor of a corporation was normally the ex officio Justice of the Peace for the borough. The situation is variable in different places, though, since there may have been several courts operating within one borough, each with its limited purview, such as a manorial court leet, a mayor’s court, a court of orphans, of conscience and requests, one for gaol delivery and a pie-powder (market) court all in addition to the Sessions of the Peace.

In the borough of Great Torrington, Devon film 1526359 the 1769 sessions are confusingly called the General Quarter Sessions of the Peace and Leet and Law Day of our Lord the King. Presiding were John Coplestone mayor and Daniel Johnson justice, with two aldermen (John Palmer and Isaac Williams), two capital burgesses (Thomas Moore and Theophilus Heles) and the steward Thomas Bolton in attendance.

Fourteen jurors were listed and sworn and a motley assemblage of cases were heard, for example:

These jurors present Mr Nathaniel Isaac Greenslade, Miss Claps
and Andrew Gorwill for keeping trade and not being free [i.e. plying their trades without being freemen of the borough].
John Atkinson for a dangerous trapdoor in the street ...
Several recognizances for selling ale were given.

Thomas Bolton gave a certificate for having received the sacrament and taken the oaths of allegiance, supremacy and abjuration, and made the declaration against transubstantiation.

On 1 Oct 1798 appointments were made of constables, supervisor of the market, pig drivers, scavengers, searchers and sealers of leather, and aletasters.
Also the bakers of the borough and town were presented for forestalling the markets (making unlawful profits).

On 2 Oct 1809 many people were presented for bad pavements and
William Cole the pig driver for suffering the pigs to ruin the streets; and Henry Grant for neglecting to ring the bell evenings at eight o’clock according to ancient custom

Quarter Sessions

King’s Lynn, Norfolk borough sessions in 1838 film 1911840 are called the General Quarter Sessions of the Peace and of Gaol Delivery and contain:

A theatrical license for James Smith of the Norwich Company to
perform tragedies, comedies etc in The New Theatre.
Appointments of coroners, gaoler, sergeants at mace and constables.
Indictments for:
Samuel Gooderich stealing a sack of bran, and
Samuel Fisher for willful perjury.
Daniel Wright was ordered to keep the peace towards all and
especially towards Susan his wife.

Borough court records

Borough court records may be found at the town hall, often with no full-time archivist in charge of them, but many have been deposited at the county record office or county library. On the FamilySearch Catalog look under COUNTY-PLACE-COURT RECORDS. Other examples of filmed borough court records include:

Some transcribed and indexed records are available as well, for example:

  • Depositions relating to Americans 1641-1736 in the Lord Mayor’s court of London by Coldham (1980).
  • Portsmouth Borough Session Papers 1653-1688 by Willis and Hoad.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Court Records-Criminal, Civil and Ecclesiastical offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.