England Quarter Session Records (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 ($).

Quarter Sessions

Gibson states that the Quarter Sessions records are the oldest and main collections of public records belonging to the historic counties of England and Wales, having started in 1361. The sheer variety of material covered amazes anyone who delves into them. The functions of the Quarter Sessions can be broadly divided into two types, although these were by no means distinct until the 19th century:

County Administration

  • Appointments, salaries, fees, allowances, dismissals etc. of county officials.
  • Coroners reports and accounts.
  • County gaols and convict transportation.
  • Elections and voters’ lists.
  • Enclosure of land and deed, awards and agreements about land.
  • Licensing of various trades, non-conformist meeting houses, lunatic asylums, societies, charities, savings banks, printing presses, boats and barges etc., any of which may have been hived off to local licensing courts.
  • Militia recruitment training and billeting, also volunteers and navy recruitment and militia storehouses.
  • Regulating wages, rates for carriage and prices of staple goods, with establishment of positions such as the inspectors of weights and measures
  • Roads, bridges, and turnpike trusts.
  • Taxation, for example hearth tax, poor rates and land tax assessments.
  • Various oaths for conformity and allegiance.

In 1888 the county councils took the administrative load off the Quarter Sessions but the latter retained their licensing functions.

Judicial cases

By the 17th century many of the semi-secular cases formerly heard in church court went to the county Quarter Sessions. These included the huge amount of business generated by the Poor Laws. Records include:

  • Zillions of settlements, removals, vagrancy papers and poor apprenticeships records of which may not survive in individual parish chests.
  • Bastardy orders and dealing with delinquent fathers.
  • Offences against licensing laws and by-laws.
  • Non-payment of tithes and taxes.
  • Coroners’ reports and inquests.
  • A wide variety of other crimes. Until 1820 the Quarter Sessions dealt with about 200 felonies, the most common are listed below.

Chart: Crimes Treated as Felonies

Assault, especially on constables Manslaughter
Breaking hedges and fences Murder
Burglary Poultry stealing
Cattle stealing Rape
Damaging wagons, carts or ploughs Robbing a garden or orchard
Destroying grain or root crops Sheep stealing
Eavesdropping Theft of clothes
Highway robbery Theft of furniture
Horse stealing Wounding or maiming of cattle

An index is available for Sussex Quarter Sessions criminal convictions 1810-1854 on films 1657818-21. I found five Jupps and the index gives surname, first name, residence, occupation, age, place of offence, victim, court, date, case number, document reference, plea, committing magistrate, offence, sentence and any comments.

Cases were referred from local petty and borough sessions, where they existed, and the Quarter Sessions heard disputes and claims regarding everything from apprenticeships and soldiers’ pensions to public nuisances. Many types of cases were routed to the new police courts during the 19th century but Quarter Session continued to sit as criminal courts for non-capital offences until 1971. Almost anything can be found in Quarter Sessions since they encompass most human failings. However, capital offences such as murder and treason usually went to the Assizes, and divorce, international relations, probate, and shipwrecks at sea went to special courts.

Court Procedure

Court procedure, and associated records, consist of:

  • Jury lists for each session.
  • Indictment, accusation or presentment of a complaint—which could be from the constables, overseers or any private person.
  • Jury decides whether there was enough evidence for a case (a true bill) or not (no true bill).
  • Examination of the accused and witnesses by two JPs, their statements being recorded as depositions.
  • If the accused pleaded guilty then he could be sentenced immediately. If he pleaded not guilty then he would go to gaol unless he could find two bondsmen to give a financial recognizance (typically £20-40, about a year’s wages for a labourer). The names and residences of the bondsmen, who were often fathers or brothers can be important clues to the accused’s family and provenance.
    The court also required recognizances from the prosecutors and witnesses to appear and pursue the case. These people were paid their expenses, and those who brought criminals to justice by hanging received a coveted Tyburn ticket. This exempted them from future parish duties and was a saleable item (but only once) -see an actual example in Cole (2001d).
  • The verdict of the court and the sentence given if found guilty.
Coventry Quarter Sessions 1822 Film 1067656
The indictment files show papers concerning the case of grand larceny against Lucy Faulconbridge brought by John Day. If the prosecutor did not show up then the magistrates could dismiss the case. However when the time came for this trial two deponents certify on 14 Oct 1822 that John Day cannot attend because he has been dangerously ill of an affliction of the head for upwards of three weeks now last past..... and that the wife of the said John Day was this morning delivered of a male child and is consequently unable to leave her bed.
Where else can you find such family detail?

The general records of Quarter Sessions include:

  • Sessions Minute Books which are the summaries of the events of each session, which lead to -
  • Sessions Rolls which include the evidence presented for each case which is where the real gems are. They are often grouped together for each case with a leather string punched right through the middle of the pieces of parchment or paper!
  • Order Booksinclude the court’s decisions on every item of court business, see Hunt for a description.

Separate records frequently exist for specific types of administration or cases such as indictment rolls, fines, or recognizances.

McLaughlin (Quarter Sesssions: Your Ancestor and the Law. Varneys Press, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, 1995) has a worthwhile and amusing introduction to Quarter Session records, and Brown speaks about the history of Quarter Sessions with examples from Surrey. Barlow’s (Passion, Violence and Petty Squabbles: Hampshire Quarter Sessions 1778-1786. Family Tree Magazine. Part I in Vol 20 #10, page 24-26; Part 2 in Vol 20 #11, page 20-22; Part 3 in Vol 20 #12, page 60-62; Part 4 in Vol 21 #1, page 77-79) fascinating series of articles on the Hampshire Quarter Sessions 1778-1786 is a thoughtful assessment of the court process and the times with good examples.

Cameron’s (The Middlesex Quarter Sessions. Genealogists’ Magazine Vol 10 #1, page 1-7) article on the Middlesex Quarter Sessions dates from 1947 but still contains some useful historical data. Ratcliffe (An Introduction to Quarter Sessions Records. Metropolitan (London and North Middlesex Family History Society) Vol 19 #3, page 146-149) and Chapman (Quarter Session Records. Practical Family History #11 page 7, 1998) have historical introductions. Gibson (Quarter Sessions Records for Family Historians. Federation of Family History Societies, 1995) provides a county-by-county listing of the material of most use to family historians, although it must be noted that he concentrates on pre-1850 records and later material is plentiful as well. County record offices were primarily set up to house and preserve these session records so they usually have them well catalogued.

Nominal indexes do exist for whole sessions but these may only refer to the main names such as the plaintiffs and defendants. Some examples include:

  • Surrey Quarter Sessions papers 1700-1799 nominal index on fiche 6036505(3), place index on 6036506(3).
  • Shropshire Quarter Sessions (including the petty sessions) 1831-1920 index is on CD available from the county society, and on the Discovering Shropshire’s History website . Powell has used it to good advantage.
  • Hertfordshire Quarter Sessions 1833-1843 by Le Hardy (1957).
  • East Sussex Quarter Sessions 1810-1854 by the Friends of the East Sussex Record Office.


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.