The Quarter Session Registers are a treasure trove of historical information that provide insight into the judicial and administrative activities of English counties over several centuries. These records offer a unique window into the social, economic, and legal aspects of the past. Quarter Sessions were local courts in England that played a crucial role in the administration of justice and the governance of counties. These sessions were held quarterly, hence the name, and were presided over by Justices of the Peace. The Quarter Sessions had a wide range of responsibilities, including overseeing local law and order, granting licences for various activities and administering welfare for the poor. The registers were kept to document and manage these activities.
The practice of keeping Quarter Session Registers dates back to the late medieval period, with some registers dating as far back as the 16th century. These records were meticulously maintained and offer a comprehensive view of local life through the centuries. Though the contents vary between counties and across different time periods, they are an invaluable resource for historians, genealogists, and anyone interested in understanding the evolution of English society.
Warrants, arrests and maimed soldiers
Warrants and Recognizances were often dealt with by the Justices of the Peace. Warrants were issued for the arrest of individuals accused of crimes, while recognizances were bonds or pledges made by individuals to ensure they would appear in court. The people on whom these instruments of justice were being applied were generally in the early stages of their exposure to the criminal justice system before they were sent up to higher courts to be tried.
Dealing with matters of Poor Relief can be seen to have made up a large part of the work brought before the Quarter Sessions. The information in these records includes the names of recipients, the reasons for their poverty, and the type and amount of assistance provided. There were many examples of allowances being paid to maimed soldiers, of which there were many after the Civil War. Here we can see an example that comes from the Shropshire Register VOL. I.—1638—1708, and it was found within the latest release of records from TheGenealogist:
Justices at the Quarter Session could find themselves involved in cases of what was then known as Bastardy. This was because having a child out of wedlock was treated as an offence against the Poor Law. The Parish where the mother and child resided would be very keen not to have to support an illegitimate child from its rates. The putative father would be found and then brought before the Justices of the Peace where the court would make him agree to pay for the upkeep of his child. While this seems fair, it also transpires that the Justices of the Peace may additionally seek to punish the mother. She may find herself being sent to the House of Correction for up to a year for having had a child without the support of a husband as happened in the case of Isobel Worrall and William Compton. Taken from the Manchester Sessions for October 1620, we read:
Apprenticeships, Licences and send them home
Records of apprenticeship indentures are also commonly found in Quarter Session Registers. These documents provide details about the terms of apprenticeships, the parties involved, and the skills being taught, offering insights into vocational training even if the English is hard to read in this example from Somerset:
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The example above additionally touches upon Licencing matters, for which the Quarter Sessions were also responsible. The Justices issued licences for a variety of activities, including alehouses, gaming, and peddling. These licences were recorded in the registers, offering information about the regulation of trades and entertainment and in the case of people who didn’t have a licence, the orders made against them.
Settlement examinations were often conducted to determine a person’s place of legal settlement. This was because that would determine their eligibility for poor relief in one parish or the need to return them to the place where they were legally settled to become that parish’s problem. These records often contain information about an individual’s origins and family connections. When we look in the Quarter Session Register for Shropshire VOL. I.—1638—1708 we are able to see this example:
Venomous Witches Vehemently Suspected!
A fascinating set of entries, especially as we near halloween at the time that this article is being written, are those dealing with so-called witches. Browsing through the 17th century records for Wiltshire we come across a report from 1624 from the Hundred of Mere:
Moving forward to the year 1653 and reported witches were found in Devizes.
At the same Quarter Sessions Elizabeth Beeman, of Devizes, is indicted for bewitching Margery Bowman with her case being transferred to the next Assizes.
Some decades later, in 1670, there was a case of a woman from Latton brought before the Quarter Sessions suspected of having a witch’s mark on her.
Nothing more concerning than this case of “Witch finding” appears in the rolls. The close of the 17th century showed a rapid falling off in the number of trials of witches, and at the time of the above incidents of witchcraft were exceedingly rare. The Justices of the Peace had grown very reluctant to send accused witches to the Assizes, and the Judges were more careful in such trials, as the belief in witchcraft declined.
English Quarter Session Registers are an invaluable resource for historians, genealogists, and researchers interested in delving into the past. These records provide a comprehensive view of local life, including crime, justice, regulation, and welfare, and offer a glimpse into the evolution of English society over the centuries. Their preservation and accessibility are essential for understanding the rich tapestry of history that has shaped the modern world. As we continue to study and appreciate these remarkable documents, they remain a testament to the enduring importance of record-keeping and the preservation of our collective heritage.