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