My first archive job was as a cataloguer on a project to make the 19th century Quarter Sessions records for the county accessible. Two of us shared the task and we both realised quite quickly that it was the best job we would ever have. What we found in the records was by turns fascinating, moving, mind-boggling, and just plain funny. Every day we learned something new or uncovered something surprising. By the time we finished we had learned an extraordinary amount about both Victorian crime and life in general.
The Quarter Sessions were court sittings held, as the name implies, once a quarter. They were the middle tier court between the Assizes, which tried the most severe crimes, and the Petty Sessions, which tried petty crime such as drunkenness, poaching and petty theft. Everything else went to the Quarter Sessions, with offences ranging from theft to assault, embezzlement, passing counterfeit coin, burglary and riot. For each case sent to the Quarter Sessions the local magistrates collected “depositions” (witness statements) from everyone involved, and an “examination” of the accused. These depositions and examinations were what made the Quarter Sessions records so special. They were extraordinarily detailed, with lots of incidental description relating to life and society in 19th century England. Much of the time they were written in such a way that it was almost possible to hear the voice of the accused or the “deponent” (witness). In addition to the depositions there were indictments (the formal charge in a case), lists of prisoners, returns of convictions, and various other incidental records. The Quarter Sessions in the early and mid-19th century also dealt with other matters, ranging from the diversion of roads to appeals in bastardy cases.
The variety of cases was extraordinary. There was the man charged with stealing a jar of rum which he claimed “fell” off the back of a cart; there was a sailor’s stolen parrot; there was a dog named Old Sailor which was killed, butchered and sold as goat meat; there was a theft of meat and beer from a pub by men on a “night out” from the workhouse; and there was a riot involving a young man in the stocks, a gun, a barrel of beer, a brass band, and two frightened policemen. Some of the criminals themselves were unforgettable, such as the two men stole legs of mutton from a butcher’s shop, hoping to be transported to Australia (they were). There were also the career criminals who turned up in court repeatedly. Our favourite was a man with a wooden arm – think Captain Hook – who first appeared in his early twenties charged with stealing a one-eyed sheep, and was still stealing in his mid 60s when he resisted arrest so violently that it took a policeman an hour to subdue him; he only succeeded in doing so after first unscrewing the man’s hook and then, with help, removing his arm. In another case a man with two wooden legs was caught following a burglary due to his distinctive “footprints”. There is more than enough material to fill a book – maybe one day I will write one.
These GenGuide notes give more detail about the Quarter Sessions and their records, with links at the bottom to information about a number of other types of criminal records.