- The origins of the Justices of the Peace lie in the temporary appointments of 'conservators' or 'keepers' of the peace made at various times of unrest between the late twelfth century and the fourteenth century. In 1361 the 'Custodis Pacis' were merged with the Justices of Labourers, and given the title Justices of the Peace and a commission (see MJP). The Commission (of the Peace) gave them the power to try offences in their courts of Quarter Sessions, appointed them to conserve the peace within a stated area, and to enquire on the oaths of "good and lawfull men" into "all manner of poisonings, enchantments, forestallings, disturbances, abuses of weights and measures" and many other things, and to "chastise and punish" anyone who had offended against laws made in order to keep the peace.
The cases which the justices originally dealt with were offences which could not be dealt with by the manorial court (i.e. misdemeanours), but which were less serious than those which went to the Assize Judges (i.e. felonies). Misdemeanours included breaches of the peace - assault, rioting, defamation, minor theft, vagrancy, lewd and disorderly behaviour, and offences against the licensing laws. In 1388 a statute laid down that the court sessions should meet four times a year (hence the name 'Quarter Sessions'): Epiphany, Easter, Trinity (midsummer) and Michaelmas (autumn) - two or more justices (one at least from the quorum) were to decide exactly where and when. The Middlesex justices were also empowered to try the more serious cases (including those from Westminster) under the Commissions of Oyer and Terminer and Gaol Delivery normally given to the Assize Judges, but these cases were heard at the Old Bailey Sessions House (see MJ/GB and OB).
The judicial process began even before the sessions opened with examinations being taken by the magistrates once the crime had been reported by the constable, the injured party or a common informant. The accused could then be bailed to keep the peace or to appear at the next sessions, be remanded in gaol before a trial, or acquitted. Once the sessions had opened there was still an examination by a Grand Jury as to whether there was a case to answer, before the trial proper could get underway.
During the sixteenth century the work of the Quarter Sessions and the justices was extended to include administrative functions for the counties. These were wide ranging and included maintenance of structures such as bridges, gaols and asylums; regulating weights, measures, prices and wages, and, probably one of their biggest tasks, enforcing the Poor Law. The dependence of the justices on officials like the sheriff, the constables, and the Clerk of the Peace to help them carry out their functions (both judicial and administrative) cannot be underestimated. As their workload grew, particularly during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, more help was needed and there was an increase in the number of officers appointed for specific tasks, and committees for specific purposes were set up. Another solution for dealing with increased judicial business was (by an Act of Parliament passed in 1819) to allow the justices to divide in order that two courts could sit simultaneously (see MJ/SB/B and MJ/SB/C); and the Middlesex Criminal Justice Act of 1844 decreed that there should be at least two Sessions of the Peace each month, and also that a salaried assistant judge (a barrister of at least ten years experience in the Middlesex Commission) should be appointed.
The bulk of the administrative work was carried out on one specific day during the court's sitting known as the County Day (see MJ/O, MJ/SP and MA). By the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was clear that the Quarter Session's structure was unable to cope with the administrative demands on it, and it lost a lot of functions to bodies set up specifically to deal with particular areas - the most important of these was the Poor Law, reformed in 1834. By the end of the century, when the Local Government Act of 1889 established county councils, the sessions had lost all their administrative functions. The judicial role of the Quarter Sessions continued until 1971, when with the Assize courts they were replaced by the Crown Courts.
Alongside the aforementioned functions of the Quarter Sessions, was its role as the place of registration and deposit for official non-sessions records, which needed to be certified and available for inspection (see MR).
Much of the routine judicial and administrative work during the period covered by the existing records was carried out by small groups of justices. This was done outside the main court sittings by the justices in their local areas - usually within a Hundred division. Special Sessions were held for purposes such as licensing alehouses (Brewster Sessions), or to organise the repair of the highways. More common were the meetings of one or two justices in what became known as petty sessions and which dealt with issues such as rating, granting of licences, the appointment of parish officers, and the examination of witnesses and suspects prior to the start of the next sessions. Increasingly here the justices also began to determine cases involving minor offences and exercise 'summary jurisdiction'.
The inconvenience of using their own homes for this work, and the need for the public to know where magistrates would be available led to the setting up of 'public offices'. The first one was in Bow Street, Westminster from about 1727. Following this example, in 1763 Middlesex set up three such offices in the divisions of Ossulstone Hundred nearest to the centre of London. Here two (paid - stipendary) justices would sit each day on an hourly rota basis. Not until 1792 was the system officially established by an Act of Parliament, when seven more public offices were set up in Westminster and Middlesex. The Bow Street office, (under John Fielding, and his brother Henry, the novelist, both magistrates for Westminster), had introduced paid constables as early as 1756, and each new public office from 1792 had six constables of their own; these were the forerunners of the Metropolitan Police as introduced by an Act of 1829. In 1828 all courts of Quarter Sessions were allowed to create within their county, divisions for petty sessions, thus formalising any earlier informal arrangements. Although there are occasional references to early petty and special session meetings in the main records (this collection), the class of records concerned with such sessions (see MSJ) covers mainly the nineteenth century.
The County of Middlesex stretched along the north bank of the River Thames from the River Colne in the west to the River Lea in the east, excluding the City of London, and including the City of Westminster (although separate sessions were held here between 1618 - 1844) (see WJ). It is misleading to refer to the sessions in Middlesex as Quarter Sessions since in theory they were only to be held twice a year, rather than four times a year as was usual in other counties. By an Act of 1456 the county was permitted to hold only two sessions, because it was felt unreasonable to expect the local population to bear the cost of the whole panoply of justices, officers and constables which accompanied each sitting, when they were also having to service the other major courts in the capital. However, the level of crime in the county increased the need for more court sittings, and the court sat in adjourned sessions for, effectively, most of the year.
Separate Westminster Quarter Sessions ceased in 1844, when they became part of the Middlesex court sittings, held 'by adjournment' following the end of the latter, and involving a physical move (adjournment) to the Westminster Sessions House. Thus the Westminster records came to be kept with those for Middlesex.
Until the seventeenth century the Middlesex court met in the Castle Inn near Smithfield, which was replaced in 1612 by a new sessions house built in Saint John's Street, at the expense of a leading justice, Sir Baptist Hicks. Essentially only a wooden building, Hicks Hall, as it was known, was demolished in 1782, a new sessions house having been built on Clerkenwell Green in 1779, and also known as Hicks Hall. In 1889 following the reduction in size of the County of Middlesex, the sessions moved to the Westminster Guildhall in Broad Sanctuary. When this building proved too small for the amount of work carried out there, a new Middlesex Guildhall was built next to it and opened in 1913. The new County of London sessions continued to meet on Clerkenwell Green until 1919 when they moved to the former Surrey sessions house on Newington Causeway.
Until the sixteenth century prison was seen primarily as a place to remand before sentence, rather than as a place of punishment. From this date, houses of correction (or bridewells) were established in each county to house able-bodied vagrants, and also to reform them through the punishment of hard labour. Increasingly the justices sent petty offenders to these houses following their trials, and the overcrowding and poor conditions in them became notorious and widespread.
Originally Middlesex prisoners were kept in either of the City of London's gaols - Newgate or the Bridewell (near Blackfriars). In 1615 - 1616 a Middlesex Bridewell (also known as the Clerkenwell House of Correction) was built on a site between the present Corporation Row and Sans Walk (demolished in 1804). On the same site, adjacent and to the south of it, a House of Detention (for prisoners awaiting trial) was built in the late seventeenth century to ease the overcrowding in Newgate. This 'New Prison' was rebuilt in 1818, incorporating the site of the old Bridewell; and again in 1845; before being closed in 1877 and demolished in 1890, the Hugh Myddleton School being built on the site. A new Middlesex House of Correction had been built in 1794 in Coldbath Fields (on the present site of Mount Pleasant Post Office), and which was also closed in 1877, and demolished in 1889. Although debtors were one of the largest categories of prisoner, a separate gaol for them was not built in London until the beginning of the nineteenth century (in Whitecross Street); prior to this they were kept in Newgate.
The original "Guide to the Middlesex Sessions Records 1549 - 1889", E.D. Mercer, 1965 (LMA library ref: 60.32GRE), remains a good thorough introduction to the records, although it does omit and confuse some classes of records, and the descriptions and language are occasionally difficult to follow.
Many county record offices have produced guides to their own collections of Quarter Sessions records, and these are useful summaries of the types of record and sessions personnel that researchers will come across. Of particular note are the ones for West Yorkshire - "Guide to the Quarter Sessions Records of the West Riding of Yorkshire 1637 - 1971", B.J. Barber, 1984 (LMA library ref: 60.32 WES); and Leicestershire - "Quarter Sessions Records in the Leicestershire Record Office", G. Jones, 1985 (LMA library ref: 60.32 LEI); and the general "County Records", F.G. Emmison and I. Gray, 1987 (Historical Association) (LMA library ref: 60.32 EMM).
"Quarter Sessions Records for Family Historians" (Federation of Family History Societies), Jeremy Gibson, 1985 (LMA library ref: 60.32 GIB), lists the existing Quarter Sessions records by county.
A good basic introduction to the processes of the law can be found in "Crime and the Courts in England 1660-1800", John Beattie, 1986 (LMA library ref: 21.5 BEA).