London Metropolitan Archives - Item Details


Date of Creation:


Reference Code:


Scope and Content:
  • Records of the Westminster Quarter Sessions of the Peace, 1619-1860, including lists of prisoners awaiting trial; lists of prisoners already tried; lists and rolls of fines; court minutes; lists and registers of charges; sessions papers; sessions rolls; writs of venire facias and trial process records.

    Note on the Quarter Sessions records:
    Although Westminster has fewer surviving records than Middlesex, the City's sessions would have produced similar records to those of the County, but they would have been smaller in quantity, and have included less administrative material. Also, as with all Quarter Sessions records, "seeing that the Custos Rotulorum was a private gentleman or nobleman and the Clerk of the Peace an attorney with a private practice it is likely that many county records were (if not lost or destroyed) handed down to their families or their professional successors" and many may still remain to be found in private hands (Emmison and Gray, County Records, 1987). Those records that have survived are often difficult to read or understand because of the handwriting, use of Latin (until 1733), or legal jargon and abbreviations; although standardised legal formats were used and printed pro formas introduced by the nineteenth century.

    For the Middlesex and Westminster records there may also be confusion over the records' arrangement resulting from the attempts at classification by previous generations of archivists which have left many records split up into unnatural groupings. Originally they would not have been sorted into any cohesive arrangement. These were records that were "kept for administrative convenience rather than as sources for future generations" (G. Jones, Quarter Sessions records in the Leicestershire Record Office).

    Because of this overlapping between many classes of record, any study of the Westminster records should include consultation of those for Middlesex. There was in any case a lot of co-operation between the two courts during the period covered by the records. Judicial (Gaol Delivery Sessions for example) and administrative functions were shared, as were court personnel (including justices). Westminster prisoners could elect to be tried at the Middlesex sessions, as these were held more frequently than their own.

    The sessions records are a very useful source for family history, studying trends in law and order, and the life of the City and its inhabitants over a relatively long period of time. The capital was an area with high levels of crime, the natural place for riot and conspiracy, and attracted a wide variety of people from the whole country and abroad. The main record of proceedings at the sessions will be found in the sessions rolls (MJ/SR and the uncatalogued WJ/SR - index in WJ/CB); the (partially uncatalogued) sessions books (WJ/SB, MJ/SB); and the (partially uncatalogued) sessions papers (WJ/SP, MJ/SP). City administrative work is in the records of the County Day sessions (WJ/O), and for one particular type, in the records of the street surveyors (WJ/SS). Records of judicial procedure are in the records of court fines (WJ/E), writs to summon juries (WJ/W), and the trial process (WJ/Y); Lists of prisoners made at various times during the trial process are in WJ/CC and WJ/CP
Extent: 19.55 linear metres
Classification: COURTS: SESSIONS
Special Classification: Parish Registers
Site Location: London Metropolitan Archives
Level of Description:

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Administrative History:
  • 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 WJP).

    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 (misdemeanours), but which were less serious than those which went to the Assize Judges (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 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 classes MJ/GB, 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, 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, to 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 (High Bailiff in Westminster), the constables, and the Clerk of the Peace to help them carry out their functions (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). 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; apart from relevant records in the main sessions series' (WJ/O, WJ/SP, MJ/SP), there are uncatalogued records in the class WA. 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, which was reformed in 1834. By the end of the century and the passing of the Local Government Act in 1889, which established county councils, the sessions had lost all their administrative functions. The judicial role of the Quarter Sessions existed 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 the registration and deposit of official non-sessions records, which needed to be certified and available for inspection (see WR). Much of the routine judicial and administrative work was carried out by small groups of justices during the period covered by the existing records. 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 a 'public office'. The first 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. It was not until 1792 that the system was 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 each 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 (see WJ and MJ), the class of records concerned with such sessions (MSJ) covers mainly the nineteenth century.

    The City of Westminster covered an area from Marylebone and Paddington in the north to Pimlico in the south, from Hyde Park and Knightsbridge in the west, to Covent Garden and Soho in the east. The Commission of the Peace to hold separate sessions to Middlesex was first issued in 1618, although the reasoning is unclear; perhaps the fact that Westminster became a city in 1540, and set up a Court of Burgesses in 1585 to deal with its minor cases and moral offences, may indicate a growing feeling of civic consciousness at this time. The Westminster sessions lasted until 1844, when they again became part of the Middlesex courts' sittings, held "by adjournment" several days after the end of the latter's own, when the court literally adjourned or moved to the Westminster sessions house. Thus the Westminster records eventually came into custody of Middlesex.

    Prior to 1752 the Westminster sessions met in the Town Court House near Westminster Hall; thereafter in "a building of great antiquity" demolished at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In 1805 the Westminster Guildhall was built in Broad Sanctary, and enlarged in 1888 and 1889 before the Middlesex sessions moved there. Lack of space prompted the building next door of the Middlesex Guildhall in 1913.

    Until the sixteenth century prison was seen primarily as a place to remand before sentence, not 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 became notorious and widespread. The Westminster Bridewell was in Howick Place until 1664, from which date it moved to Tothill Fields and became known as the Westminster House of Correction. In 1834 this prison was replaced by a building in Francis Street, which in turn closed in 1877 when the inmates were transferred to the Millbank Penitentiary. There was also a prison in the Gatehouse of Westminster Abbey, at the western end of Tothill Street. Built in 1370 it had two gaols - one for clerics, and one for lay offenders, and was demolished in 1776 - 1777.
Creator: Quarter Sessions of the Peace for the City and Liberty of Westminster
Copyright: Public records Copyright to these records rests with the Corporation of London
Source of Acquisition:
  • The records passed to the Greater London Council, and thence to the Archive.
Access Restrictions: These records are open to public inspection, although records containing personal information may be subject to closure periods
Physical Condition: Fit
Arrangement: WJ/CB: Sessions Rolls Index
WJ/CC: Prisoners Awaiting Trial
WJ/CP: Lists of Prisoners Tried
WJ/E: Court Fines
WJ/O: County Day Records
WJ/SB: Sessions Books
WJ/SP: Sessions Papers
WJ/SR: Sessions Rolls
WJ/SS: Records of Street Surveyors
WJ/W: Jury Orders
WJ/Y: Trial Process Records Lists of prisoners awaiting trial (WJ/CC) 1701 - 1832 Lists of prisoners tried (WJ/CP) 1693 - 1847 Court fines (WJ/E) 1644-1842 County Day records (WJ/O) 1720-1844 Sessions books (WJ/SB) 1640-1844 Sessions papers (WJ/SP) 1640 - 1844 Sessions rolls (WJ/SR) 1619 - 1712 Street surveyors' presentments (WJ/SS) 1729-1734 Writs of Venire Facias (WJ/W) 1689-1709 Trial process records (WJ/Y) 1689-1763
Related Material: For other records of the Westminster Quarter Sessions see WA (Administration), WC (Clerk of the Peace), WJP (Justices of the peace) and WR (Enrolment, registration and deposit). See also Middlesex Quarter Sessions records at M&WA, MA, MC, MF, MJ, MJP, MR, MSJ and MXS.
Publication Notes:

The original "Guide to the Middlesex Sessions Records 1549 - 1889", E.D. Mercer, 1965 (LMA library ref 60.32 GRE), 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, 1973 (Historical Association, LMA libary ref: 60.32 EMM)). "Quarter Sessions Records for Family Historians" (Federation of Family History Societies), Jeremy Gibson, 1992 (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)

Language Notes: Some Latin