Genealogical research in England often relies only on census records, parish register entries, and civil registration. But there is so much more information to be found! We’ve previously discussed records of the parish chest and apprenticeship records, but genealogists should also look to lesser-known English records such as court records. The English court system was complicated, but the quarter session records are generally the most useful for most genealogists.
What are the Quarter Sessions?
The Quarter Sessions met four times a year – Easter (April-May), Trinity (June-July), Michaelmas (October-December), and Epiphany (January-April). Topics covered include both non-crown criminal offenses and local administration such as taxes, vagrancy, roads and bridges, markets and ale houses, settlement orders, bastardy examinations, and records of local jails (goals).
Quarter Session courts began in 1277 with Keepers of the Peace, who were made into Justices in 1361. These courts began to meet quarterly by 1363, though the oldest surviving records only go back as far as 1532 (Norfolk). Over time the Quarter Sessions courts absorbed other county courts and offices. In 1461 they absorbed the Sherriff’s court (but crown offenses such as treason were still heard at the court of assizes). In 1531 the administration of the Poor Law was added to its jurisdiction. Beginning in 1835, power was gradually removed from the Quarter Sessions. First town administration in 1835, additional administration in 1888, and they were finally replaced in 1972.
Quarter Session Record Types
A voluminous amount of records was created by these courts, and they can be challenging to work with without direction.
- Order Books—edict and decision books of the court made for official purposes. Sometimes these are indexed but are the least detailed. These are a good place to start. Once an order is found, more detailed, but more difficult to access records can be sought.
- Session Files/Rolls—the original documents generated at the court session that don’t fit into one of the following categories. These may include statements by defendants, prosecutors, witnesses, and officials; registers of potential jurors; oaths of allegiance; indictments; petitions; and more. Often the most difficult to use, but also often the most genealogically useful.
- Indictment/Process Books—a very brief outline of the business of the court; may include the defendant, the accusation, the verdict, and the sentence.
- Minute/Session Books—clerk’s summary notes. These don’t always exist, but when they do, they are a roughly chronological outline of the days the court met.
- Bills of Indictment—much like a pre-trial hearing, each indictment was reviewed on the first day of the session to determine if bail could be set, the indictment could be dismissed, or if the accused would be imprisoned awaiting trial. Note that bondsman are often listed and related.
Jurors—If your ancestor was listed as serving on a jury, there are actually several pieces of useful information that can be gleaned. In addition, beginning in 1696, lists of all eligible jurors were made, not just those who served. Meaning that after 1696, conclusions can be draw about men listed there.
- 1285—1664: jurymen had to own property
- 1664: men who also were life lease-holders with rent of at least ten pounds, a freehold, or a copyhold were added.
- 1730: long-term lease-holders with a rent of at least twenty pounds were added.
- 1825: Age restrictions were added so that only those between 21 and 60 could serve. Property restrictions from this point were freehold property with a rent of at least ten pounds, leasehold property with a rent of at least twenty pounds, or householders with a rent of at least 30 pounds.
Using Quarter Session Records for Genealogy: Oldham Case Study
In 1823, John Oldham was born illegitimately to Elizabeth Oldham in Pleasley, Derbyshire, England. Four years earlier, Elizabeth had another child, Charlotte Oldham. Neither baptismal record named a father, and bastardy bonds for Pleasley are no longer extant. It is tempting to think this is the end of the road for John’s paternal line, but in fact it isn’t.
Searching Order Books
Order books are generally the most accessible Quarter Session records, and an excellent place to start. To find the correct records, however, you must know your jurisdiction. Pleasley parish fell in the Hundred of Scarsdale, and while it is possible that Elizabeth was brought into court in a different jurisdiction, it is always prudent to begin in the parish of residence.
The Order Books for Scarsdale are held by the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and are available on digital microfilm. Note that these are hand-indexed by year, but they are not digitally indexed. Researchers must access the hand-done indexes by finding the appropriate digital film and scrolling through until the needed year and hundred is found.
A search of Scarsdale Hundred for 1822 and 1823 did not return any Oldham entries. Because these are only indexed by the name of the person being indicted, and in most cases the man is the one being brought into court, a page-by-page search was conducted. Still no results were found, and it appears that Elizabeth was not brought into court in Scarsdale Quarter Sessions for her pregnancy with John.
Moving to her older child, a similar search was made for Elizabeth Oldham in 1818 and 1819 – the years of Charlotte Oldham’s conception and birth. No Oldham entries were indexed, but by viewing each entry indexed by Pleasley as the location, an applicable entry was found! The inhabitants of Pleasley brought a charge against William Hopkinson Junior in the Easter Session of 1819 for “begetting Elizabeth Oldham, Singlewoman, with child…”
After the child was born, he was brought into court again, and this time the record records that William was of Morton while his father, William Hopkinson Sr., was of Pilsley.
Additional research is still needed to say definitively whether William Hopkinson was John Oldham’s father, but it is apparent that he was Charlotte’s. The next steps would be to obtain the original case file using our onsite researcher at the Derbyshire archives and pursue targeted genetic testing to determine if any Hopkinson matches, or matches descending from Hopkinsons, exist.
Legacy Tree Genealogists’ team of experts leave no stone unturned in pursuit of your elusive ancestors. Whether scouring quarter session records page by page, or utilizing our network of onsite agents to access records in an archive or repository, we have the knowledge and experience to extend your family history as far back as records will allow. Contact us to discuss which of our project options would best fit your needs.