- Criminal Informations, Depositions and Examinations
- Gaol Delivery and House of Correction Lists and Calendars
- Calendars of Recognizances and Indictments
- Settlement, Bastardy, and Poor Relief Appeals and Orders
- Miscellaneous Legal Documents and Correspondence
- Introductory Reading
- Online Resources
- Documents Included on this Website
- Documents Not Included Due to Unfit Condition
Sessions Papers are chronologically organised files of documents relating to the work of Justices of the Peace and kept by the clerk of the peace. They include several different types of documents, relating to the prosecution of criminals, the administration of poor relief and the settlement laws, and other aspects of local government. The documents, which can be in rough draft or final form, were generated primarily by the Justices' clerks, but also by Justices of the Peace themselves, as well as parish officers, litigants, accused criminals, and paupers. There are separate series for the City of London, Middlesex, Westminster, and, from 1755, the Old Bailey, and with the exception of the latter which only include informations, depositions and examinations, the contents of the separate archives are broadly similar.
These documents normally start with an abbreviation of the name of the jurisdiction (Westm for Westminster, Middx for Middlesex, and London for the City of London), followed by the letters Ss for sessions and the phrase The Deposition of or similar. They are formal legal documents created as part of the process of gathering evidence against an accused criminal. By the 1555 Marian Bail Statutes,1 Justices of the Peace were required to examine all suspected felons who were brought before them, together with their accusers, and to provide written summaries of these examinations to the clerk of the court. It is not clear how often these documents were read out to the grand jury, or at criminal trials, but a very large number of them have been preserved.
These documents were written by the clerk, read out to the person examined, and then signed by the Justice of the Peace and the deponent, with a signature or mark. Although written in the third person, these provide valuable testimonies from the points of view of the accused and their accusers about the nature of crime and the process of detecting criminals, and they often contain evidence that was not included in published trial accounts. Because they were not legally required, these documents were rarely created in misdemeanour prosecutions, unless the crime involved was a potential felony, as in attempted murder.
The terms information, deposition and examination are often used interchangeably, but they have distinctive definitions: an information is a formal criminal accusation, a deposition contains evidence provided by witnesses, and an examination is the result of the interrogation of the accused.
Depositions, examinations, and other documents relating to felony cases heard at the Old Bailey until 1755 are kept in the main Middlesex and City Sessions Papers series. From 1755 they are kept in this separate series. These manuscript records should not be confused with the printed Old Bailey Proceedings, also often called the "Sessions Papers", which were published reports of the actual trials held at the Old Bailey and are also available on this website.
Petitions were normally addressed to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London or the Middlesex or Westminster Justices of the Peace. They were submitted to the courts by various individuals who sought assistance on a number of issues. These include petitions from
- prosecutors, to have a trial deferred, due to illness, or because the prosecutor or key witnesses were unable to attend
- prisoners, to have their case come to trial, be postponed, or be dismissed
- defendants, to have a recognizance for appearance at sessions deferred until the following sessions
- prosecutors, to have a recognizance discharged because the case had been resolved (including cases where the fathers of bastard children had indemnified the parish against the cost of supporting the child)
- convicts, seeking mitigation of their punishments
- masters or apprentices seeking to dissolve apprenticeship indentures owing to bad behaviour on the part of the apprentice or the failure of the master to provide adequate support or instruction
These lists of names were compiled by the keepers of prisons or court clerks in order to keep track of prisoners, the charges against them, and the reasons for their discharge; to record judicial decisions about the prisoners' fates; and to claim expenses where the keepers were entitled to reimbursement. They take a number of forms and sometimes list all the prisoners held in the prison since the previous sessions (often called turnover calendars) and at other times include only those prisoners currently held in the prison at the time the list was compiled. The latter were used by Justices of the Peace at sessions to determine whether prisoners should be discharged or subject to further legal action. Sometimes prison calendars provide more detailed descriptions of the charge against the prisoner than is found in other legal documents, but the nature of the offence was not always listed.
Lists survive for prisoners in Newgate, New Prison, the Gatehouse, and the houses of correction at Tothill Fields and Clerkenwell, though not all of them are kept in this document series. Other calendars survive as wrappers for the sessions rolls or are kept in separate series at the London Metropolitan Archives. The records of Bridewell Prison were kept separately.
Because these documents were presented in a column format, they are often difficult to interpret as transcribed text and are best viewed on the associated original page images.
These calendars, typically arranged in alphabetical order by name, were compiled by the clerks as indexes to their records. They contain the names of all the defendants bound over to attend or indicted at a specific sessions, and often indicate the number(s) given to the recognizances or indictments associated with each defendant, which were included in the related sessions roll. Letters were used to refer to cases continued from previous sessions. These numbers and letters helped the clerk, and can help the modern researcher, find the relevant document in the sessions rolls, or find out about what happened to the case in the sessions books (for recognizances) and sessions process books (for indictments). (All these documents are held at London Metropolitan Archives).
Because these documents were presented in column format, they are often difficult to interpret as transcribed text and it is best to view the associated original page images.
The business of determining paupers' parishes of settlement, and of identifying those responsible for the maintenance of bastard children, was normally conducted by Justices of the Peace outside sessions acting individually or in pairs, while churchwardens and overseers of the poor were responsible for the allocation of poor relief. The records of these decisions, including pauper examinations (EP), are normally found in the parochial archives. Appeals against these decisions (particularly from parishes), however, were heard by the Justices in sessions, and all the documentation, including the original examination and order, the appeal, correspondence arranging the hearing of the appeal, and the Justices' final decision, are found in the sessions papers. The Justices' original orders were sometimes made on printed forms.
The varied business of the court generated numerous other types of documents in addition to those listed above. Among some of the most common are:
- Copies of notices, or affidavits that notice had been served, on prosecutors, indicating that defendants on misdemeanor charges intended to appear to try their indictments (or intended to plead guilty).
- Rough notes of verdicts and punishments, or of cases referred to subsequent sessions (including "bail pieces": notes of the sureties for those bailed to be tried at the next sessions). Note that the heavy use of abbreviations may make these notes difficult to interpret. Numbers often refer to a recognizance or indictment from a previous session.
- Copies of formal legal releases, removing a named individual from all possible litigation by another.
- Presentments by the grand jury, listing offences and offenders which the jurors wished to see prosecuted.
- Certificates of summary convictions, documenting that an offender has been convicted by one or two Justices acting outside the court of offences such as profane swearing and cursing and working on the Sabbath. (Although there was a requirement that records of all such convictions should be returned to sessions, only a minority have survived.)
- Lists of officers sworn in.
- Miscellaneous correspondence between Justices of the Peace and clerks about court business.
- Formal representations by the Justices to the Lord Chancellor or other bodies.
- Rough minutes of Justices' meetings, both of the full sessions and committees, and related reports, such as those from keepers, medical attendants, chaplains and surveyors concerning prison conditions. Sometimes the final versions of these documents can be found in the Orders of the Court (OC).
- Lists of jurors selected to try specific cases.
In addition, because these files were created in support of the general business of the sessions, they contain a wide variety of other miscellaneous documents that do not fit easily into any of the categories discussed above.
- Gaskill, M. Reporting Murder: Fiction in the Archives of Early Modern England, Social History, 23 (1998), pp. 1-30.
- Goodacre, K. and Mercer, E. Doris. Guide to the Middlesex Sessions Records, 1549-1889. 1965.
- Hawkings, David T. Criminal Ancestors: A Guide to Historical Criminal Records in England and Wales. Stroud, 1992.
- Hindle, Steve. On the Parish?: The Micro-Politics of Poor Relief in Rural England, c.1550-1750. Oxford, 2004.
- Shoemaker, R. B. Using Quarter Sessions Records as Evidence for the Study of Crime and Criminal Justice. Archives 20 (October 1993), pp. 145-157.
- London Metropolitan Archives
- Access to Archives, Old Bailey Sessions Papers
- London Metropolitan Archives, Middlesex Sessions Records Information Leaflet
- London Metropolitan Archives, City of London Sessions Records Information Leaflet
For further reading on this subject see the London Lives Bibliography.
- City of London Sessions Papers, 1690-1796, London Metropolitan Archives, CLA/047/LJ/13/1690-CLA/047/LJ/13/1796
- Middlesex Sessions Papers, 1690-1799, London Metropolitan Archvies, MJ/SP/1690-MJ/SP/1690-MJ/SP/1799
- Old Bailey Sessions Papers, 1755-1795, London Metropolitan Archives, OB/SP/1755-OB/SP/1796
- Westminster Sessions Papers, 1690-1799, London Metropolitan Archives, WJ/SP/1690-WJ/SP/1799
- Middlesex Sessions Papers, MJ/SP/1730/02, MJ/SP/1734/10, MJ/SP/1734/12,MJ/SP/1735/01, MJ/SP/1738/06, MJ/SP/1738/10, MJ/SP/1739/01, MJ/SP/1739/12, MJ/SP/1740/01, MJ/SP/1740/09, MJ/SP/1740/10, MJ/SP/1755/08, MJ/SP/1793/A
- Westminster Sessions Papers, WJ/SP/1697/04, WJ/SP/1713/11, WJ/SP/1715/01, WJ/SP/1721/10, WJ/SP/1724/07, WJ/SP/1725/05, WJ/SP/1734/09, WJ/SP/1743/06, WJ/SP/1744/01, WJ/SP/1750/06, WJ/SP/1771/01, WJ/SP/1778/04, WJ/SP/1708/07
1 1 and 2 Philip and Mary c. 13; 2 and 3 Philip and Mary c. 10. ⇑