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Quarter Sessions

Bedfordshire Quarter Sessions Records

The Bedfordshire records of the Quarter Sessions relating to crime and punishment fall into the following categories:

 QSR    Quarter Sessions Rolls

 QSM   Quarter Sessions Minute Books

 QGE    Gaol and House of Correction - buildings

 QGR   Gaol reports and papers

 QGV   Gaol various [includes correspondence, reports, accounts, lists of prisoners etc]

 A Brief History of the Quarter Sessions

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the county magistracy was securely established in England as the institution by which most non-military aspects of County Government were carried out. There are few surviving records for Bedfordshire before 1714, which is quite a late date compared to some other counties, for example those for Staffordshire date from 1590, and Warwickshire 1625. The earlier Quarter Sessions records for Bedfordshire are held at the National Archives and include a roll of Bedfordshire supervisors of the peace for 1314 and two sessions rolls for 1355-19 and 1363-4.

From the 17th century onwards the powers of the Justices at Quarter Sessions, especially in administrative matters, increased until their administrative functions were transferred to county councils in 1889.

Justices of the Peace operated at County level, meeting four times a year at Michaelmas, Epiphany, Easter and Midsummer in formal courts of Quarter Sessions in the presence of a qualified lawyer, the Clerk of the Peace. At each session two or more justices sat with a jury and tried the most serious criminal offences within their remit. Justices investigated lawbreakers indicted by village constables and other officials for all ‘misdemeanours’ – that is, crimes not punishable by the death penalty. Cases included theft, highway robbery, assault, burglary, rioting, drunkenness, profane swearing, refusing to attend Church and publicly denigrating the authorities of Church and State. As landowners themselves, the magistrates were particularly zealous in protecting property, through laws against the poaching of fish, game and deer, the cutting of estate timber, the burning of moorland, encroachment on the manorial waste and rick burning.

The Court was held in several different towns in the County. JP’s attendance was not obligatory and justices often attended only those sessions held in towns close to where they lived.

In addition to its role in criminal justice, quarter sessions had a variety of other responsibilities. One was to act as a court of appeal over decisions taken by justices acting in petty sessions, particularly in relation to poor law matters, and to hear presentments of highways in disrepair.

The Quarter Sessions continued to exercise its important role in criminal justice, until superseded under the Crown Courts Act 1970, which transferred their powers to the newly created Crown Courts in the following year. Prior to their abolition in 1971, quarter sessions courts came to have jurisdiction to hear and determine most of the indictable cases in England and Wales. They became situated between magistrates courts below and assize courts above. When sitting with a jury, a quarter sessions court had a wide criminal jurisdiction and could hear civil and criminal cases on appeal from a magistrates court.