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How the Quarter Sessions Worked

Justices of the Peace met four times a year, at Epiphany, Easter, Midsummer and Michaelmas, 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 parish 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.

In Bedfordshire there were two separate Quarter Sessions - the Borough of Bedford Quarter Sessions for the town of Bedford and the Bedfordshire Quarter Sessions for the rest of the county. Until the Sessions House was built on the south side of St Paul’s Square Bedford in 1753 the borough sessions were held at the Guildhall in Bedford and the county sessions were held at various inns in towns around the county – notably The Swan in Bedford and The George in Luton.  JP’s attendance was not obligatory and justices often attended only those sessions held in towns close to where they lived. After the Sessions house was built the sessions had a permanent home and this may account for the much better survival of the records after that date. However, the same clerk was often responsible for both Borough and County sessions and this led to some confusion in the records meaning that some borough records are found in the county rolls (QSR) and some county records can be found in the borough rolls (BorBF).