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Understanding Depositions

Depositions of witnesses and examinations of the defendant

The depositions give greater detail about the crime than the indictments, presentments and recognisances.

Depositions were testimonies of the accuser and witnesses taken before magistrates prior to the crime being indicted or prosecuted. Examinations were the statements of the accused. They were written in English. The deposition hearing would usually take place in the magistrates’ personal residence in the presence of a clerk. They are written under formulaic headings: Person, Place, Social Status, Magistrate, Clerk, Date, Witnesses account of the crime, deposition ‘examinations’ (The examination was the deposition of the accused). Witnesses were usually neighbours of the victim. The documents do not include the list of questions asked by the magistrate, when writing the document the Clerk weaves the questions and answers together. They are not the spontaneous words of the witness. Depositions were used to construct a case.


The Examination of Elizabeth the wife of John Collett, labourer of Stotfold in the said County, taken upon oath before me one of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace of the said County 15th day of April 1730.

This Examinant being sworn sayeth that on Monday last, one Daniel Brittain of Stotfold aforesaid, Carpenter offered to kiss the said Elizabeth Collett in the house of Edward Smith of the Parish aforesaid and upon her refusing to let him kiss her he made an assault upon her the said Elizabeth Collett in Breach of the Peace and further the examinant sayeth not.

Ref. QSR1732/66:

'The information of William Osborn of the Parish of Wilshamstead in the said County of Bedford taken upon his oath this 18th day of September 1732 before John Cater Esq. one of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for the said County.

This informant being duly sworn sayeth that Mr John Gardener of the Parish of Wilshamstead in the said County did, on Monday the 4th of this instant September here this informant at a statute Sessions in the parish of Haynes in the said County to serve him in the business of husbandry for one twelve month from Michaelmas next ensuing the date thereof to confirm which hiring to the said Gardener gave to this informant one shilling as earnest [?]But on Tuesday 13th instant this informant went to the said Mr Gardener and desired him to take his earnest again which he promised to if he would bring it that day or the next day in the evening of the Wednesday. This informant brought the said earnest money, being one shilling, and offered it to the said Gardener in the yard belonging to his dwelling house lying in the Parish of Wilshamstead aforesaid which he the said Gardener not only refused to take although he had promised this informant before John Saunders of the said Parish of Wilhamstead so to do. But he the said Gardener did contrary to the Peace of our Sovereign Lord the King and the Laws of his Realm strike this informant over the breast with his fist and also did take up a cart whip and whip him several strokes therewith and would not receive the shilling earnest from him and further this informant sayeth not.'