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- System Reference: XQ
- Document Reference: Q
- Level: Collection
- Extent: 15.22
- Description: The Quarter Sessions records of any county form the primary series of its official archives before 1889. Before the creation of County Councils by the Local Government Act of 1888 local administration at county level was largely in the hands of the Justices of the Peace, or under their supervision. The office of Justice of the Peace came into being during the 13th and 14th centuries. The appointment of Keepers of the Peace occurred intermittently during the 13th century, their duty being mainly to assist the sheriff to maintain order in periods of exceptional unrest. Commissions of the Peace did not become a regular feature until after an Act of 1327, which gave statutory recognition to an already established procedure. Power to determine cases (the power that made them 'justices') was granted to them intermittently from 1329 and continuously from 1368. The Justices could use their powers individually (so far as they were allowed) or jointly with one or more colleagues in local meetings later called Petty Sessions, although the most important functions were exercised at the General Sessions of the Peace which were held four times a year - hence the name Quarter Sessions.
The Justices were given certain administrative functions in addition to their purely judicial work as early as the 14th century. These administrative functions grew in close association with their judicial work and became very extensive. The original work of the Justices was so completely judicial (after the military element had disappeared) that the ultimate change in their position was so much due to the addition of functions to it which had little or no judicial character.
The judicial powers of Quarter Sessions were very wide indeed, and extended to trying and punishing all felonies and trespasses whatsoever, to arresting on suspicion, and taking sureties for good behaviour. Capital crimes and other very serious felonies seem always to have been left to the Judges of Assize to deal with. The civil powers of the Court, with respect to rating, County Buildings, etc., were mostly conferred by statutes passed in the 16th Century and later, and were gradually accumulated as the old County and Manorial Courts fell into disuse. In Shropshire, the Judges of Assize sometimes interfered with the civil powers of Quarter Sessions. For instance in 1638, the rating arrangements made by the Court were revised by the Judges, and in 1640 they gave elaborate instructions both to Corporations and County Justices as to how they were to deal with alehouses, weights and measures, constables, County finance, equipment of the militia, prisons, and local wakes. These interferences by the Judges seem to have been by virtue of the Royal Prerogative, and do not occur after 1660, although difficult cases were sometimes referred to them by the Court of Quarter Sessions.
Quarter Sessions also had responsibilities towards the Gaol and House of Correction, although there was an essential difference between these which became obscured as time went on. The Gaol belonged to the Crown and was called the Sheriffs' Gaol in the mid-17th century as it was under his jurisdiction, though it was managed and the expenses paid by Quarter Sessions. It was not a place of punishment, but merely a place for the detention and safekeeping of persons to be tried or who refused to give security for good conduct or otherwise obey orders. The House of Correction, on the other hand, was of the nature of a Workhouse. By three Acts passed in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, each County was required to provide and maintain out of the County Rate one or more Houses of Correction for detaining and setting to work rogues and vagabonds, and punish them if they were idle. Subsequent statutes gave power to commit to them women with bastard children chargeable to the parish, paupers refusing to remain in their own parish, hawkers without licence, and many other offenders, and many such commitments are mentioned in the Quarter Sessions Order Books.
At common law, bridges were repairable by the County at large, unless by established usage the duty of repairing a particular bridge fell upon a Hundred, parish, township or individual. By both common law and the Statute of Bridges, 22 Hen. VIII, c.5 (1531), if the County had to repair a bridge it had also to repair the approaches to it. Highways were repairable at common law by the parish, or if such were the custom, by the township, or by the owner of a particular property, and whoever was liable was indictable for non-repair.
An Act of 14 Geo. III, c.49 (1774) directed that private lunatic asylums had to be licensed by Quarter Sessions, and two justices and a physician appointed to inspect them. In Shropshire there seems to be no record of such a licence being granted before 1792, when one was given at Bridgnorth. In 1828 an Act was passed for the erection of County Lunatic Asylums at the expense of the rates, and for enabling two or more authorities to combine for the purpose. Lunatics in Shropshire continued to be provided for in private licensed houses, until in 1844 the County agreed with the Borough of Wenlock under this Act to provide a joint asylum near Shelton. Montgomeryshire was admitted into partnership in 1846. This partnership continued until 1911, when Montgomeryshire was bought out.
Peel's County Police Act of 1839, although adoptive, was put into immediate effect in Shropshire, even though many counties did not set up a paid police force until it was made compulsory in 1856. With the establishment of a County Constabulary Force, High Constables or Bailiffs of Hundreds, hitherto the Chief Police Officers, were no longer required to attend at Quarter Sessions. However, they still had to be appointed to collect the County Rate until an Act of 1844 transferred this duty to the Guardians, and the duty of appointing High Constables from Quarter Sessions to Petty Sessions. From 1888 the control of the county police was vested in the Standing Joint Committee of the County Council and the County Justices.
By the late 17th century practically the whole county business was transacted by judicial powers in open courts of justice, in the guise of enforcing fixed personal obligations. By the early 19th century this had been silently transformed into administration by committees, appointing, instructing and controlling a salaried staff of officers according to a variable policy decided on from time to time by the committees themselves.
Up until 1800 the duties of the Justices of the Peace constantly increased, but 19th century legislation provided new ad hoc authorities to control the new social machinery of Poor Law and Sanitary Law. The Local Government Act of 1888 transferred almost all of the administrative powers of Quarter Sessions to the newly created County Council. The judicial and licensing powers of Quarter Sessions remained untouched, while responsibility for the police was divided between the Justices and the Council through a Standing Joint Committee. The separation between Quarter Sessions and the County Council was more apparent than real. The Clerk of the Peace became the Clerk of the County Council and the Standing Joint Committee and many Justices were elected to the new Council. This continuity also meant that the County Council inherited the older records of Quarter Sessions, although more recent judicial material henceforth accumulated separately.
Quarter Sessions continued to sit as a criminal court until the Courts Act, 1971, amalgamated its jurisdiction with that of the Assize Courts to form a network of Crown Courts, presided over by circuit judges. The office of Clerk of the Peace was abolished in 1971 and remaining Quarter Sessions records were transferred to the County Record Office (now Shropshire Archives).
It should be noted that certain Quarter Sessions records are subject to closure periods under the Public Records Acts, 1958 and 1967, and the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, 1974. Records affected by these Acts and their appropriate closure periods are indicated in the list.
- Held At: Shropshire Archives
- Access Status: Readers Ticket
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