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London Metropolitan Archives



Reference code(s): GB 0074 ILS

Held at: London Metropolitan Archives


Date(s): 1790-1974

Level of description: Collection

Extent: 97.22 linear metres

Name of creator(s): Inner London Quarter Sessions


Administrative/Biographical history:

The origins of the Justices of the Peace lie in the temporary appointments of 'conservators' or 'keepers' of the peace made at various times of unrest between the late twelfth century and the fourteenth century. In 1361 the 'Custodis Pacis' were merged with the Justices of Labourers, and given the title Justices of the Peace and a commission (see MJP). The Commission (of the Peace) gave them the power to try offences in their courts of Quarter Sessions, appointed them to conserve the peace within a stated area, and to enquire on the oaths of "good and lawfull men" into "all manner of poisonings, enchantments, forestallings, disturbances, abuses of weights and measures" and many other things, and to "chastise and punish" anyone who had offended against laws made in order to keep the peace.

The cases which the justices originally dealt with were offences which could not be dealt with by the manorial court (i.e. misdemeanours), but which were less serious than those which went to the Assize Judges (i.e. felonies). Misdemeanours included breaches of the peace - assault, rioting, defamation, minor theft, vagrancy, lewd and disorderly behaviour, and offences against the licensing laws. In 1388 a statute laid down that the court sessions should meet four times a year (hence the name 'Quarter Sessions'): Epiphany, Easter, Trinity (midsummer) and Michaelmas (autumn) - two or more justices (one at least from the quorum) were to decide exactly where and when.

The judicial process began even before the sessions opened with examinations being taken by the magistrates once the crime had been reported by the constable, the injured party or a common informant. The accused could then be bailed to keep the peace or to appear at the next sessions, be remanded in gaol before a trial, or acquitted. Once the sessions had opened there was still an examination by a Grand Jury as to whether there was a case to answer, before the trial proper could get underway.

During the sixteenth century the work of the Quarter Sessions and the justices was extended to include administrative functions for the counties. These were wide ranging and included maintenance of structures such as bridges, gaols and asylums; regulating weights, measures, prices and wages, and, probably one of their biggest tasks, enforcing the Poor Law. The dependence of the justices on officials like the sheriff, the constables, and the Clerk of the Peace to help them carry out their functions (both judicial and administrative) cannot be underestimated. As their workload grew, particularly during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, more help was needed and there was an increase in the number of officers appointed for specific tasks, and committees for specific purposes were set up.

The bulk of the administrative work was carried out on one specific day during the court's sitting known as the County Day. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was clear that the Quarter Session's structure was unable to cope with the administrative demands on it, and it lost a lot of functions to bodies set up specifically to deal with particular areas - the most important of these was the Poor Law, reformed in 1834. By the end of the century, when the Local Government Act of 1889 established county councils, the sessions had lost all their administrative functions. The judicial role of the Quarter Sessions continued until 1971, when with the Assize courts they were replaced by the Crown Courts.

Alongside the aforementioned functions of the Quarter Sessions, was its role as the place of registration and deposit for official non-sessions records, which needed to be certified and available for inspection.

Much of the routine judicial and administrative work during the period covered by the existing records was carried out by small groups of justices. This was done outside the main court sittings by the justices in their local areas - usually within a Hundred division. Special Sessions were held for purposes such as licensing alehouses (Brewster Sessions), or to organise the repair of the highways. More common were the meetings of one or two justices in what became known as petty sessions and which dealt with issues such as rating, granting of licences, the appointment of parish officers, and the examination of witnesses and suspects prior to the start of the next sessions. Increasingly here the justices also began to determine cases involving minor offences and exercise 'summary jurisdiction'.

The inconvenience of using their own homes for this work, and the need for the public to know where magistrates would be available led to the setting up of 'public offices'. The first one was in Bow Street, Westminster from about 1727. In 1828 all courts of Quarter Sessions were allowed to create within their county, divisions for petty sessions, thus formalising any earlier informal arrangements.

The County of London sessions met in Clerkenwell Green until 1919 when they moved to the former Surrey sessions house on Newington Causeway.


Scope and content/abstract:

Records of the Inner London Quarter Sessions, 1790-1974.

Papers of the Justices of the Peace, including Lord Lieutenant's papers; official lists of Justices; papers relating to the jurisdiction of Justices; papers relating to juvenile courts; correspondence and papers relating to the County of London Magistrates Club.

Papers of the Court in Session, including sessions rolls; court books; deposition books; court minute books; registers and indexes of appeals; Sheriff's inquisitions and returns; depositions; certificates of conviction; orders of court; reports and correspondence regarding the Mental Deficiency Acts; calendars of prisoners; estreat papers and rolls; and calendars of viticular licences.

Administrative papers including staff books; papers relating to probationers; County of London Standing Joint Committee minutes and papers; Committee of Quarter Sessions papers; Magistrates' Court Committee minutes and papers; County of London Licensing Committee papers and reports; County of London Licensing Planning Committee minutes and applications and County Confirming and Compensation Committee papers and reports.

Documents registered with the Court including papers relating to licences; maps and plans showing petty sessional divisions, borough boundaries, licensed premises and roads; papers relating to railways; lists of blind persons; register of parliamentary deposits and reports from the Commissioners on the State of the Roads.

Papers of the Clerk of the Peace and the Treasurer, including cash book; papers relating to County Days; correspondence relating to borough maps; general correspondence; indexes of deposited records and plans; and summaries of costs of criminal prosecutions.


Language/scripts of material: English

System of arrangement:

ILS/A: Justices;
ILS/B: Court in Session;
ILS/C: Administration;
ILS/D: Enrolment, registration and deposit;
ILS/E: Clerk of the Peace;
ILS/F: Treasurer.

Conditions governing access:

These records are available for public inspection, although records containing personal information are subject to access restrictions under the UK Data Protection Act, 1998.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Copyright to these records rests with the Corporation of London.

Physical characteristics:


Finding aids:

Please see online catalogues at:


Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Records deposited in 1972.


Related material:

For similar records of the Middlesex and Westminster Quarter Sessions please see references MJ and WJ.

Publication note:

Many county record offices have produced guides to their own collections of Quarter Sessions records, and these are useful summaries of the types of record and sessions personnel that researchers will come across. Of particular note are the ones for West Yorkshire - Guide to the Quarter Sessions Records of the West Riding of Yorkshire 1637-1971, B.J. Barber, 1984 (LMA library ref: 60.32 WES); and Leicestershire - Quarter Sessions Records in the Leicestershire Record Office, G. Jones, 1985 (LMA library ref: 60.32 LEI); and the general County Records, F.G. Emmison and I. Gray, 1987 (Historical Association) (LMA library ref: 60.32 EMM).

Quarter Sessions Records for Family Historians (Federation of Family History Societies), Jeremy Gibson, 1985 (LMA library ref: 60.32 GIB), lists the existing Quarter Sessions records by county.

A good basic introduction to the processes of the law can be found in Crime and the Courts in England 1660-1800, John Beattie, 1986 (LMA library ref: 21.5 BEA).

DESCRIPTION NOTES Rules or conventions: Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions: November 2009 to February 2010

Clerks of the Peace | Legal profession personnel | Personnel | People by occupation | People
Court administration | Administration of justice
Court of Quarter Sessions | Courts | Administration of justice
Court papers | Court records | Records (documents) | Records and correspondence | Information sources
Justices of the Peace | Magistrates | Legal profession personnel | Personnel | People by occupation | People
Legal history | Law
Legal procedure | Administration of justice
Licensing | Law
Local authorities | Local government | Public administration | Government
Lord Lieutenants | People by roles | People
Quarter Sessions records | Documents | Information sources
Quarter sessions | Courts | Administration of justice

Personal names

Corporate names
Inner London Quarter Sessions

London | England | UK | Western Europe | Europe