Reference code(s): GB 0074 WR
Held at: London Metropolitan Archives
Title: WESTMINSTER SESSIONS OF THE PEACE: ENROLMENT, REGISTRATION AND DEPOSIT
Level of description: Collection
Extent: 45.45 linear metres
Name of creator(s): Quarter Sessions of the Peace for the City and Liberty of Westminster
The court of Quarter Sessions was the place in which the Justices of the Peace exercised their judicial and administrative functions for the county, and generated a variety of records from that role (WJ/). This class includes, however, records deposited, filed (enrolled) or registered 'by statute' with the Clerk of the Peace, to be kept with the sessions records, and be available for inspection. These were records presented to the justices in a session, and certified before them, but which were not part of the normal sessions work, although sometimes it is hard to make the distinction. Indeed, statutes ordering the creation of these records often stipulated that returns or registers should be 'filed on the rolls of the Sessions of the Peace" or "be deposited with the Clerk of the Peace to be registered and kept with the records of Quarter Sessions", which means in practice that many records which were created outside the normal sessions work are found on the sessions rolls (MJ/SR, WJ/SR), in the sessions books (WJ/SB, MJ/SB) or in the sessions papers (WJ/SP, MJ/SP), as well as in their own series.
These are records reflecting the political and social concerns of the times - the development of transport and travel; the ninettenth century utility schemes for gas, water and railways; and control of law and order and social structures through measures such as the prevention of treasonable meetings and literature, secular and religious; the registration of foreigners in the capital; knowledge of those able to serve in the local militia in times of internal and external trouble and the limiting of those eligible for jury service or to vote in elections as determined by the value of the property they held.
All aspects of life were regulated from slaughterhouses and hospitals to the price of corn in markets, and building practices. The overriding fear of government from the seventeenth century to early nineteenth century was the threat perceived to be posed by non-conformists - Roman Catholic or Protestant - anyone considering public office had to show that their loyalty was greater to the state than to their faith by taking a variety of oaths or producing certificates confirming their allegiance to the established church.
The Custos Rotulorum (Keeper of the Rolls) was responsible for the care of the county records. Appointed (since the fourteenth century) in the Commission of the Peace (WJP/C), he was a leading justice, unpaid and holding the post for life; and from the seventeenth century usually also holding the office of Lord Lieutenant of the county. His Deputy was the Clerk of the Peace, who was in practice the actual keeper of the records, who drew up, registered and oversaw the storage of the records. He also acted as clerk to the many committees set up by the justices, but delegated much of his work to deputies. He too held the post for life, but was paid a salary and could claim fees, as well as being in addition a local practising lawyer in his own right. An Act of Parliament of 1545 stipulated that the Clerk should be "learned and instructed in the laws of the realm", and he was often called upon to advise the justices on points of law or its procedure. Relevant records may also be found in those of the Clerk of the Peace (WC/); Lieutenancy (L/); and other offices held by county officers (TC/).
Scope and content/abstract:
Records enrolled or filed with the Clerk of the Westminster Quarter Sessions of the Peace, 1552-1885. The records classified as WR/A are concerned with the registration of foreigners; WR/B are records produced by Building Surveyors; WR/F are returns of those eligible to serve on juries; WR/L/P covers the licensing of printing presses; WR/LV relate to Licensed Victuallers; WR/ML are concerned with Militia and Lieutenancy; WR/O are Oaths of Office; WR/P are papers concerning Parliamentary Elections; WR/PLT Land Tax; WR/R contains the records produced from the control and recording of all non-conformists; WR/S contains records concerned with Societies; and WR/U records deposited with the court concerning Public Undertakings.
Note on the Quarter Sessions records: Although Westminster has fewer surviving records than Middlesex, the City's sessions would have produced similar records to those of the County, but they would have been smaller in quantity, and have included less administrative material. Also, as with all Quarter Sessions records, "seeing that the Custos Rotulorum was a private gentleman or nobleman and the Clerk of the Peace an attorney with a private practice it is likely that many county records were (if not lost or destroyed) handed down to their families or their professional successors" and many may still remain to be found in private hands (Emmison and Gray, County Records, 1987). Those records that have survived are often difficult to read or understand because of the handwriting, use of Latin (until 1733), or legal jargon and abbreviations; although standardised legal formats were used and printed pro formas introduced by the nineteenth century.
For the Middlesex and Westminster records there may also be confusion over the records' arrangement resulting from the attempts at classification by previous generations of archivists which have left many records split up into unnatural groupings. Originally they would not have been sorted into any cohesive arrangement. These were records that were "kept for administrative convenience rather than as sources for future generations" (G. Jones, Quarter Sessions records in the Leicestershire Record Office).
Because of this overlapping between many classes of record, any study of the Westminster records should include consultation of those for Middlesex. There was in any case a lot of co-operation between the two courts during the period covered by the records. Judicial (Gaol Delivery Sessions for example) and administrative functions were shared, as were court personnel (including justices). Westminster prisoners could elect to be tried at the Middlesex sessions, as these were held more frequently than their own.
The sessions records are a very useful source for family history, studying trends in law and order, and the life of the City and its inhabitants over a relatively long period of time. The capital was an area with high levels of crime, the natural place for riot and conspiracy, and attracted a wide variety of people from the whole country and abroad. The main record of proceedings at the sessions will be found in the sessions rolls (MJ/SR and the uncatalogued WJ/SR - index in WJ/CB); the (partially uncatalogued) sessions books (WJ/SB, MJ/SB); and the (partially uncatalogued) sessions papers (WJ/SP, MJ/SP). City administrative work is in the records of the County Day sessions (WJ/O), and for one particular type, in the records of the street surveyors (WJ/SS). Records of judicial procedure are in the records of court fines (WJ/E), writs to summon juries (WJ/W), and the trial process (WJ/Y); Lists of prisoners made at various times during the trial process are in WJ/CC and WJ/CP.
ACCESS AND USE
Language/scripts of material: Latin
System of arrangement:
The material (catalogued and uncatalogued) is arranged in twelve classes:
Notification of foreign aliens (WR/A) 1790-1810;
Building Surveyors (WR/B) 1768-1835;
Jury lists (WR/F) 1728-1845;
Licensing (WR/L/P) 1799-1850;
Licensed victuallers (WR/LV) 1552-1878;
Oaths of Office (WR/O) 1748-1801;
Parliamentary elections (WR/P) 1749-1885;
Land Tax (WR/PLT) 1797-1832;
Records of Roman Catholics and other non-conformists (WR/R) 1673-1844;
Societies (WR/S) 1799-1805;
Public undertakings (WR/U) 1810-1870.
Conditions governing access:
These records are open to public inspection, although records containing personal information may be subject to closure periods.
Conditions governing reproduction:
Copyright to these records rests with the Corporation of London.
Please see online catalogues at: http://search.lma.gov.uk/opac_lma/index.htm
Immediate source of acquisition:
The records passed to the Greater London Council and thence to the Archives.
For other records of the Westminster Quarter Sessions see WA (Administration), WC (Clerk of the Peace), WJ (Court in Session) and WJP (Justices of the Peace). See also Middlesex Quarter Sessions records at M and WA, MA, MC, MF, MJ, MJP, MR, MSJ and MXS.
The original Guide to the Middlesex Sessions Records 1549-1889, E.D. Mercer, 1965 (LMA library ref 60.32 GRE), remains a good thorough introduction to the records, although it does omit and confuse some classes of records, and the descriptions and language are occasionally difficult to follow.
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, 1973 (Historical Association, LMA libary ref: 60.32 EMM). Quarter Sessions Records for Family Historians (Federation of Family History Societies), Jeremy Gibson, 1992 (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)
Justices of the Peace, Esther Moir, 1969 (LMA library ref: 21.6 MOI) The Justices of the Peace in England, 1558-1640, J.H. Gleason, 1969 (LMA library ref: 21.6 GLE) Justices of the Peace, 1361-1848, B. Osborne, 1960 (LMA library ref: 21.6 OSB)
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