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Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0074 MSJ
Held at: London Metropolitan Archives
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Date(s): 1774-1915
Level of description: Collection
Extent: 42.53 linear meters
Name of creator(s): Middlesex Quarter Sessions of the Peace


Administrative/Biographical history:

Since 1361 the Justices of the Peace met in their court of Quarter Sessions to try offences, and also, from the mid Sixteenth Century to deal with county administration. It was from this latter date with the increase in their workload that Justices began to do some of their business (minor legal and specific administrative tasks) outside of the formal sessions, either singly or in small groups.

Occasionally the practice was ordered by government - for example an Act of 1541 ordered Justices of the Peace to meet six weeks before a Session of the Peace in divisions in the county to inquire about vagabonds and related matters. In 1605 a Council order required Justices, again in their county divisions, to meet once (from 1631, monthly) between General Sessions of the Peace to inquire into the enforcement of those statutes regarding labourers, alehouses, rogues and the Assize of Bread.

Over the next century meetings outside of sessions became more regular, and more matters were dealt with there which had previously been heard at full sessions. They were often carried out at the magistrates' own homes, sometimes at special session meetings in a local court house, tavern or other meeting place. Because of the workload for Justices in Middlesex such meetings outside of the main sessions occurred from a very early date in that County. There are references to divisional meetings and special sessions (for example rating, licensing, highway repairs) in the sessions' registers (see MJ/SB/R) which survive from 1608 - the first mention is a meeting at a sessions held in Uxbridge in 1556; and a series of minutes between 1651 - 1714 taken at monthly meetings of Justices in Brentford Division.

An order made by the Middlesex Quarter Sessions in 1705 that the "petty sessions" for the several divisions of the county should be held "at the known and usual place" indicates that their existence must have been well recognised by then. The divisional arrangement in the County was based to a large extent upon the old administrative area known as a 'hundred'. Ossulston was the largest, densely populated and further divided into several smaller parts from at least the 1680s - Holborn Division and Finsbury Division within it remained as petty sessional divisions until the late Twentieth Century. From 1828 all courts of Quarter Sessions were able to create districts or divisions specifically for petty sessions, either new areas or formalising any earlier informal divisions.

It was not only routine administration which was dealt with at these meetings, but some of the judicial procedure which needed carrying out pre-trial. Magistrates would examine alleged offenders and witnesses, take sworn statements (depositions), issue warrants for arrest or summonses to appear at court, bind over individuals to appear, and commit the accused to gaol to await trial or further investigation. Increasingly, they went further and began to sit without a jury to dispense immediate summary justice - either alone, or as a group of two or more known as the 'petty sessions'. They were, of course, hearing very minor cases such as those involving common assault, drunkenness, apprenticeship disputes, byelaw infringement, and (from 1664, MR/R/C) attendance at illegal religious assemblies. The punishment they gave here was binding over with a recognizance to keep the peace; committal to prison for a short time (with a discharge before a main trial at the sessions started); or arbitration between the parties concerned to reach a settlement.

Offences which required a jury trial would still be heard at Quarter Sessions or the Assizes (Gaol Delivery Sessions at the Old Bailey), but petty sessions avoided the expense and hassle of a full trial for what were literally petty cases.


Scope and content/abstract:

Records of Middlesex Quarter Sessions relating to Petty Sessions and summary jurisdiction, 1774-1915. Generally, records of summary jurisdiction and petty sessions are not regularly found before the mid Nineteenth Century because there was no obligation to return any to the Clerk of the Peace before then, and their survival rate is low. Some were voluntarily returned (mainly convictions and depositions), and there is record of cases within the main sessions records, particularly on the sessions rolls (see MJ/SR). An Act of 1847 required details of juvenile convictions to be returned to the Clerk; an Act of 1848, required details of fines, depositions and case papers; but it was the Criminal Justice Act of 1855 which laid down that all petty sessional records should be returned for filing in the main sessions records at the next Quarter Sessions following. The quantity of records that have survived for the Middlesex petty sessions is small and date mainly from the Nineteenth Century. MSJ/PR are poor law removal orders; MSJ/F are returns of fines imposed at petty sessions; MSJ/R are returns of offenders and bastardy maintenance orders; and MSJ/C and MSJ/CY are records of convictions.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

The material is arranged in five classes of records:
MSJ/PR: Poor Law Removal Orders (1835-1844);
MSJ/F: Returns of Fines (1863-1886);
MSJ/R: Returns of Offenders and Maintenance Orders (1844-1860);
MSJ/C: Records of Convictions (1774-1915);
MSJ/CY: Records of Convictions (1848-1914).

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.

Finding aids:

Please see online catalogues at:

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

The records passed to the Middlesex County Council, and thence to the Archives.

Allied Materials

Related material:

For other records of the Middlesex Quarter Sessions see MA (County Administration); MC (Clerk of the Peace); MF (County Treasurer); MJP (Justices of the Peace); MJ ( Court in Session); MR (Enrolment, Registration and deposit) and MXS (Sessions post 1889). The records of various Petty Sessional Divisions are found under the prefix 'PS', for example, PS/HOL for the Holborn Petty Sessional Division.

Publication note:


The original Guide to the Middlesex Sessions Records 1549-1889, E.D. Mercer, 1965 (LMA library ref: 60.32GRE), 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, 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

Archivist's note:

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

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