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Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0074 WA
Held at: London Metropolitan Archives
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Date(s): 1713-1883
Level of description: Collection
Extent: 1.65 linear metres
Name of creator(s): Quarter Sessions of the Peace for the City and Liberty of Westminster
Westminster House of Correction x Westminster Bridewell


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 WJP). 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 (misdemeanours), but which were less serious than those which went to the Assize Judges (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 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 City of Westminster covered an area from Marylebone and Paddington in the north to Pimlico in the south, from Hyde Park and Knightsbridge in the west, to Covent Garden and Soho in the east. The Commission of the Peace to hold separate sessions to Middlesex was first issued in 1618, although the reasoning is unclear; perhaps the fact that Westminster became a city in 1540, and set up a Court of Burgesses in 1585 to deal with its minor cases and moral offences, may indicate a growing feeling of civic consciousness at this time. The Westminster sessions lasted until 1844, when they again became part of the Middlesex courts' sittings, held "by adjournment" several days after the end of the latter's own, when the court literally adjourned or moved to the Westminster sessions house. Thus the Westminster records eventually came into custody of Middlesex.

Prior to 1752 the Westminster sessions met in the Town Court House near Westminster Hall; thereafter in "a building of great antiquity" demolished at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In 1805 the Westminster Guildhall was built in Broad Sanctary, and enlarged in 1888 and 1889 before the Middlesex sessions moved there. Lack of space prompted the building next door of the Middlesex Guildhall in 1913.

Until the sixteenth century prison was seen primarily as a place to remand before sentence, not as a place of punishment. From this date, houses of correction (or bridewells) were established in each county to house able-bodied vagrants, and also to reform them through the punishment of hard labour. Increasingly the justices sent petty offenders to these houses following their trials, and the overcrowding and poor conditions became notorious and widespread. The Westminster Bridewell was in Howick Place until 1664, from which date it moved to Tothill Fields and became known as the Westminster House of Correction. In 1834 this prison was replaced by a building in Francis Street, which in turn closed in 1877 when the inmates were transferred to the Millbank Penitentiary. There was also a prison in the Gatehouse of Westminster Abbey, at the western end of Tothill Street. Built in 1370 it had two gaols - one for clerics, and one for lay offenders, and was demolished in 1776-1777.


Scope and content/abstract:

Papers of the Westminster Quarter Sessions of the Peace relating to administration, 1713-1883. Records relate to the House of Correction, Tothill Fields (also known as Westminster Bridewell and the Westminster House of Correction), including reports, letter book and minute books of the Visiting Justices; papers relating to the Governor of the House of Correction and other staff, including bonds, financial accounts and petitions; bills for maintenance and repair works; inventories; reports; returns of the number of prisoners; lists of prisoners; regulations; warrants and orders; correspondence and plans of the building.

Also minute book of the Committee of Accounts for City and Liberty of Westminster, 1839-1844.

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 & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

WA/C: Committees of Quarter Sessions; WA/G: Prisons.

Conditions governing access:

Available for general access.

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 Greater London Council, and thence to the Archive.

Allied Materials

Related material:

For further records of the Westminster Quarter Sessions see WC, WJ, WJP and WR. For the Middlesex Quarter Sessions see M&WA, MA, MC, MF, MJP, MR, MSJ, MXS.

Publication note:

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)

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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