AIM25 : Click here to go back to the AIM25 homepage
Archives in London and the M25 area


Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0074 WJP
Held at: London Metropolitan Archives
  Click here to find out how to view this collection at ›
Date(s): 1687-1887
Level of description: Collection
Extent: 0.58 linear metres
Name of creator(s): Quarter Sessions of the Peace for the City and Liberty of Westminster


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. The Commission of the Peace gave them the power to try offences in their courts of Quarter Sessions which the manorial courts were not able to deal with (misdemeanours), but which were less serious than those which went to the Assize Judges (felonies). It 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.

Gradually they took over the work of the sheriff in the county. During the sixteenth century their powers and duties increased, as the Tudor monarchs found them a cheap and effective way of enforcing their will across the country. Likewise, the new middle classes saw the post as a means to gain local prestige and influence (despite the arduous and costly duties) and there was regular pressure 'from below' to increase numbers in the Commission. Consequently, at this time, the numbers on the commission rose from an average of 8 to around 30 to 40 by the middle of the sixteenth century. Not until the mid-nineteenth century did the post lose its desirability and numbers begin to drop off. It was a system that recognised local social structures - the natural wish to regulate local law and order, and men wanting to be judged by other local men. The justices have often, aptly, been described as 'the rulers of the county', and the crown had to be careful to choose men whose standing would not turn them into faction leaders. Equally, the justices' unpaid status ensured that the crown could not take advantage of them and act despotically, and they retained some local independence. Justices needed to be of sufficient local status to exercise authority in a judicial and administrative capacity, and to supervise the parish officials who did so much of the actual law enforcement. Men were therefore appointed from the ranks of the local gentry, most without legal training. To some extent their unpaid status excluded men from the lower orders who had to work and earn a wage.

As early as 1439 a statute introduced a property qualification for each prospective justice (MJP/Q). Many names on the commission were purely honorific, not all listed had to attend every court, and in practice only a minority did so. Only those named as being of the quorum (who possessed knowledge of the law) had to appear.

The justices were helped in their work by parish and court officials, and most particularly by the Clerk of the Peace who was responsible for the everyday administration off the court as well as maintaining a record of its work.

During the eighteenth century as the sessions' work increased in amount and variety, committees were set up and officials were appointed for specific tasks. The County Treasurer was one such official, whose post developed from the treasurers appointed to keep the funds for which rates were periodically raised, such as the repair of bridges, maimed soldiers and maintenance of the house of correction. Sometimes one person did have control of several funds - in Middlesex, for example, in 1726 Sir Daniel Dollin was made general treasurer of the County; and in 1731 John Higgs was formally appointed general treasurer to receive funds raised by any public rates, to be paid an annual salary of twenty-five pounds, and to keep an account book for annual audit and storage by the Clerk of the Peace. The County Rate Act of 1739 directed that one general rate should be levied instead of several, and that it should be paid to the treasurer appointed by the sessions. Under this Act, Westminster had no separate rate from Middlesex, meaning that the latter's county treasurer was responsible for the City's accounts also. Records of the work of these officials may be found not only in the main body of sessions records (MJ, WJ, WR), but also in their own series: WC - Clerk of the Peace; MF - County Treasurer; MS - County Surveyor; TC - records of offices held by county officers outside sessions work.


Scope and content/abstract:

Records of the Justices of the Peace for the Westminster Quarter Sessions of the Peace, 1687-1887. WJP/C contains the original Commissions of the Peace issued to the Justices of the Peace; WJP/L are lists of the justices in those commissions; WJP/D contains names of justices who had paid subscriptions for dinners held at the Sessions House; WJP/O contains a record of oaths taken by justices upon their appointment to the commission; and WJP/R is a record of the qualifications needed by justices in order to be eligible for appointment

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:
Latin and English.

System of arrangement:

The material is arranged in 5 classes:
Commissions (WJP/C) 1687-1837;
Dinner subscriptions (WJP/D) 1721-1727;
Lists of Justices of the Peace (WJP/L) 1689-1837;
Oaths on appointment (WJP/O) 1820-1837;
Returns of qualifications (WJP/R) 1835.

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.

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 other records of the Westminster Quarter Sessions see WA (Administration), WC (Clerk of the Peace), WJ (Court in Session) and WR (Enrolment, registration and deposit). See also Middlesex Quarter Sessions records at M and WA, MA, MC, MF, MJ, MJP, MR, MSJ and 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

Related Subject Search

* To search for other records with similar subjects, tick any subjects above then click "Run New Search"

Related Corporate Name Search

* To search for other records with similar names, tick any names above then click "Run New Search"

Related Placename Search

* To search for other records with similar placenames, tick any names above then click "Run New Search"