What were the Quarter Sessions?
Quarter sessions was the name given to the principal court of the county magistrates, so called because by law the court had to convene four times a year. In Yorkshire, each of the three Ridings had its own quarter sessions. Quarter sessions courts were replaced by crown courts in 1971. Magistrates courts as they now exist are what were formerly known as 'petty sessions'. In these courts, magistrates sitting without a jury hear cases involving relatively minor offences.
Quarter sessions had three main purposes. The first was to hear criminal cases which required a jury but which were not serious enough to pass to the assize court. The second was to provide the local prison (until 1878, when prisons were nationalised), the county police force, the county asylums and bridge maintenance. All these administrative duties were taken over by county councils when these were established in 1889.
The third function was to act as a public registry for all kinds of business. This included accepting enclosure awards and parliamentary plans of railways and other utilities, registering parliamentary electors, Roman Catholics, freemasons and various other groups which were from time to time under public scrutiny.
The scope of quarter sessions was thus considerable and its archives are potentially a source for a great variety of information. The quarter sessions records of the West Riding of Yorkshire are available at the West Yorkshire Archive Service Headquarters. There is a published guide: B J Barber, Guide to the Quarter Sessions of the West Riding of Yorkshire 1637-1971 and Other Official Records (Wakefield, 1984), a copy of which is available for consultation at Doncaster Archives. Doncaster borough had its own quarter sessions which were independent of the West Riding, and further details about this court can be found in M Oxley's published work Doncaster Borough Quarter Sessions: 19 July 1796 to 20 January 1823.
The catalogues of the archives of both the West Riding of Yorkshire court of quarter sessions and the borough of Doncaster quarter sessions, as well as those of the magistrates courts of Doncaster and Thorne are to be found online at the Access to Archives website: www.a2a.org.uk.
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