Records of Crime and Punishment

An introductory guide to historical records of criminals, policing, law and order in Derbyshire.

Most records relating to crime and punishment contain personal information – if the records relate to people who were born less than 100 years ago, access restrictions apply.  Please contact us to discuss arrangements for accessing these records.


Outside of London, Justices of the Peace were first permitted to establish county forces under the 1839 County Police Act, but it was not mandatory until the County and Borough Police Act of 1856.  It was under this later Act that the Derbyshire Constabulary was established on 17 March 1857.  However, the first constabularies to be established in the county were in 1836 by the boroughs Chesterfield and Derby (under the Municipal Corporations Act 1835), Glossop borough followed in 1867.  Following mergers in 1947 a single force covered the whole county, plus Derby from 1967 and the main archive collection for the county and borough constabularies are held under reference D3376; although some records are held in other collections.

When the county force was first established, it was overseen by the County Quarter Sessions (see below).  In 1889 Derbyshire County Council took over the administrative functions of County Quarter Sessions and a Joint Standing Committee (see D919/C/1/6) was established consisting of equal numbers of justices and county councillors to oversee the county police force, with Borough Watch Committees maintaining responsibility over their respective forces.  The Joint Standing Committee had exclusive control of all buildings used for police and quarter sessions purposes – for minutes of the buildings committee see D919/C/1/7/1-2.  The 1964 Police Act abolished the Standing Joint committee replacing it with a Police committee of the County Council with magistrates forming one third of its membership, see D919/C/1/58/1-3 for the committee minutes.

A small number of other collections and a larger number of records in a variety of other collections of individual police officers, local bodies working with the police and related activities are also described in the online catalogue, along with details of items in the Local Studies Library.  Further items can also be found by searching for the word ‘police’ or other relevant words in the Title field.

This article, written by the great-great-grandson of a Victorian police constable, shows just how much can discovered about individual officers.  

Petty constables

Prior to the establishment of the professional police forces, maintaining law and order was primarily the responsibility of a local constable appointed by Justices of the Peace from a list of eligible candidates produced by the parish Overseers of the Poor.  Although sometimes referred to as the parish constable, the area they covered was not necessarily contiguous with the parish boundaries.  The constable would “present” to the county Quarter Sessions accusations usually of minor wrongdoing against people in his jurisdiction.  Some records, particularly 18th and 19th century constables accounts may be found amongst the parish archives, and presentments are also held in the county Quarter Sessions archive.

Quarter Sessions

The County Quarter Sessions was the main administrative and judicial body for the County of Derbyshire from the early medieval period until the late 19th century, and records survive chiefly from the 17th century.  The Quarter Sessions dealt with minor or preliminary judicial cases and with the administration of local government including oversight of the poor and settlement laws. 

The records are divided into four categories, with the main records relating to crime and punishment are:

  • Order Books (from 1682) record the decisions (i.e. orders) both administrative and judicial issued by the court, often including the place of residence and occupation of defendants along with a description of the crime and sentence (ref: Q/SO/1).  They also give information about the appointment of county and local officials, including indictments against parishes and their officials relating to failure to carry out their functions such as maintaining bridges and highways
  • Calendars of Prisoners (from 1694) are quarterly lists of  prisoners in the county gaol and houses of correction, and charges against them (ref: Q/SP).  They are handwritten until 1820 and ultimately also include age and some indication of literacy.  The records between 1729 and 1913 can be searched online.  
  • Orders of and bonds for Transportation to America between 1720-1772 (ref: Q/AT).
  • Jury lists recording the names of those eligible for jury service primarily for 1775-1875, with a few entries as early as 1702 and late as 1922 (ref: Q/RJ)
  • The minutes of the Police Committee and other records relating to the management of the Derbyshire Constabulary after 1857 are currently unlisted.  See Cox’s Three Centuries of Derbyshire Annals (1890) and Calendar of Records of the County of Derbyshire (1899) for further information.

The borough (now city) of Derby fell outside the jurisdiction of the county Quarter Sessions with Court of Record established 1446 and Quarter Sessions in 1611.  As with the county, matters of civil administration were transferred to the Borough Council in 1889.  Unfortunately, a fire in the 19th century and a flood in the 20th century destroyed many of Derby’s official records.  Nevertheless, some early records (including Order Books from 1628) do survive and are catalogued under reference D3551.

In 1972, Quarter Sessions and Assize courts (see below) were abolished and replaced by Crown Courts.

Petty Sessions, later known as Magistrates Courts

Since at least the 16th century, Justices of the Peace also presided over local courts of summary jurisdiction in cases of petty crime.  These Petty Sessions often covered very similar areas to the older hundreds and wapentakes.  From at least 1750 (when the earliest records survive) Derbyshire justices began to make returns of certificates of convictions to Quarter Sessions (ref: Q/UL).  There are also three registers of private jurisdiction between 1765 and 1859, but the main records begin in 1828.  They consist principally of registers of summary jurisdiction.  Separate registers may survive for licensing (particularly for public houses and theatres) from 1872, for juvenile offenders from 1933 and for minutes of special sessions, also called justices’ meetings.  A list of the archive collections for the Derbyshire Petty Sessions/Magistrates Courts can be found on our online catalogue

Petty Sessions also dealt with non-criminal business, particularly highways matters, appointments of parish officers, licensing and adoption cases.

TIP: as the majority of court records are limited in the information they provide, particularly with regards to witness statements, newspapers are often the most useful source for details of a particular case.

County Courts

The original County Courts developed out the Shire Courts of Anglo-Saxon England.  After the Norman Conquest, the Shire Reeves (Sheriffs) became their presiding officers and remained so until the establishment of the modern County Courts in 1846.  During the Middle Ages, the County Courts lost their criminal jurisdiction and their judicial competence was restricted to pleas of certain trespasses and actions for less than 40 shillings.  The only surviving Derbyshire records are the court books between 1826 and 1844 (ref: D2) and a book of pleas 1785-1795 (ref: D5836).  

The court books show that the County Court in the 19th century still considered many cases relating to small debts, but that the range of matters dealt with was very narrow, including arrangements for Parliamentary elections. 

County Courts in their modern form were established by Act of Parliament in 1846 as courts for the easier recovery of small debts.  Successive Acts widened their jurisdiction to any common law action, tort, contract, title to lands, probate, equity jurisdiction, bankruptcy and even Admiralty jurisdiction (though the latter of course doesn’t apply in Derbyshire).  Often the jurisdiction was limited considerably by the financial value of what was in dispute but undoubtedly they transacted a great deal of business, primarily relating to civil cases concerning debt and bankruptcy.   Unfortunately, only a small number of records have survived, including minute books (also known as plaint and minute books) and bankruptcy and Workmen’s Compensation Acts registers.  For further information about the collections and records available please see our online catalogue.

Assizes Court

The Assize Court was a national court that travelled to the counties on circuits.  Originally the assizes mainly dealt with property disputes, but eventually they began to try criminal cases.  From 1559 assize judges mainly dealt with the more serious criminal offences such as homicide, infanticide, theft, highway robbery, rape, assault, coining, forgery, witchcraft, trespass, vagrancy and recusancy.

As a national court, the records at held at The National Archives under reference ASSI.  Whilst you can search the catalogue for specific personal or place names, these records have not been fully catalogued and therefore searching by county may be more successful.  For Derbyshire, the following records survive:

  • Crown and Gaol Books, 1818-1945 (ref: ASSI 11)
  • Indictments, 1662, 1667, 1687 (ref: ASSI 80), 1868-1971 (ref: ASSI 12)
  • Depositions, 1862-1971 (ref: ASSI 13)

Other records for Derbyshire can be found under ASSI 15 and ASSI 88.  Some Calendars of Prisoners for Assizes cases 1830-1971 are held at Derbyshire Record Office under Q/SP, an index is available online up to 1875.

Manor court records

Some local minor crimes and civil offences relating to the management of the land came under the jurisdiction of the lord of the manor.  Use the Manorial Documents Register to discover what records have survived for each manor.

Further Reading
  • The National Archives research guides
  • Philip Riden (1987) Records Sources for Local History
  • Derbyshire Record Office (Archives First Series) Keeping the Peace: law and order in the past in Derbyshire. A Beginner’s Guide

Explore Your Archive – A Derbyshire Spirit Story

From the Derby Mercury, 26 September 1860:

A Derbyshire Spirit Story

The following singular story is given in Owen’s “Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World,” as being told to the writer by William Howitt and given in Mr Howitt’s own words:-

The circumstance you desire to obtain from me is one which I have many times heard related by my mother.  It was an event familiar to our family and the neighbourhood, and is connected with my earliest memories; having occurred, about the time of my birth, at my father’s house at Heanor, in Derbyshire, where I myself was born.  My mother’s family name, Tantum, is an uncommon one, which I do not recollect to have met with except in a story of Miss Leslie’s.  My mother had two brothers, Francis and Richard.  The younger, Richard, I knew well, for he lived to an old age.  The elder, Francis, was, at the time of the occurrence I am about to report, a gay young man, about twenty, unmarried; handsome, frank, affectionate, and extremely beloved by all classes throughout that part of the country.  He is described, in that age of powder and pigtails, as wearing his auburn hair flowing in ringlets on his shoulders, like another Absalom, and was much admired, as well for his personal grace as for the life and gaiety of his manners. 

One fine calm afternoon, my mother, shortly after a confinement, but perfectly convalescent, was lying in bed, enjoying from her window the sense of summer beauty and repose; a bright sky above, and the quiet village before her.  In this state she was gladdened by hearing footsteps which she took to be those of her brother Frank, as he was familiarly called, approaching the chamber-door.  The visitor knocked and entered.  The foot of the bed was towards the door; and the curtains at the foot, not withstanding the season, were drawn, to prevent any draught.  Her brother parted them, and looked in upon her.  His gaze was earnest, and destitute of its usual cheerfulness, and he spoke not a word.  “My dear Frank,” said my mother, “how glad I am to see you!  Come round to the bedside: I wish to have some talk with you.”  He closed the curtains, as complying; but instead of doing so, my mother, to her astonishment, heard him leave the room, close the door behind him, and begin to descend the stairs.  Greatly amazed she hastily rang, and when her maid appeared she bade her call her brother back.  The girl replied she had not seen him enter the house.  But my mother insisted, saying, “He was here but this instant.  Run! quick!  Call him back; I must see him!”  The girl hurried away, but after a time returned, saying that she could learn nothing of him anywhere, nor had any one in or about the house seen him either enter or depart. 

Now my father’s house stood at the bottom of the village, and close to the high road, which was quite straight; so that any one passing along it must have been seen for a much longer period than had elapsed.  The girl said she had looked up and down the road, then searched the garden – a large, old-fashioned one, with shady walks.  But neither in the garden nor on the road was he to be seen.  She had inquired at the nearest cottages in the village, but no one had noticed him pass.  My mother, though a very pious woman, was far from superstitious; yet the strangeness of this circumstance struck her forcibly. 

While she lay pondering upon it, there was heard a sudden running and excited talking in the village street.  My mother listened: it increased, though up to that time the village had been profoundly still; and she became convinced that something very unusual had occurred.  Again she rung the bell, to inquire the cause of the disturbance.  This time it was the monthly nurse who answered it.  She sought to tranquilise my mother, as a nurse usually does a patient.  “Oh, it is nothing particular, ma’am,” she said, “some trifling affair,” – which she pretended to relate, passing lightly over the particulars.  But her ill-suppressed agitation did not escape my mother’s eye.  “Tell me the truth,” she said, “at once.  I am certain something very sad has happened.”  The woman still equivocated, greatly fearing the effect upon my mother in her then situation.  And at first the family joined in the attempt at concealment.  Finally, however, my mother’s alarm and earnest entreaties drew from them the terrible truth that her brother had just been stabbed at the top of the village, and killed on the spot. 

The melancholy event had thus occurred.  My uncle, Francis Tantum, had been dining at Shipley Hall, with Mr. Edward Miller Mundy, member of Parliament for the county.  Shipley Hall lay off to the left of the village as you looked up the main street from my father’s house, and about a mile distant from it; the road from the one country-seat to the other crossing, nearly at right angles, the upper portion of the village street at a point where stood one of the two village inns, the Admiral Rodney, respectably kept by the widow H–ks.  I remember her well – a tall, fine-looking woman, who must have been handsome in her youth, and who retained, even past middle age, an air superior to her condition.  She had one only child, a son, then scarcely twenty.  He was a good-looking, brisk young fellow, and bore a very fair character.  He must, however, as the event showed, have been of a very hasty temper. 

Francis Tantum, riding home from Shipley Hall after the early country dinner, that day, somewhat elate, it may be, with wine, stopped at the widow’s inn and bade the son bring him a glass of ale.  As the latter turned to obey, my uncle, giving the youth a smart switch across the back with his riding-whip, cried out, in his lively, joking way, “Now be quick, Dick; be quick!”  The young man, instead of receiving the playful stroke as a jest, took it as an insult.  He rushed into the house, snatched up a carving-knife, and, darting back into the street, stabbed my uncle to the heart, as he sat on his horse, so that he fell dead, on the instant, in the road. 

The sensation throughout the quiet village may be imagined.  The inhabitants, who idolised the murdered man, were prevented from taking summary vengeance on the homicide only by the constable’s carrying him off to the office of the nearest magistrate.  Young H–ks was tried at the next Derby Assizes; but (justly, no doubt, taken into view the sudden irritation caused by the blow) he was convicted of manslaughter only, and, after a few months’ imprisonment, returned to the village; where, notwithstanding the strong popular feeling against him, he continued to keep the inn, even after his mother’s death.  He is still present to my recollection, a quiet, retiring man, never guilty of any other irregularity of conduct, and seeming to bear about with him the constant memory of his rash deed – a silent blight upon his life.  So great was the respect entertained for my uncle, and such the deep impression of his tragic end, that so long of the generation lived the church-bells of the village were regularly tolled on the anniversary of his death.  On comparing the circumstances and the exact time at which each occurred, the fact was subtantiated, that the apparition presented itself to my mother almost instantly after her brother had received the fatal stroke.

Heanor church burial, 4 February 1795, M465 vol 4

Heanor church burial, 4 February 1795, M465 vol 4

Derby Mercury, 5 February 1795

Derby Mercury, 5 February 1795

D4734/1/10/11 Account of murder of Francis Tantum in 1795

D4734/1/10/11 Account of murder of Francis Tantum in 1795

Derby Mercury, 19 March 1795

Derby Mercury, 19 March 1795

D4734/16/20/3 Elegy on death of Francis Tantum by F. Skerrett for newspaper, 1795 (pt1)

D4734/16/20/3 Elegy on death of Francis Tantum by F. Skerrett for newspaper, 1795 (pt1)

D4734/16/20/3 Elegy on death of Francis Tantum by F. Skerrett for newspaper, 1795 (pt2)

D4734/16/20/3 Elegy on death of Francis Tantum by F. Skerrett for newspaper, 1795 (pt2)

D4734/16/20/3 Elegy on death of Francis Tantum by F. Skerrett for newspaper, 1795 (pt3)

D4734/16/20/3 Elegy on death of Francis Tantum by F. Skerrett for newspaper, 1795 (pt3)

Q/RA 1/3 Register of licensed victuallers, 1795

Q/RA 1/3 Register of licensed victuallers, 1795

Excerpt from Pigot's Directory, 1821-1822

Excerpt from Pigot’s Directory, 1821-1822

Heanor church burial entry, 16th February 1848, DVD 83

Heanor church burial entry, 16th February 1848, DVD 83