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.

Police

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

Family History – Next Steps

A guide to help you dig deeper into your family history and add flesh to the bones.

Where your ancestor lived: See the guides to building history for the types of sources available for finding out where your ancestors lived.

Where your ancestor went to school: Admission registers for a large number (though not all schools) are available via the archive search room.

To see if admission registers are available for the school you or your ancestors went to search the online catalogue entering the place name and the word school in the Title field – the results will also include records held in other collections, such as plans of the school in the County Architect’s archive.

Admission registers are the main record referring to individual pupils, log books occasionally mention individuals by name (although usually teachers rather than pupils), but are wonderfully revealing about school life.

A full list of archive collections for Derbyshire schools can be found here.

See Find My Past for pre-1914 admission registers and log books   (subscription required)

Where your ancestor worked: it is not possible to find employment information for most of our ancestors, but there are a range of sources available depending on the business, the industry and the circumstances of the individual.   Look out for the forthcoming employment research guide to find out about records of apprenticeship, war service, coal miners (including accidents and trade unions), child employment and individual employees of several local firms.  A very small number of records survive relating to employees and servants on landed estates, particularly for the Harpur-Crewe family of Calke Abbey (ref: D2375).

Ancestors in the workhouse or receiving poor relief: Until 1835 parish Overseers of the Poor collected and distributed monetary and other relief to the in need.  The parish archives include records of people settling in new parishes, being removed to old ones, and examinations in bastardy cases.  Under the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, Poor Law Unions built workhouses to house, feed and set to work (if able) the poor in their district, rather than given money.  Admission and discharge registers only survive for the workhouses at Belper and Chesterfield, but records for the other unions  do include some names of individuals in receipt of poor relief.

Criminal Ancestors: Quarterly Calendars of Prisoners provide details of inmates in the county gaol and in houses of correction within the county.

Search the prisoner records database 

Other resources that might help

  • Trade directories: list prominent landowners, officials and some (not all) residents by place, plus a commercial section arranged by trade.
  • Newspapersfrom birth, marriage and death notices to reports of coroner and other court proceedings, newspapers provide more detail than can often be found in formal records.
  • Maps and Plans: can provide information to help find out about the house your ancestor lived in, or property they owned.
  • Family and estate archives: the estates of landed families were major business enterprises, employing large numbers of people and renting property to families.  Few family archive collections hold personal details of employees (though tradesmen might be mentioned in expenditure accounts), but many do include at least some records relating to tenants in rent accounts.
  • Taxation records: over the centuries many different taxes have been collected, some of which have local records.  Most of these are arranged by hundred and then alphabetically by parish, and are found in the Quarter Sessions archive collection (ref: Q).  For information about non-local records relating to taxation see The National Archive research guide.

The Defalcation of Charles Biggs

If you tune into Andy Twigge’s BBC Radio Derby show at around 2.15pm, you may hear Sarah talking about a tale of embezzlement which involved a journey to Australia.  Here’s how we discovered this story.

In October 2017 Dr Paul Freeman, a regular visitor to the record office, started analysing census records for 1841 to 1911 covering the parish of Brimington. He was particularly interested in finding answers to questions about the male working population: where were they born; what work did they do; did they settle or were they just passing through?

As well as measuring trends and movements over time Paul decided to look in detail at one particular census. He chose 1891 because that was the census year in which the proportion of immigrants amongst the working men in the village reached its peak: in that year 26% of working men were born in the village, 26% were born elsewhere in Derbyshire and 52% were born outside Derbyshire.

He wanted to know how it was that these 78% who were born outside the village knew that if they came they would likely find work and housing. It was clear from the occupations of working men that the great majority would have worked for the neighbouring Staveley Coal and Iron Company. Consequently Paul turned to the Staveley Company’s records held with us at the record office to see if they contained anything of relevance. Thus it was that in February 2018 he chanced upon the intriguing records pertaining to Charles Biggs.

I was so intrigued when Paul told me of the story he was unearthing that I asked him if he might write an article which could be shared on our blog.

In the attached article Dr Freeman tells us the fascinating tale of the Defalcation of Charles Biggs, which shows us that when using archives, you never know what you might uncover…..

The Defalcation of Charles Biggs article

A tale of crime and punishment

Recently, I’ve been blogging about William Porden’s journeys, taken from diaries (archive ref D3311/4/1-7) written between the 1790s and 1820s.  There is more to these diaries than travel, however.

In 1820, William Porden recounts a sorry tale about his housemaid, Eliza Watson, which shows that he still retained the merciful attitude towards criminals he showed over 25 years earlier when he recounted the tale of an escaped prisoner.  On 5 October 1820 he has two visitors:

I was summoned to attend two Gentlemen whom I found to be Mr Mortlake [actually Mr Mortlock], the eminent manufacturer & dealer in Ornamental China and an Officer from the Police Office of Marlborough Street. They came in search of Eliza Wilmot, my House maid who was to have left her place that Evening and to be married on Saturday morning.  She was accused in being concerned with the Man she was going to marry who was her cousin & confidential servant of Mr Mortlock, in robbing Mr M of a considerable quantity of China, a practice that had been continued some years.  She was questioned and confessed that she had received money from him, and it appeared by a Book that was found that she had placed in the Saving Bank upward of 70£ the last deposit of £20 being Feby last.  Her Box was afterwards searched and China Cups, Smelling Bottles and other articles were found that sufficiently proved her guilty of receiving them to be stolen.  I was much shocked at this discovery, for although Eliza was not a good servant in her situation my daughter thought her a Good Girl and often spoke of her in those words as a reason for retaining her, and she had taken some pains that day to find a handsome shawl to be given to her when she left the House.

Mr Porden is torn between wanting to assist the police and his desire not to let Eliza incriminate herself, although the next morning…

 I had the mortification to find that I also had been robbed for many things were discovered at Mr Mortlock’s with my name upon them and in Eliza’s trunk was found a work-box of my daughters. She was taken to Marlborough Street for Examination.… calling at the office I there identified 4 Sheets, a table Cloth, a Napkin and 2 Brushes which had had my initials cut upon them by order of my Wife to prevent the stealing of them by the servants which frequently happened.

Although distressed by the theft, Mr Porden appears more upset on Eliza’s behalf, when she is remanded to the Clerkenwell Bridewell [prison]:

What must have been her distress to find a comfortable home, a plentiful table, and society of her own rank and creditable in their Stations, exchanged for a cheerless Prison – the Prison fare and the company of wretches who have lost sight of every moral or religious feeling. Whatever sentiments of this nature she still retained were now to be changed for the depravity of her associates till she became as wicked as themselves.  … I believe that no punishment that she will hereafter receive will be so severe as what she will feel during the first 24 hours of imprisonment.

Mr Porden recovers his stolen property and doesn’t prosecute Eliza.  He hopes that she has learnt her lesson and writes:

It appeared that she had at first resisted the temptation of her Cousin to whom she was going to be married, but as he continued the practice of robbing his Master she was at length drawn in to aid him in nefarious conduct…. The Articles she stole [from] me such as Sheets & blankets seemed preparatory to House keeping. If I had prosecuted her, she would have been sent to Prison and if a single feeling of religion was left it would have been extinguished and she would have come out seven times worse than she went in, even if she was not brought to trial.  If she were brought to trial and escaped either transportation or death, one or other of which would in all probability have been her doom, her character would have forever blasted and she would have no other resource than vicious courses till she was gradually ripened for the Gallows.

Eliza calls on him to thank him on 12 October, and it sounds as if he may have read her a bit of a lecture!  Her fiancé did not benefit from such leniency from Mr Mortlock.  Eliza’s fiancé was  Daniel Gentle, aged 26.  He was actually Mr Mortlock’s Warehouseman, who, with William Read (the confidential servant), was indicted at the Old Bailey on 28 October 1820.   Both were sentenced to death.  The Criminal Registers for Middlesex are on Ancestry and show that Daniel Gentle was executed.  After his execution, it looks like Daniel’s body was claimed by his relatives and a Daniel Gentle, aged 27 years, was buried in the Gibraltar Burial Ground at Bethnal Green on 14 December 1820.  You can read the account of his trial on the Old Bailey Online website.

Mr Porden’s last mention of Eliza was when she called for a letter for a Mrs Foy on 15 October 1820, so it’s hard to know what happened to her after that.  Searching for Eliza Watson in the Old Bailey Online brings us several similar thefts over the years, some of which may have been committed by the same Eliza Watson, but it’s hard to be sure, as it’s a common name.

The most likely ones are an Eliza Watson, aged 25, who is indicted for stealing some fabric from a draper in 1824. She pleaded distress, had a good character, and was recommended to mercy and fined a shilling.  In 1830, an Eliza Watson, aged 32, is indicted for stealing fabric from a linen draper in 1830, again pleaded poverty, had a good character, and was recommended to mercy and confined for 1 month.

These could possibly be Mr Porden’s former housemaid, who, despite not being prosecuted the first time around, might have found it difficult to gain employment without a good reference and been forced, by poverty, back into crime – but that’s just supposition.  Let’s hope instead that Eliza recovered from the tragedy of her fiancé’s execution, and was able to avoid having to take recourse to ‘vicious courses’ as Mr Porden feared.

New book from a genealogist hunting a criminal ancestor

We recently exchanged emails with someone who turns out to be the author of a new book, “Finding Thomas Dames”. It sounds likely to interest anyone who has come across villainy in their family tree (or has hopes/fears of doing so).  Find out more about the book on Lynne Morley’s blog.

Did you know we have a database drawn from calendars of prisoners tried at Derby?  Well, we do – you can access it on our website.  We also subscribe to the library edition of Ancestry, which gives access to the England and Wales Criminal Registers, which are invaluable for this sort of thing. Your local Derbyshire library has access to the same subscription, so if you would like to give it a try, do drop in on them, or on us.

We can search online and hard-copy resources on your behalf if you like, as part of our research/copying service. The service costs £12.50 per half hour of staff time, and we’d usually recommend an hour-long search unless you have a specific and limited enquiry of the sort we can get to grips with very quickly.  We do have to allow time for our staff to read the request and write up the results, and that does take time.

On the other hand, if you find a name on our own database of prisoners and just want a scanned copy of the calendar from which it’s drawn, that’s a quick-ish job which we could do in 15 minutes, at a cost of £6.25.  Here’s what a calendar of prisoners looks like close-up:

Calendar

You can apply for the service on our copying/research service page.

 

Treasure 31: Annals of Crime in the Midland Circuit

This treasure was nominated by Library Assistant Emma Webster, who writes:

I came across a book when I was looking for information about highwaymen, called ‘Annals of Crime in the Midland Circuit’ or ‘Biographies of Noted Criminals in the Counties of Nottingham, Derby, Leicester and Lincoln’. While the title doesn’t sound that exciting, it is full of accounts of some horrific crimes, pretty much all of which have incurred the death penalty. It says these are reports from ‘authentic records’ although I haven’t been able to find any authors. It goes into great detail about the crimes, and the sorry endings of the criminals – including crowd reaction!  It’s definitely the most gruesome book I have come across in Local Studies…

Treasure 31 Criminals book.JPG