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.

A day at the archive issue desk…

Every day the search room staff produce a wide range of documents, differing not only in the information they provide, but also the dates they were created, how and why they were created, how and why they will be used. All documents are collected and returned through the issue desk so we can ensure the best protection and security possible during access. As part of this procedure, all our visitors must order the documents required so that we can retrieve the correct item from the stores, sign to say they have received the document, initial to say they have returned it, and a staff member must sign to say they have returned it to the stores.

The gallery below includes many of the documents that were requested and consulted on one particular day last month (Tuesday 13 October). On that day, we had visits from:

  • a county council colleague working in the legal services department
  • an Australian lady trying to find a photograph (unsuccessfully) and other information (successfully) about a criminal ancestor
  • a medieval historian searching for clues about land ownership in Eggington
  • a budding local historian interested in that peculiarly Derbyshire tradition of well-dressings
  • a second family historian searching for the father’s name of one of her ancestors who was born a bastard in 1818
  • a third family historian endeavouring to discover the exact grave location of an ancestor buried at St Oswald’s church in Ashbourne
  • a National Trust volunteer from Calke Abbey looking for various bits of information relating to the house and the Harpur Crewe family for a new learning resources being developed there.


Not  all our visitors go away satisfied with what they have found out, sometimes because they were expecting to find something else, and sometimes because the records didn’t actually give them an answer at all. However, it is very rare that we have that we have visitors who have not enjoyed the experience of searching through and handling the archives. Often they have to test their skills of reading old handwriting (and the archivist’s skills sometimes too!). Usually they unintentionally discover how different records were created and kept at different times and in different places – for example, it is extremely uncommon to find a record of where in a churchyard a particular grave is located, but there are some churches or vicars that did record this information.

Another day in the life of the issue desk coming next month…