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

The Monocled Mutineer’s early career at Blackwell Colliery

On the 100th anniversary of the death of Percy Toplis, I thought it appropriate to look into the connections he had to the local mining industry. Toplis, better known as the Monocled Mutineer, is a bit of a local celebrity for being an imposter, claiming to be an army officer, being mutineer, deserter and a criminal. With that fairly long list of wrongdoings, it is clear that Toplis was a ‘wrong ‘un’, as we’d say in Derbyshire. It is not known how real the character created by the media at the time, who viewed him as Britain’s most wanted man at the time, actually was. It is clear that he was a troubled soul from an early age.

Having been born to poor parents in Chesterfield who couldn’t afford to keep him, he was passed around family between the Mansfield and Alfreton/South Normanton area. The main guardians for him were his grandparents, who lived in South Normanton. It was here that he went to school and was known to get into trouble often for bullying other children. They cared for him until his first criminal conviction in 1908 for obtaining two suits under false pretences. It was then that his grandparents admitted that they didn’t know what to do with the boy. He was passed on to his Aunt Annie Webster, who lived in Colliery Row, Blackwell.

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Photograph of Percy Toplis

His connections with Blackwell Colliery started when he left the school at South Normanton he’d been attending until he reached the age of 13. He then took up a blacksmith’s apprenticeship at Blackwell Colliery. An apprentice to a blacksmith was expected to learn the job for around four or five years until they were deemed qualified. Their job was an important one in the daily running of a colliery. They would help to create and maintain tools, mend machinery and shoe the pit ponies. However, the thoughts of a steady job appeared too much responsibility for Toplis and he didn’t enjoy the work at all. He seldom attended and was eventually caught skipping his night shift, in favour of spending a night in the pub at the Blackwell Arms. For this he was sacked and Toplis decided to become a wander, mainly in Scotland, and partaking in petty crime.

What happened to him following the outbreak of the First World War is widely known, so this post won’t go into the mutiny he was supposedly a part of or his various attempts of defrauding soldiers’ salaries or disguising himself as an officer, although I would recommend researching into that if you wish. Instead, I have tried to look at how Percy Toplis didn’t wish to conform to the Derbyshire tradition of working at a colliery, despite living in a time when it would have probably been expected of a boy growing up around many pits in the area around Alfreton, Blackwell and South Normanton. During Toplis’ lifetime, these places were built on the unity and pride that colliery working provided within a community built around this industry. Instead Toplis became famed for not conforming to any of society expectations, instead walking his own line at every given opportunity, no matter how wrong this was.

percy toplis

Headline from the Aberdeen Press and Journal, 09 June 1920

As we mark the anniversary of his death today, during a police shootout in Cumbria, after being recognised by a local constable, perhaps it is best to remember the charity given to him following his death. The Penrith Board of Guardians organised his burial in Christian ground at the Beacon Cemetery. There was opposition to this because of his many crimes but the Rev R H Law, Vicar of Christ Church, insisted upon a Christian burial, reminding others that Percy Toplis had been “violently removed from this life before he could be judged on earth.”

Bibliography:

‘How he deluded hotel guests’, Dundee Courier, 8th June 1920

Eden District Council, Percy Toplis, https://www.eden.gov.uk/leisure-culture-and-events/penrith-and-eden-museum/museum-collections/percy-toplis/

Emery, J., ‘Belonging, Memory and History in the North Nottinghamshire Coalfield’, Journal of Historical Geography, 59 (2018), pp. 77-89.

National Mining Museum, Skilled Colliery Craftsman, https://nationalminingmuseum.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/FF2-Craftsmen.pdf

Pixel Surgery, Percy Toplis Bothy, Tomintoul – The Enchanting Secret Behind the Monocled Mutineer, 17 March 2018, https://pixelsurgery.wordpress.com/2016/06/06/percy-toplis-bothy-tomintoul/

Mining the Seams is a Wellcome Trust funded project aiming to catalogue coal mining documents, originally held by the National Coal Board, so they can eventually be viewed by the public. Alongside the Warwickshire County Record Office, the project aims to focus on the welfare and health services provided to miners. 

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Treasure 5: volume of criminal portraits

This treasure is part of the Derbyshire Constabulary collection (the full list for the collection can be downloaded from our catalogue). It shows photographs of people who had been apprehended by the police, taken shortly after their arrest. The photographs alone contain masses of social history. The volume was chosen as a treasure by Elissa, a longstanding volunteer here at Derbyshire Record Office. She remarks: ‘I particularly like the fact that it’s the same police officer who keeps appearing in the criminal portraits!’

The volume of criminal portraits, chosen by our volunteer Elissa

The volume of criminal portraits (D3376/OS/7/1), chosen by our volunteer Elissa

The Derbyshire Constabulary was formed on 17 March 1857 Continue reading