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

Ingenious book design

Every Thursday afternoon our preservation volunteers diligently clean items from collection D2375, the archive from Calke Abbey. There was a surprise in store while cleaning D2375/A/S/1/1/1 though, a fifteenth century Alstonefield Manor Court book.

D2375 A S 1 1 1 volume

D2375/A/S/1/1/1

Re-using an older piece of Medieval parchment as the cover of a paper text block was standard practice – both parchment and paper were expensive and never wasted.  But in this case the bookbinder hit upon an original solution to store some extra loose sheets of paper: they sewed pockets in the parchment cover.

D2375 A S 1 1 1 back pocket

Parchment cover with pocket

 

D2375 A S 1 1 1 back documents

Documents revealed

Often in archives we need to find the balance between the long term preservation of documents and showing their historic context. Standard practice would be to remove the loose sheets, unfold them and then store them in an archival folder alongside the book. However, as the documents are in great condition and haven’t suffered from their unusual storage, we’ve decided to leave them exactly where the fifteenth century clerk placed them. If we ever find the documents or volume are getting damaged then of course we will remove them, but for now our researchers can have the pleasure of using the parchment cover in the way it was designed to be used all those centuries ago.

Let’s have some Downton time

Well, it’s that time of the year when the nights grow longer and darker, the leaves start to fall from the trees in their mellow fruitful way, and Downton Abbey returns to lighten up our television screens. Its parade of improbable lords, ladies and members of the lower orders has set out on its merry way again, boldly and fearlessly marching into the modern world, but this time, hopefully, not ruining Christmases for millions in the process by the wanton destruction of a much loved leading character. At the head of the parade, of course, is Lord Grantham, bulwark of the aristocracy and paternalistic preserver of the old chivalric values, who always tries to do the right thing but invariably ends up doing the wrong thing instead.

Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham is, naturally, the Lord of the Manor of Downton. (It is very remiss of the writer Julian Fellowes, or as he prefers to be known, Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, not to have made this explictly clear, as far as I’m aware, but take it from me, he probably is.) He is also likely to be the lord of lots of other manors as well. Cash poor he may be, but land rich, definitely! The size of the house indicates that, even if he himself feels poor, his ancestors mut have built up a sizable estate which was not the outcome of the possession of just one manor. A number of the leading landowners in Derbyshire, such as the Dukes of Devonshire and Dukes of Rutland, are lords of several manors, not only within the borders of this county but also well beyond them.

Lord Grantham does, however, have the classic dilemma of having no male heir. This has been a situation faced by a lord of the manor ever since the Norman Conquest. There have been, in fact, very few occasions when a manor has remained in the possession of just one family. The only two actual cases I know about, oddly enough, both have Derbyshire connections. One is for the manor of Castle Gresley in the south of the county, which  belonged to the Gresley family, and the other is for the manor of Lower Ettington in Warwickshire, which belonged to the Shirley family, who actually took their  name from one of their estates at Shirley in Derbyshire.

In the case of Lord Grantham, he had no male heirs but he did have three daughters. The main driving force of the plot from Episode One of Series One was the search for a suitable husband for his eldest daughter, Mary. He hoped she would marry a cousin called Crawley, who, you may remember, was on the Titanic just before the action started. The main premiss behind that hope was that the estate would remain with the Crawleys through a younger branch of the family. Crisis followed in the wake of the sinking of the Titanic, but, fortunately, there was another junior branch of the Crawleys to provide a suitable mate, in the form of Matthew Crawley, who, after much shilly-shallying and the odd miracle or two, ended up marrying Lady Mary. Disaster was averted (temporarily).

In the event of no male heirs, the manor passed to daughters, who took equal shares of it known as moieties, meaning that the manor had more than one owner. Where it could become very tricky was the situation where two or more of the daughters got married, as their husbands could potentially claim the right to physically divide the manor into totally separate entities. It does, of course, mean that ladies of the manor could, and did, exist. It could be the case that either daughters do not end up marrying but retain their life interest in the manor, or as is potentially the case in Downton, there is a male heir, but he is under age and his mother acts on his behalf until he comes of age. So, Lady Mary’s eventual return to the land of the living in the latest episode could open up the possibility of her being the lady of the manor, acting on behalf of her young son, George. It depends on the not unreasonable plot twist that sees Lord Grantham getting shot out while out hunting (ideally by Branson, of course), or falling off his horse which had been tripped by his labrador, or trying to catch a cricket ball with his head.

One last thing before I leave the topic of Downton Abbey is the name. Many abbeys and priories owned estates in the form of manors, often given to them by very secular men of power hoping to save their souls from ever-lasting torment in the next life. This meant that the Abbot or Prior of such an organisation acted as a lord of the manor, holding manorial courts and the like. A Derbyshire example is the manor of Temple Normaton, which was originally owned by the Knights Templar (hence the name) and then the Knights Hospitallers of Saint John. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the manors of such bodies were often granted by the Crown to reward their followers or to gain the favour of those who could benefit their interests. The Crawleys may have built a new house for themselves or acquired the estate later. Either way, it does make it seem like there is some whiff of parvenu about them.

Not on My Manor!

It is probably not uppermost in the thoughts of East End crime lords (real or fictional) that their use of the word ‘manor’ can evoke a real sense of a part of our history that goes back almost a thousand years. They actually started using the word to ape their adversaries, the police (as opposed to each other), who used it to indicate the areas of territory for local police districts, but claiming territorial rights over their ‘manor’ does echo, in a perverse way, the origins of the historical manor.

The original ‘lords of the manor’ were the followers of William the Conqueror. These were the men who climbed in the boats in 1066, landed on English soil, beat the ‘home’ army at Hastings and established an iron grip on the country in the immediate aftermath.  In other words, these were ruthless, fighting men who exerted their authority by their physical prowess, low cunning, leadership skills and sheer ability to intimidate. These men earned and demanded more than mere respect, and William made sure he saw they got their proper reward. It wasn’t, however, a question of just loot and plunder. He wanted to establish his rule over the country in the long term, and that meant keeping his army on the land, not garrisoned like a Roman legion. What he did was to give his followers  manors, estates from which they could earn revenues and profits and over which they could exercise control of the population as lords. He was, in modern parlance, playing the long game, making the members of his army stakeholders in the new regime.

The newly-fashioned ‘lords of the manor’ owed the ownership of their estates directly to the King, and total loyalty was expected of them. They were automatically required to perform certain services for him, principally to do with providing him with military manpower whenever he needed it. In return, the King left his lords to do whatever they liked in their own domain. They literally owned many of the people in their manors, those who were unfree peasants, also known as villeins or serfs, and their families. They were able to establish their own courts, known as ‘court barons’, exercising strict control in them. They even had jurisdiction to execute, although this was something that the King’s successors eventually brought back under their own control.

Well, that is a somewhat brief and highly generalised version of what the situation was like at the very start with the lords and their manors. I’m hoping to let you know more over the next year or so about what happened later with manors and their records. I have recently been appointed Project Archivist at the Derbyshire Record Office to check, revise, and update information on records of Derbyshire manors for the Manorial Documents Register run by The National Archives, information which will eventually make its way online. Over the next few months I shall be telling you how things are going with the project,  showing you examples of different types of manorial documents and explaining what they are and how useful they can be to family and local historians. Hopefully, I will also be able to show something of the way people actually lived in the past, whether it be ordinary, unusual or downright quirky. And it won’t be all just about lords!

I am hoping to encourage volunteers to take part in the project, giving them the opportunity to research the history of manors themselves and possibly to use original documents, if they feel brave enough! If you would like to take part, or wish to ask questions, please let me know. My email address is Neil.Bettridge@derbyshire.gov.uk.

Neil Bettridge