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

PC & the Pedal Crankers ‘flying the flag for Great British Cycling’

Whilst researching for our forthcoming ‘Have bike, will travel’ exhibition, I came across a reference to an ‘audio disc’ featuring a song by ‘PC & the Pedal Crankers’ which turned out to be a 7inch single featuring the songs ‘Ride Your Bicycle’ and ‘The Bike Ride Song.’

The only information we have is that it was for a Derby Police charity bike ride event in 1987, and that  PC & the Pedal Crankers were Kevin Jackson, Keith Jackson, Carole Jackson and Trevor Coakley.  It was produced by Mick Vaughan and recorded at Network Studios, Nottingham.

It would be fantastic to find out more, and having had a listen, it’s upbeat, catchy and clever enough to be due a re-release – it’s certainly music to put a smile on your face! In the light of the increase in cycling and events like Eroica Britannia, the Aviva Women’s Tour and the Tour of Britain visiting Derbyshire, it’d probably be a very well received ditty…as the tagline on the record says it’s “Flying the Flag for Great British Cycling.”

If anyone knows anything about the single, or the event it was made for, please get in touch!

‘Have bike, will travel’ starts on Thursday 5th May, simply turn up and you can view our cycling related Local Studies and Archive items in our Reception area.

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

On This Day: ‘Man Killed In A Lead Mine’; ‘A Candidate For Transportation’

From the Derby Mercury, 16th December 1857:

Man Killed In A Lead Mine

On Friday last, a poor man named Thos. Thorpe, went from his cottage at Bonsall, to Mr. Greaves’, Cliff-house, Matlock, to beg a handful of mint, and not returning on that night or the next, his wife and family became seriously alarmed for his safety.  On Sunday morning some neighbours went in search, and ascertained that Thorpe had left Cliff-house with a quantity of mint, about six in the evening of Friday.  They then tracked his course homewards by leaves and sprigs of mint, to a mine shaft on Masson, then recently run in, but there the traces of the mint ceased.  On removing the rubbish in the hole the poor fellow was discovered about six feet from the surface, of course quite dead, and the body was removed to a farmhouse near to await a coroner’s inquest.

A Candidate For Transportation

Police Office, Derby  George Marshall, a youth of 14, was charged as follows:- Police-constable Davis stated: Prisoner came to me this morning and said, “Mr. Davis, I shall find you a job to-day.”  I replied, “What shall you do?”  He said, “I shall commit a robbery.”  I endeavoured to persuade him to go home, but he would not, and said, “I shall go to the first watchmaker’s shop I can, break a window, steal a watch and run my chance, as I mean to have seven years.”  I knew that prisoner had been twice convicted at the sessions, and also that he had been twice summarily committed, and therefore I thought it best to lock him up.  Prisoner, in reply to questions from the Mayor, said that he would rather be transported than live in Derby; that he had a comfortable home and neither his father nor his mother-in-law behaved ill to him, but he did not like to stay at home.  The Mayor doubted whether sending prisoner to gaol again would be productive of any good, as it was evident he had a propensity for stealing and leading an idle life; but on the mother-in-law saying they had done all they could for him, and that if he did not return home (and he said he would not) something worse was sure to happen to him, the Bench committed him, as a rogue and vagabond, for three months with hard labour.

We hold the Derby Mercury on microfilm  – just ring to book a microfilm reader.

On This Day: ‘A Struggle with a Thief’

From the Derbyshire Times, 30th April 1881:

UNSTONE

A STRUGGLE WITH A THIEF

On Monday noon an impudent till robbery was committed by a tramp, at the shop of Jabez H. Walker, grocer, Unstone.  Whilst Mr Walker was at dinner the tramp entered the shop without ringing the door bell, and took from the till its contents, amounting to £1 6s. 6d.  But on going out of the shop he accidentally rang the bell, and Mr Walker entered the shop as he was going out at the door.  He was asked what he wanted, and replied half an ounce of tobacco.  This was supplied, for which he tendered sixpence in payment and Mr Walker going to the till for change discovered the robbery, which he charged the prisoner with committing.

The prisoner went away to the Fleur de Lis Inn, where he was followed by Mr Walker.  He acknowledged taking the money, which he gave to Mr Walker,  but on being informed that he would not be allowed to leave the place he took out a large clasp knife, and made a violent attempt to force his way out of the room.  The door of the room was, however, secured, and finding his escape cut off, he attempted, after doing some damage in the room, to jump through the window, one or two of the panes of which he first destroyed.  Whilst attempting to jump out, a man on the road threw a cinder, which struck him on the head, knocking him down insensible.  He was then secured, his hands being tied with a rope, until the arrival of Inspector Spencer, of Dronfield, who took him to the Dronfield Police Station.  He gave the name of George Jones, but refused to give his address.

He had an accomplice, who stood outside Mr Walker’s shop at the time Jones went in and committed the robbery, and who it is said went to the Fleur de Lis Inn and asked to be admitted to the room where Jones had been secured.  Inspector Spencer, with praiseworthy promptitude, went in search for him, and ultimately apprehended him in Dronfield.  He gave the name of Jack Curtis, said he was an Irishman, but refused to say where he hailed from.  On being searched a large knife with long blade and sharp point, similar to the one taken from Jones, was found upon him.  He professed to have no knowledge of Jones.       

We hold the Derbyshire Times on microfilm; Chesterfield edition from 1854, all editions from 1963 – just ring to book a microfilm reader.

On This Day: ‘Spitfire in Court’

From the Alfreton and Belper Journal, 3rd December 1909:

SPITFIRE IN COURT

A CHESTERFIELD PRISONER’S ECCENTRICITIES

An extraordinary statement was made by a prisoner at the Chesterfield Borough Police Court, on Monday, the person in question giving the name of Luke Spitfire, of no fixed address, who was something of a “spitfire” by nature.

The man was charged with stealing a Bible, valued at 50s., from the Chesterfield Parish Church, on Saturday, and evidence was given that prisoner was seen to emerge from the building with the book underneath his coat.  Benjamin Gascoigne, a young man living in Durrant road, Chesterfield, asked Spitfire what he was doing with the Bible, and he replied that he was going to sit down and read it, although it was too dark to do so.  Police-constable Kee arrested the man, who made no answer to the charge.

Spitfire loudly requested the attendance of the priests to identify the Bible as the property of the church.  Having entered a plea of guilty, the accused went on to make the following amazing statement: “I have been a ratepayer for 20 years, and of course every ratepayer helps to keep the Bishops and the priests and everybody else between, and supposing I was stealing the Bible, I was only stealing part of my own property.  (Laughter).  It is no earthly use to me, because what is in the book I have swallowed.  I claim to be tried by my peers.  I am a B.A. and an educated man, and I am the same as Lord Byron, when he committed murder, he claimed to be tried by the Lords, and he got off.  I claim to be tried by my equals and not by ‘vagabones’.”  (Laughter).

Sentence of 28 days’ hard labour was passed.

The County Local Studies Library holds the Alfreton (and Belper) Journal, 1870-1935 – just ring to book a microfilm reader.

On This Day: ‘Local News’

From the Derby Mercury, 23rd July 1851:

THE DERBY POLICE FORCE – The members of this force have received leave of absence, in detachments, for a week to visit the Great Exhibition, and the Watch Committee has presented 1l. to each man, from the police fund.  The first detachment, consisting of Sergeant Hill  and seven men, left Derby on Saturday last, to return next Saturday.

LATTER-DAY SAINTS – On Sunday last, a party of the above sect visited Belper.  They selected a spot on the outside of the town, and many of the curious visited the place of meeting, but were greatly disappointed.  Instead of a sermon it was a lecture.  The orator professed to be a chemist, and spoke more upon art and science than religion.

PILSLEY WAKES AND TAP-DRESSING – The romantic little Peak village of Pilsley exhibited an unusually gay and animated appearance last week, in consequence of the inhabitants having provided unusual attractions for their friends.  The custom of well-flowering, as practised at Tissington, had been adopted, and the floral decorations exhibited were of a most ingenious, effective, and pleasing character, and reflected great credit on the parties by whom they had been designed and executed.  A party of bell-ringers from Mottram, with no fewer than 42 hand-bells, contributed to enliven the proceedings in the intervals of the dancing and rustic sports…One little singular and rather amusing incident we cannot refrain from noticing.  A large common grass snake had been caught and apparently killed, and the ingenious villagers had formed the reptile body into “the Duke’s crest”, and placed it, attached by damp clay, to an ornamental device composed of flowers, crystals, &c.  It turned out, however, that “The snake was only scotch’d, Not killed-” and on the sun shining out inconveniently warm, his snakeship, not exactly comprehending his elevated position, nor entirely enjoying his novel and incomprehensible lodgings – watched his opportunity, and glided off, displacing some of the delicately-arranged finery, by which he was surrounded.      

The County Local Studies Library holds the Derby Mercury – just ring to book a microfilm reader.  If you have a Derbyshire library card you can also view 19th century issues of the newspaper here.