Catalogue description Records of the Durham Quarter Sessions

This record is held by Durham County Record Office

Details of Q
Reference: Q
Title: Records of the Durham Quarter Sessions

The records of Durham quarter sessions do not follow the pattern of those of some busier county quarter sessions which often had several series of records relating to different stages or aspects of proceedings: process books, calendars of prisoners, court books or minutes, order books (especially administrative orders), rolls and files of indictments, recognizances, examinations, etc. (the format and titles vary from county to county). In Durham, however, only one main record was kept of the proceedings at quarter sessions which was entered in the 'order books'. In these large volumes the clerk briefly recorded the official business of the court of quarter sessions, both judicial, noting pleas and judgements, and administrative. The indictment rolls (sometimes called plea rolls) were only presentments of indictments by the grand jury to the court. Sometimes a note of the plea of the accused was added, but rarely the judgement. Early rolls also had a copy of the justices' writ to the sheriff to summons or arrest persons indicted for the next sessions. Indictments were written on long membranes of parchment, fastened at the head and rolled.


This practice differed from that of many counties where indictments were written individually on strips of parchment and filed with other records including the calendar of prisoners, precept to the sheriff, recognizances, and other documents. These other records do not exist for Durham (although from 1820 the indictments were made out individually and filed with the precept and jury panels).


However, the order books contain most of the information briefly and are an excellent and almost complete series from 1616, except for gaps 1644-1649, 1656-1660 and 1682-1685. Only in the late nineteenth century were other series kept; court books and calendars of prisoners. There were, indeed, a few earlier rough drafts of orders and three memoranda books kept by particular clerks, but these add little information to the main series. Separate registers were kept from the end of the eighteenth century for the registration of documents arising outside the court, such as highway diversion orders, appointments of gamekeepers, etc. but even then most were also noted in the order books. The county treasurer also kept separate account books from 1734.


As with most legal records the important feature is the brevity of the entries and the number of abbreviations of words, especially Latin words. There are no complete records of the proceedings of trials or of any questioning of prisoners or witnesses and no verbatim records of trials were ever kept.


The order books, as the main record of proceedings, contain many references to people who were not indicted. These were not, of course, included in the indictment rolls, which only record presentments of indictments by the grand jury. Many minor offenders were merely bound over, by justices of the peace of their own neighbourhood, to keep the peace and appear at the quarter sessions without any further prosecution. Richard Allyson and Jane, his wife, for example, had been bound over to keep the peace, and, on appearing, were released from their recognizance. Others appeared merely to give evidence. A few came to take out alehouse licences although that was usually done 'out of court' before two or three justices of their neighbourhood. Moreover pleas and judgements recorded in the order books often related to indictments presented at previous sessions, just as those indicted at sessions might not be summoned to appear (or the appearance, plea or judgement recorded) until a later sessions.


If prisoners indicted of felonies were not brought into the court of quarter sessions there would be no record in the order book. As there are no calendars of prisoners committed to gaol, if the original indictments were passed to assizes there would not be any record amongst quarter sessions records. Nor would there be any record of cases referred straight to the assize justices by the justice of the peace who made the preliminary examination.


Administrative Records of Quarter Sessions:


The general and administrative duties of justices of the peace arose as part of their commission to preserve peace and good order in their county. Indeed, much of the work was carried out by a form of legal process, as for example the presentment and indictment of inhabitants of a parish for not repairing a highway.


From the Tudor period onwards the range and volume of duties of justices of the peace gradually increased until they touched on almost every aspect of county government. The order books included entries relating to many miscellaneous duties.


Alehouse and innkeepers had to be licensed by justices of the peace under an act of 1556 and were bound by recognizances to keep good order in their houses. There are registers or returns of recognizances for 1716-18; 1783, 1786, 1804 but no original recognizances survive among the quarter sessions records although some for 1583-84 are amongst the Palatinate records (PRO).


Justices were empowered by an Act of 1562 to fix maximum rates of wages. Enrolled copies of orders for rates of wages survive only from 1672-1679.


Quarter Sessions was also required to enforce the laws against Roman Catholics and Protestants who refused to conform to the Church of England. Many indictments for non-attendance at church are recorded on the indictment rolls. Roman Catholics had to register their estates at Quarter Sessions between 1715-1791. After 1791 places of worship and schools were allowed if registered at quarter sessions and in 1829 returns were made of all non-conformist meeting houses including those of Roman Catholics and protestant dissenters.


The gaol was, until 1877, when it was taken over by the Prisons Commission, the responsibility of Quarter Sessions. Appointments of officers, orders for repair and other matters were recorded in the order books and from the end of the eighteenth century reports of the gaoler, chaplain and surgeon were made regularly and usually entered in the order books. Another important source of information is the treasurer's accounts from 1734 to 1877.


The justices were responsible for the upkeep of bridges which were maintained by a county fund. In the reign of William and Mary the county grand jurors made a presentment to the court of quarter sessions of 115 public and common bridges in the county which, at the time of the inquisition, were in great decay. This served as a register of bridges; each was recorded with its name, a number, which river it crossed and who was responsible for its maintenance. An alphabetical index of names of bridges was included (Q/S/OB 7 back of volume).


Orders for the survey or repair of bridges, appointments of surveyors, and sometimes reports were entered in the order books.


The repair of the highways was a concern of the justices in that they were responsible for seeing that the inhabitants of parishes kept their roads in repair and could authorise special rates to be levied. From 1773 they could authorise diversions of highways. Under the Highway Act, 1878, the county took on responsibility for former turnpike roads and, in 1878, a special Highways and Bridges Committee was established.


Officers and Committees:


Appointment of officers and small committees and their reports were recorded in the order books. A County Treasurer was appointed in 1734 and account books survive from this time.


A county police force was established in 1840 following the Police Act of 1839 and the first chief constable, Major James Wemyss, was appointed by quarter sessions on 10 December 1839. Reports by the chief constable were presented to quarter sessions from April 1840 and recorded in the order books. They are detailed and informative and also record the number of charges made by police constables.


The clerk of the peace in Durham was appointed by the Bishop until 1836. The earliest known appointee was William Thornburgh in 1416. After 1836 the clerk was appointed by the commission of the peace as in other counties and the office of custos rotulorum was given to the lord lieutenant as had become the practice in other counties.

Q/J Records of the Justices of the Peace and the Administration of the Sessions: Q/J/C/1-5 Commissions of the Peace; Q/J/O/1-2 Declarations made in lieu of Sacrament Test; Q/J/O/3-26 Oaths of Allegiance, Supremacy and Abjuration Justices' Oaths of Office and Allegiance; Q/J/O/27/1-35 Writs of Dedimus Potestatem; Q/J/O/28 Justices' Qualification Oaths; Q/J/O/29-31a Justices' Oaths: Judicial, Allegiance and Qualification; Q/J/O/32/1-8 Ex-Officio Oaths; Q/J/O/33 Oath forms; Q/J/O/34-39 Borough Justices' Oaths; Q/J/A/1-5 Attendance Books; Q/J/L/1-12 Lists of Justices; Q/J/L/13/1-43 County Council and Quarter Sessions Year Books; Q/J/S/1-5 Warrants for appointment of Chairman of Quarter Sessions; Q/J/S/6 Scheme for Quarter Sessions; Q/J/S/7 Minutes of Quarter Sessions Committee; Q/J/X/1 Grant of Quarter Sessions for Sunderland. Q/S Sessions Process Records: Q/S/I/1-78 Indictment rolls; Q/S/I/79-346 Indictment files; Q/S/I(ind)/1-2 Indexes to indictments; Q/S/JS/1-3 Jury panels; Q/S/OB/1-44 Order Books; Q/S/OM/1-38 Rough Order books; Q/S/OA/1-4 Abstracts of orders; Q/S/OA/5-9 Orders of court; Q/S/OP/1-3 Process Books; Q/S/OC/1-15 Sessions Court Books; Q/S/C/1-23 Calendars of Prisoners; Q/S/R/1-4 Recognizances; Q/D Case papers; Q/S/DS/1-10 Sentence papers; Q/S/P/1-48 Petitions and miscellaneous papers; Q/S/A/1-27 Appeals; Q/S/E/1-9 Estreats of fines; Q/S/WZ/1-2 War zone court; Q/S/SJ/1-3 Summary jurisdiction (returns of convictions by two Justices in a summary court); Q/S/SJ/4 Probation Orders and Recognizances; Q/S/Y/1-2 Juvenile offenders; Q/S/X/1 Chairman's notebooks; Q/S/X/2 Defence certificates and Legal Aid certificates. Q/F and Q/A/C Administrative Records: Q/F/1-8 Treasurer's Account Books and Abstracts of Account; Q/F/9 Orders for payment; Q/F/10-11 County rates for gaol; Q/F/M/1-46 Militia Family Relief Payments; Q/A/C/1-3 Finance Committee Minutes; Q/A/C/4-5 Highways and New Bridges Committee Minutes; Q/A/C/6-10 Licensing Committee Minutes and other licensing records; Q/A/C/6-10 Licensing Committee Minutes and other licensing records; Q/A/C/13-14 County Rate Committee Minutes; Q/A/C/15-18 Executive Committee Minutes; Q/A/C 19-20 Industrial School Committee Minutes; Q/A/P/1-144 Plans of County Buildings; Q/A/W/1-24 Weights and Measures - Indentures of Verification. Q/C Records of Clerk of the Peace: Q/C/A/1-4 Deputy Clerk's bill and fees books; Q/C/C/1-10 Deputy Clerk's correspondence; Q/C/O/1-35 Fees and Salary of Clerk of Peace, Justices Clerks and Clerks to Petty Sessions; Q/C/O/36 Orders and Memoranda; Q/C/O/37-38 Standing Orders for Quarter Sessions; Q/C/O/39 Rules for procedure under Licensing Acts; Q/C/O/40 Acts and orders; Q/C/O/41 Orders concerning divided parishes; Q/C/R/1/1-126 Papers relating to transfer of offices and records after Palatinate of Durham Act; Q/C/R/2-3 Reports on County Records; Q/C/X/1-7 Miscellaneous Agreements. Q/R Enrolment of Justices' Records: Q/R Enrolment of Justices' Records; Q/R/HD/1,3,4,6-889 Highway diversion orders; CC/HD/890- Highway diversion orders; Q/R/HD/C/1-111 Plans of diversion orders; Q/R/HD/D/1-16 Plans of diversions; Q/R/HD/D/1-16 Plans of diversions; Q/R/HO Highway certificates and orders; Q/R/J/1-3 Constables' returns of jurors; Q/R/LV/1-5 Alehouses; Q/R/LG/1-4 Gamekeepers; Q/R/O/1-2 Oaths and Appointments of Sheriffs and Deputy Lieutenants; Q/R/S/1-13 Literary Societies; Q/R/R/1-11 Roman Catholics; Q/R/RM/1-14 Non-conformist meeting houses and Roman Catholic Chapels; Q/R/W/1-6 Rates of Wages. Q/D Deposit and Registration: Q/D/B/1-7 Enrolment Books; Q/D/E/1-43 Enclosure awards and plans; Q/D/EC/1-12 Lanchester Common Compensation; Q/D/EC/1-12 Lanchester Common Compensation; Q/D/LA/1-2 Annuities and Rent charges; Q/D/LR/1-3 Redemption of Land Tax Bargains and Sales; Q/D/LX/1-4 Commissioners of Land Tax; Q/D/LM/1-51 Inhabited House Tax Assessments; Returns of Farmers near the Sea Coast; Q/D/PV Registers of Electors; Q/D/PP/1-11 Petition for more polling places in South Durham; Q/D/S1-69 Rules of Savings Banks, Buildings, Friendly and Provident Societies; Q/D/S/70-87 Freemasons' Lodges; Q/D/SB/1-2 Enrolment of Rules of Friendly Societies; Q/D/P Plans of Public Utility Schemes (Deposited Plans); Q/D/US/1-5 Verdicts of juries on compensation; Q/D/UA/1-180 Accounts of companies and trusts.

Date: 1596-1996
Held by: Durham County Record Office, not available at The National Archives
Language: English

Durham Quarter Sessions

Immediate source of acquisition:

deposited on long-term loan by the Clerk of the Peace; the Chief Executive and Clerk; and the Clerk to the Crown Court


1961 (Acc: 1)


1961 (Acc: 2)


1961 (Acc: 8)


22 February 1965 (Acc: 124)


21 February 1969 (Acc: 401)


25 November 1969 (Acc: 444)


30 December 1971 (Acc: 530)


April 1974 (Acc: 640)


19 April 1976 (Acc: 815)


9 July 1978 (Acc: 877)

  • Durham County
  • Administration of justice
  • Local government
Administrative / biographical background:

The crown did not appoint justices of the peace for Durham before 1536 as Durham was a palatinate or liberty under the bishop of Durham. While still subject to the king and the laws of the realm it had a measure of independence of jurisdiction, and the bishop could issue judicial writs in his own name. Like other liberties the Palatinate had its own local courts and the bishop, as its lord, appointed officers. A sheriff was appointed by the bishop during his pleasure, not merely annually, as were royal sheriffs, and held his county court every two or three weeks. This court retained its judicial importance after that in other counties declined.


Minor cases and every-day matters were the concern of the manorial or halmote courts. The bishop's chancery also had its court. To deal with more serious matters the bishop appointed justices who held sessions of assize and gaol delivery which dealt with most judicial matters and were held at Durham and Sadberge between three and five times a year (slightly more frequently than sessions of itinerant justices of assize in other parts of the kingdom). Assize rolls for 1235-36 and 1279-80 at the Public Record Office, London, have been printed (Surtees Society vol. 127, Miscellanea ed. K.E. Bayley 1916).


Thomas Langley (bishop 1406-1437) defended his privileges by claiming that 'he and his predecessors had the "liberty" of the county palatine, with their own chancery, exchequer and court where all pleas and assizes were taken, their own justices, sheriffs, coroners, escheators and other ministers such as the kings of England were wont to employ whenever need arose or for the execution of parliamentary statutes; the bishops of Durham issued their own original and judicial writs, held a county court, possessed their private mint, and were accustomed to grant their peace to subjects who submitted after being outlawed'.


The comprehensive local system of justice meant that there was less need for the appointment of local justices or keepers of the peace. The bishop appointed a few from time to time, particularly to enforce parliamentary statutes, as in other counties.


In 1345, the Bishop commissioned nine men to execute the statutes of Winchester, Northampton and Westminster in Durham. In 1369 when the king appointed commissioners in other counties to enforce the Statute of Labourers and act as commissioners of array, he sent a special writ to the bishop directing him to appoint similar officers in the Palatinate. In 1385 the bishop appointed five men to preserve the peace and execute the statutes of Winchester, Northampton and Westminster in the fairs and markets in Durham. This was entered on the Durham Chancery Roll and entitled commisio justitiarorum ad pacem which according to Dr. Lapsley was the first use of the term justices of the peace in Durham (PRO,Durham 3; Lapsley, County Palatine of Durham pp.178-9). Bishop Thomas Langley appointed a commission of the peace of ten members in 1410.


Other Durham commissions of the peace were issued regularly in the fifteenth century. These usually included the justices of assize, the sheriff (unlike commissions for other counties which did not include the sheriff during his year of office), other officers such as the receiver-general, the attorney-general to the bishop, the bishop's chancellor, and a number of local landowners, including the earl of Westmorland.


No records of the proceedings at sessions, if any, held under these early commissions are known to exist. Justices of the peace developed in importance more slowly in Durham than in some other counties because there were already local judicial officers.


In 1536 judicial supremacy in the Palatinate was transferred to the king by act of Parliament (27. Henry VIII c.24). Thereafter the king appointed officers and had sole power to issue writs and pardon offenders. Although the palatinate courts of chancery and pleas remained in existence they executed process in the king's name. Moreover royal justices of assize and gaol delivery visited the county two or three times a year to deliver the gaols. Commissions of the peace were issued by the king for the county of Durham as for other counties.


The continued existence of the sheriff's courts and other palatinate courts may still, however, have had some influence on the importance of quarter sessions. Some minor offences, which in other counties were dealt with by justices of the peace, were still heard by the sheriff's court. In 1650, for example, a certain Nicholas Hartley was prosecuted at the sheriff's tourn for brewing without a licence and was fined twenty shillings. In fact he had been granted a licence by three justices of the peace so it was ordered at the quarter sessions that he should be discharged of his fine. The latter order was recorded in the quarter sessions order book (Q/S/OB/4 p.51). No records of the sheriff's courts survive.

The County Palatine included the county of Durham, which was divided into four wards based on the four chief episcopal manors, Chester, Easington, Darlington, Stockton, and also the small wapentake or lordship of Sadberge, near Darlington. In addition there were parts of Northumberland, that is Bedlingtonshire, (north of the river Blyth and south west of Morpeth) and Norhamshire and Islandshire (the district round Norham, south of the river Tweed, and Holy Island). The manor of Crayke south of the Tees in the North Riding of Yorkshire was also included. These outlying parts remained in the Palatinate until 1844. The bishopric also held other estates in Yorkshire, in Allertonshire and Howdenshire


The lordship of Sadberge was part of the earldom of Northumberland until 1189, when Hugh de Puiset, bishop of Durham, purchased it. The boundaries are now uncertain, but it included Hart, with Hartlepool, and the barony of Gainford. It was regarded as a separate lordship and had its own justices and sheriff, although usually the same men held the offices for the county and wapentake. After 1536 official documents still sometimes used the style 'the County Palatine of Durham and Sadberge'.


Each ward had its own coroner, an important financial officer, and other officers appointed by the bishop. The coroner of the wapentake of Sadberge was, however, a hereditary office tied to a holding of land. The ecclesiastical parishes in the Palatinate often covered a large area and were usually divided into administrative 'constabularies' based on townships.


The centre of the Palatinate was the city of Durham. The offices of the Palatinate chancery and exchequer and the court-room lay in the precinct of the Castle, on Palace Green between the Castle and the Cathedral. The gaol was in the gatehouse at the top of Saddler Street, leading to Palace Green and the Bailey.

After 1536 justices of the peace for Durham were chosen by the sovereign and his chancellor from amongst the leading gentlemen of the county and appointed by commission from the king. The bishop and his chancellor were, however, always included on the commission and the bishop acted as leading justice and custos rotulorum until the remaining privileges of the Palatinate were abolished in 1836 (6 William IV, c.19). Naturally many clergy of the diocese and cathedral were also included in the commissions of the peace so that the influence of the bishopric continued. The bishop or one of the diocesan officers sometimes took the chair at quarter sessions especially in the seventeenth century and some clergy were usually present. Only a small proportion of the commissioned justices were, in fact, active - regularly attending sessions and carrying out other duties. The average number of justices present at quarter sessions was twelve out of a commission of about forty in the seventeenth century or more on later commissions.


The existence of the Palatinate and bishopric may have influenced the range of matters dealt with by justices of the peace in quarter sessions. No cases of witchcraft have been noted, for example. These would have been dealt with by the ecclesiastical courts. On the other hand many Roman catholic recusants were indicted before the justices of the peace, especially between 1660 and 1688.


Administrative orders were made at quarter sessions concerning the repair of bridges and highways, the maintenance of gaols, the poor law and many other matters. Constables, both high or chief (of the ward) and petty (of the parish or constabulary) had to attend sessions and were sworn in before the court.

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