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Quarter Session Rolls

Bedford and Luton Archive Services

The Quarter Sessions Rolls include four types of documents which were filed together in rolled files known as ‘sessions rolls'.

The first two of these are the indictments and presentments:


In the fourteenth century the word indictment was a technical expression for a written accusation which was not an appeal by an individual but the outcome of a solemn enquiry into the committing of offences. The indictment became the usual way of beginning criminal proceedings. In the case of misdemeanours tried at Quarter Sessions this could be the criminal information laid by a single individual rather than a presenting jury. Information by private persons was encouraged by legislation, from the mid fifteenth century onwards, as a means of suppressing economic offences, with the informer being allowed a share of the penalty fine imposed on the criminal. Unfortunately this encouraged a breed known as 'common informers' who made a living by prying and accepting such awards. Indictments are written in Latin up to 1733, after which they may be written in English or Latin.

Those against whom a bill of indictment (that is, a formal criminal charge) had been made were first placed before a grand jury, whose function was to hear evidence for the Crown. If it was decided that there was a case to be answered by the accused, the indictment was declared to be a ‘true bill' (billa vera); if not it was ‘no bill' (ignoramus)[meaning we do not know]. In the former case, the accused then went forward to a full trial. The grand jury procedure was abolished in 1933.

Some or all of the presentments may be written in Latin. They are written in the form in which the jury would read them out, much of it in Latin. Constables presentments, written on scraps of paper were a presentment of a particular offence in a particular parish, usually concerned with deficiencies in rent collection or Bastardy, which were presented to the Head Constable.


Recognisance's make up more than 70% of all surviving Quarter Sessions Records. They are usually written in Latin and English, and are one of four general kinds:

- to keep the peace: pace ferund
- to be of good behaviour: de se bene gorend
- To attend a court and give evidence
- To attend a court and answer a charge.

The procedure was as follows:

An individual was made to go before a magistrate, accused of not keeping the peace. The Magistrate would insist on a promise or the forfeit of a £20 fine (which was generally an impossible sum for anyone to meet) and that the person find two guarantors to enter the undertaking with him or her, who were bound for £10 each. The guarantors were usually well respected neighbours or clergy. The idea was that those bound with the offender would act as a restraining influence upon them. If a recognisance was broken and the offender could not pay they would go to gaol.

They would attend the Quarter Sessions once every year until tensions had cooled and would then be released from the recognisance. If somebody were unable to find a guarantor they would be imprisoned. Often there would be a mutual binding over of peace between two parties. It was a system open to malicious abuse, neighbours often accusing each other, although the magistrate could use his discretion and refuse to arbitrate.

These records survive in great quantities because they had to be kept in case a fine was demanded and the magistrate would be accountable to the Treasury.

They can be used to assess how frequently and what kind of disputes there were in a community.


The depositions give greater detail of the crime than the recognisance.

Depositions were testimonies of the accuser and witnesses taken before magistrates prior to the crime being indicted or prosecuted. Examinations were the statements of the accused. They were written in English. The deposition hearing would usually take place in the magistrates' personal residence in the presence of a clerk. They are written under formulaic headings: Person, Place, Social Status, Magistrate, Clerk, Date, and Witnesses account of the crime, deposition ‘examinations' (The examination was the deposition of the accused). Witnesses were usually neighbours of the victim. The documents do not include the list of questions asked by the magistrate, when writing the document the Clerk weaves the questions and answers together. They are not the spontaneous words of the witness. Depositions were used to construct a case.

From the 1790s technical terms such as misdemeanour and felony are increasingly used. Assault remains a common crime, with theft on the increase, including of such strange objects as beehives and stones. There is much more poaching than in earlier years.

Other records in the Quarter Sessions Rolls
The Quarter Sessions Rolls also includes other records, such as details of conditions in the Gaol and House of Correction. There are references in the Quarter Sessions Rolls to epidemics, repairs and alterations. For example QSR 9 includes a bill for a ‘windmill and ventilators with all the apparatus necessary for ventilating the County Gaol' [p53] bills for prisoners bread, [59,77,78,84] and maintenance of two prisoners with smallpox [64]. There are also trade bills for repairs to the Bridewell and a bill for the maintenance of two prisoners there with smallpox [70].