This is the first of five blogs featuring the records of the court of Quarter Sessions and the “unheard voices” they allow us to hear.
Today we are almost deafened by voices, thanks to the internet and of course, social media! But it hasn’t always been like this. Before the mid 19th century, most people didn’t own property, had no vote, and didn’t go to school. This means their lives could leave little or no trace within the written records and so their voices remain silent.
The records of the court of Quarter Sessions are an exception to this. Quarter Sessions were meetings of local magistrates, knows as Justices of the Peace, who met four times a year, hence the name. The court dealt with a great variety of complaints and crimes, from stealing a hat to dangerous rioting. In 2019 we launched a volunteer project called Maligned, Marginalised and Misunderstood to look in detail at a particular series of these court records, the “information and examinations” between 1728 and 1770. We wanted to bring out the voices of ordinary people, especially those at the margins of society.
Many of the cases tell us about the local trades, neighbourly disputes, and abandoned children of the parish. We often have no idea about people’s motives, their background or how the case affected their day to day lives. And the Sessions don’t necessarily tell us what the punishment or resolution was. But we can start to see patterns of behaviour, what details people focused on and therefore what was important to them and their community.
Every ‘Session’ gives us the name of the accused or accuser, where they live, what they do, and what the case is about. In 1740 John Jones the younger of Coleford in Newland, a cooper is accused of violent behaviour. According to the person who wrote it, ‘the family have a very bad character in the neighbourhood’. They don’t just state what happened, they offer an opinion. This can be just as valuable to us, as facts alone don’t tell us about attitudes or customs of the day, or what one particular community was like to live in.