Each record contains a transcription of information from various court records about people accused of non-capital crimes in the English county of Surrey. Non-capital offences were those that did not carry the death penalty.
The records also hold details of the victims and witnesses of crimes. The amount of information contained varies but the records of the Surrey Quarter Sessions can include the following information about your ancestor if they appeared accused of a crime (as a defendant)
Year of crime
Date of crime
Details of the offence
Outcome (how the accused pleaded and what happened at any trial)
Location of the court
Name of the prison
Other information (can include marital status and details of other accused and charges)
Name of accuser
Names of witnesses
Name of magistrate
If your ancestor appeared as a witness or victim of a crime you can could find out the following:
Details of the crime
Details of their evidence, sometimes including an address
There are 47,543 Surrey Quarter Sessions records covering a period between 1780 and 1820.
The Quarter sessions were held in Surrey four times a year over a number of days, in rotation at different locations around the county. They took place in the weeks around the dates of Epiphany (January 6th), Easter (variable dates), Midsummer (June 24th) and Michaelmas (September 29th) and dealt with a variety of misdemeanours, minor offences and other crimes that did not carry the death penalty.
The sessions were presided over by magistrates, otherwise known as justices of the peace. Magistrates were appointed by the Lord Chancellor and were unpaid. They were prominent landowners, holding lands worth over £100 a year and were usually either clergy or gentlemen.
Quarter Sessions operated as commissions of Oyer and Terminer (an Anglo-French term meaning to hear and determine) and used two juries. The first, the Grand Jury, was to consider each indictment against an individual and examine the prosecution evidence to decide if there was a case to answer. If they decided there was sufficient evidence to proceed to trial the Trial or Petty Jury would hear all the evidence and deliver the verdict. Justice was swift at the time, with the majority of trials lasting less than half an hour. The defendant rarely had a defence barrister.
Magistrates, sitting either singly or in pairs, could also operate without a jury to administer summary justice outside the Quarter Sessions. This form of justice was often used to deal with vagrancy or public order offences. Punishment could be dispensed straight away with a short spell of hard labour at one of the Houses of Correction a frequent sentence.
The most serious crimes, which did carry the death penalty, were heard in twice yearly Assizes by judges from the central courts. Those cases are not covered in these records.
While you can get a lot of information about your ancestor from these records bear in mind that names and occupations of the defendant were often false or inaccurate and aliases were often used. The defendant’s parish and county tend to refer to where the crime took place, rather than where the defendant lived.
The offence type information was assigned by the volunteer transcribers and does not generally appear in the original records.
Prisons and houses of correction are generally where the defendant would have been held to await trial. Houses of correction were also where prisoners were sent to perform hard labour. Short spells of hard labour were often used for those convicted of vagrancy and the idle and disorderly poor who were convicted summarily outside of the formal Quarter sessions.
Vagrancy is a very common crime in these records. It refers not only to people who were sleeping rough but also to those charged with workhouse offences. Riot refers to an offence involving a number of defendants. If a victim is named it would refer to an assault, if not then an attack on property. Homosexuality and bastardy (the fathering of an illegitimate child) were also offences. Bigamy was fairly common as divorces were then only an option for the very wealthy. As these records fall before the 1832 Anatomy Act, which allowed anatomy schools a more reputable supply of cadavers, grave robbing also sometimes appears as an offence.
Policing was still in its infancy at this time. It was the victim who usually brought a case to trial rather than the police. In the transcript the accuser is the person who has taken the case to court.
Transportation for 7 years or longer was a common sentence at this time, even for some quite minor crimes. Convicts (prisoners who were sentenced to transportation) from England were sent to America until the War of Independence broke out in 1776 forcing the British government to abandon transportation. Male prisoners were instead sent to prison hulk ships. The practice was revived in 1787 when the first convicts were sent to Australia.
Some magistrates continued to send convicts to America even after the practice was stopped. During this period some convicts were also sent to Africa.
These records were gathered together by volunteer indexers and transcribers in Surrey. They use two primary sources, the process book and the calendar of prisoners (or gaol calendar) to build a unified record for each case.
Where witness statements and examinations relating to a case survive among the Surrey Quarter Sessions papers, the document reference(s) to this additional archive source is given. These items will give further details of the case and can be consulted at Surrey History Centre.
Transcription © Surrey History Trust Original records held by Surrey History Centre (SHC ref QS2/5-6)