Assizes, Quarter Sessions and Criminal Records

Do you have a criminal in the family? There is (perhaps unfortunately) a slightly morbid fascination with the idea of having an ancestor with a criminal past. Some families are quite proud of these dubious connections, others are faintly ashamed and try to hide the fact, which can be problematic for family history research.

Below is a brief description of the legal administrations of Britain (later the United Kingdom) and where to find their records online.

The Assizes

I came across a mention of my family name in an assizes index maintained by the Society of Genealogists. I had spent a day in London, firstly at St Catherines House where the BMD’s indexes were kept at that time and then on to the Society of Genealogists where, in a frantic last few minutes before I had to start my journey home I randomly explored various card indexes. Please note, this isn’t the way to research family history. Even having an uncommon surname, I have no idea if I was directly related to that person that I found and so the information on it’s own was quite meaningless.

Incidentally, I have also recently discovered that one of my ancestors was transported to New South Wales in 1825. If you would like to know a little about the transportation of convicts, please CLICK HERE.

The assizes began in the 13th century and were only abolished in 1971 with the introduction of the County Courts. By 1559 they were hearing only the more serious cases while the more common offences were tried at the local quarter sessions. The assizes were courts presided over by visiting judges from the higher courts of London and were held in the main county towns of England and Wales (Wales only became part of the assizes circuit in 1830). The locations were grouped into six judicial circuits and were visited twice every year.

Quarter Sessions

County and borough justice in England and later the United Kingdom was administered by justices of the peace, first appointed in 1327 by Edward the third. By 1368 they had the power to hear and pass judgement on criminal cases and from 1388 they sat in their counties four times a year. These Courts of Quarter Sessions were held at Epiphany (January), Easter (March/April), Midsummer (June/July) and Michaelmas (September/October) to try those cases not punishable by the death penalty.

The Quarter Sessions were replaced by the Crown Court of England and Wales in 1972.

Assizes records and Quarter Sessions records are available to search for at The National Archives. A guide to researching their records can be found here: Assizes Criminal 1559-1971.

Online Records

Criminal Registers for England & Wales 1791-1892
The criminal registers in this database contain the following information:

Name of criminal
Birthplace (mostly up to 1802)
When and where tried
Sentence (death, transportation, imprisonment, acquittal, etc.)
Where and when received
Date of execution or release
By whom committed, to whom delivered

A limited number of assizes records are available to view at British History Online

Miscellaneous Legal Records online

Wiltshire Quarter Session Calendars 1728-1859


Manchester Prison Registers 1847-1881