Quarter Sessions were set up in 1371 to deal with more serious non-capital offences. Trials were held 4 times a year (hence the name) in front of two or more JPs and a jury. If you’re interested in local or family history there’s a wealth of information in the Warwickshire Quarter Session Minutes, which survive from 1625 onwards. The orders made by the quarter sessions for the years 1625-1690 have been published and indexed by subject, places and people. Copies of material from them can be purchased from the Birmingham and Midland Society for Genealogy. Volunteers are currently involved in a major project to index the names in later Quarter Session minutes. 50 years’ worth have already been completed (from 1850-1900) and it is hoped to make these available shortly.
During the 19th century, quarter sessions were held in two handsome octagonal rooms in the Court House in Northgate Street, Warwick (see photo above) with adjourned sessions at the Court House in Cuckoo Lane, Coventry.
Misdemeanours and felonies
Crimes were originally divided into less serious ‘misdemeanours’ and more serious ‘felonies’. Misdemeanours were dealt with by physical punishment (whipping, exposure in the pillory or stocks etc). Felonies carried the death penalty; they originally included murder, treason, rape, assault, and stealing anything worth more than a shilling (though this was raised to 4s in the early 19th century). A guilty verdict for a felony automatically carried the death penalty but it wasn’t as bad as it sounds because only around 10% of those sentenced to death were in fact hung – originally publically – as a deterrent to other criminals; the other 90% were pardoned. By the mid-19th century the death penalty was limited to murder and treason. Transportation (or later on penal servitude) was used to dispose of serious or repeat felons.
Warwickshire County Record Office references: QS 39 for the later Quarter Session Minutes; the early bound volumes are on the open library shelves (reference A: WAR).