Tales from the Quarter Sessions: Somerset's criminal past
In the last talk before our summer break, archivist Liz Grant took us through her work on the collection of Quarter Session records at the Somerset Heritage Centre, picking out some examples to give a flavour of Somerset life as seen from the judges’ bench.
The courts of the Quarter Sessions were established in 1363 and generally dealt with minor offences. The Assize Courts, established in the 14th century, heard the more serious cases. Over time the work of the Quarter Sessions changed from purely criminal to dealing with more administrative matters such as the Poor Law and illegitimacy.
The Somerset Heritage Centre has one of the most complete collection of Quarter Sessions records, thanks to early Justices deciding that they needed to be kept for reference, and ignoring the voices of those who wanted to dispose of them. As a result of a grant-funded project, a catalogue of records from 1561 to 1800 is now available on their website.
Liz then took us on a tour of all manner of cases, from assault to bastardy orders, theft, swearing and witchcraft. The stories revealed in the documents were evidence statements, so the trial outcomes were often unknown, but nevertheless they revealed many amusing or bizarre examples. One such was the prosecution of two men who tried to steal another man’s ducks by wading naked through his pond. Someone else was accused of animal cruelty for dressing up a dog and making it smoke a pipe. A man was accused of swearing 200 profane oaths, and, as Liz pointed out, one wonders who was there to count them.
While some of the cases relating to the Monmouth Rebellion were unique to the West Country, most were typical of their times and could be found anywhere. Liz painted a clear picture of what a wealth of social history could be found by consulting these Quarter Sessions records.