Who Do You Think You Are?

Quarter- Session Petitions

Thousands of petitions from the 17th and 18th centuries are now online, says Brodie Waddell


There is a decent chance that your 17th- and 18th-century forebears will have submitted a petition to the local magistrate­s if they were prisoners, paupers, publicans or parish o cers. These humble requests or complaints, which might come from a single individual or a large group of neighbours, were an extremely common way for ordinary people to ask the authoritie­s for assistance. Fortunatel­y, many thousands of these documents have survived in local archives, and transcript­ions of a substantia­l selection are freely available online.

Today we tend to think of petitions as political statements backed by a list of signatures, whether written out on paper or at petition.

parliament.uk. However, until the 19th century it was far more common for people to present smallersca­le petitions that meekly requested redress or favour for a particular individual or local community. Most were submitted to the county magistrate­s at the quarter-sessions court that was held every three months in every county of England and Wales. Each county’s justices of the peace might receive dozens or more petitions each year, and they often filed them away after making their decision on each case, thankfully preserving them for posterity. As a result upwards of 20,000 survive from the 17th century alone.

Other authoritie­s also received similar petitions. The king received hundreds each year, many of which survive among the state papers in The National Archives at Kew. Even most of the petitions received by Parliament tended to be practical rather than political

in their focus and, although very few of those that were submitted to the House of Commons have survived, the Parliament­ary Archives holds many that were addressed to the House of Lords.

The stories that these documents tell range from the mundane to the extraordin­ary. Among the most common petitions in the quarter-sessions papers are from poor people seeking relief through the Old Poor Law system, who often described their di cult circumstan­ces in grim detail. Men and women imprisoned for crimes or debts also frequently submitted requests for mercy to the magistrate­s. In some counties, alehouses and taverns were the focus of many petitions, as their owners sought licences to sell beer and their opponents sought to shut them down. You are also likely to find requests from veterans for pensions; from ratepayers for lighter taxes; from labourers for permission to build cottages; from single mothers for child-maintenanc­e orders; from apprentice­s for release from abusive masters; and from all sorts of other people who hoped for redress from the county magistrate­s.

ThThe challengeh­ll off fifinding d these documents varies hugely, with some county archives holding few if any thanks to haphazard survival rates, and virtually none in Scotland because the system of local government is di!erent. Moreover, they are usually filed with other miscellane­ous documents in series labelled as ‘quarter sessions bundles’, ‘rolls’ or ‘papers’, and only a minority have been catalogued in enough detail to search for names. Nonetheles­s, some archives – such as those of Somerset, Lancashire and Cumberland – have detailed catalogues of quarter-sessions material, and each hold more than 1,000 petitions. Better still, Ancestry’s collection ‘Lancashire, England, Quarter Session Records and Petitions, 1648–1908’ has thousands of petitions and indictment­s: ancestry.co.uk/ search/collection­s/6820.

It is now possible to search and read transcript­ions of thousands of petitions on several free websites. ‘The Power of Petitionin­g in Seventeent­h-Century England’ ( petitionin­g.history.

ac.uk) is a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council that has published seven volumes of transcript­ions from the 1570s to the 1790s on British History Online, including petitions from the quarter sessions of Cheshire, Derbyshire, Sta!ordshire, Worcesters­hire and the City of Westminste­r, as well as selections from the state papers and the House of Lords: britishhis­tory.ac.uk/search/series/ petitions. In addition, almost 10,000 petitions from 18th-century London and Middlesex are available on London Lives ( londonlive­s.

org) and, as featured in our ‘Focus On’ article last month, petitions from Civil War veterans and war widows are at www.civilwarpe­titions.ac.uk.

Petitions need to be interprete­d carefully because they might rhetorical­ly exaggerate or distort the petitioner’s di"culties, and they were normally penned by scribes as many petitioner­s were unable to write fluently. However, they can provide an unparallel­ed glimpse into the lives of our forebears whose only other mark on the historical record might be their baptism, marriage and burial in a parish register.

Petitions can provide an unparallel­ed glimpse into the lives of our forebears

 ?? ?? Our pauper ancestors, such as this beggar, often petitioned the authoritie­s for help
Our pauper ancestors, such as this beggar, often petitioned the authoritie­s for help
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