Kathryn Faulkner is an archivist at Bedfordshire Archives. From 2011-2013 she worked on the Paths to Crime project which extensively catalogued the Quarter Sessions records for Bedfordshire from 1831-1900. Here, Kathryn introduces another set of court records – Bedfordshire Petty Sessions – and shows how they can help build a picture of family life.
Court records are one of the most fascinating areas of research for family historians as they allow us to learn something about the real people behind the bare facts of names and dates. Ancestry have digitised a series of 87 court registers from Bedfordshire Archives dating from 1875 to 1917. These cover the Petty Sessions Divisions of Bedford, Biggleswade, Luton, Sharnbrook, and the Boroughs of Bedford and Dunstable. A series of nine minute books of the Leighton Buzzard Division containing similar material and dating from 1854 to 1913 has also been digitised.
The Petty Sessions formed the bottom rung of the judicial ladder in England. They dealt with minor offences at a local level, leaving more serious cases to be dealt with at the Quarter Sessions and Assizes courts. Initially the perpetrators of these “petty” crimes were summarily convicted by justices of the peace hearing cases in their own homes. In the nineteenth century Petty Sessional Divisions covering a defined geographical area were established with formal Petty Sessions courts meeting on a regular basis, typically every two weeks. In the later twentieth century the Petty Sessions evolved into magistrates’ courts.
An extraordinarily wide variety of matters were dealt with by the Petty Sessions. Cases heard ranged from drunkenness and indecent behaviour to assault; from poaching to mistreating animals; from petty theft to gambling; from bastardy to failure to support a pauper relative. Other matters dealt with include school absenteeism and licensing matters, in particular the licensing of public houses. The entries in the court registers are generally brief, typically giving the name of the informant or complainant, the name of the defendant, a short description of the charge, and the judgement and penalty given.
Information found in the Petty Sessions records can often provide valuable clues for genealogists and suggest new avenues for research, helping to build up an interesting picture of a family.
A fantastic example of this from Bedford is the case of the stolen pigeons, featuring the incorrigible Whaley brothers.
In September 1890 James Whaley (aged 13), his brother Henry (11), Joseph Perry (11) and Charles Walker (10) were charged at the Bedford Sessions with stealing pigeons. According to reports in the Bedfordshire Mercury James and Henry Whaley and Charles Walker stole four pigeons from Henry Hutchinson, an assistant master at the County School in Kempston. He reported the theft and the police placed the pigeon house under surveillance. The boys, now joined by Joseph Perry, returned on the following day, took five more birds, and were caught red-handed.
The court noted that to the boys’ credit they all pleaded guilty at once. The boys’ solicitor told the court that they had all previously been of good character and that the home circumstances of the Whaleys were difficult. Mrs Whaley had been deserted by her clergyman husband, leaving her with a large family which she was struggling to manage – the 1891 census shows she had six children aged between ten and fifteen. The Bench was asked to consider giving the boys a second chance, but after due consideration they were sentenced to a flogging, which the Chairman of the Bench hoped “would be a warning to them”. James Whaley was sentenced to twelve strokes with a birch rod and the three younger boys to six apiece.
The Whaley family soon reappear in the Petty Sessions records. In March 1891 Mrs. Whaley was summoned for failing to send her three youngest sons Henry, Cuthbert and Arthur to school. According to newspaper reports she complained to the School Attendance Officer that the boys were beyond her control and objected to going to school because “they were not allowed to sit down”. There was debate over whether Reverend Whaley should be summoned instead. He had deserted his wife in an “exceedingly cruel manner”, abandoning her and the children in apartments at Lowestoft, and had never contributed a penny in maintenance to any of them; to blame the poor mother for the boys’ absenteeism would merely compound her misery. After receiving advice the Bench accepted that she must be held responsible and she was fined five shillings in respect of each of the three boys. School admissions registers held by Bedfordshire Archives show that all three had been admitted to the Ampthill Road Boys School in 1890 after a brief spell at the Harpur Trust Boys’ Elementary School in 1889, where comments indicate that none of the Whaley boys had ever regularly attended any school.
Did any of your ancestors make appearances in the Bedfordshire Petty Sessions? Explore the records now on Ancestry.co.uk