Find out if your Yorkshire ancestor had a brush with the law in the records of the Sheffield Quarter Sessions. Search more than 11,800 records to find those guilty of crimes and their victims and discover the sentence handed down.
Each record is a transcript of original source material. The amount of information can vary but you can find out the following about your ancestor:
Date of birth
Date of the trial
Role (whether offender or victim)
Name of offender
Trade of offender
Name of victim
Nature of offence
Details of offence
Established in 1880, the court’s initial function was to hear criminal cases. The court sat every quarter, usually in January, April, July and October. After each session a Calendar of Prisoners was published to record the personal details of people tried at the session and their offences. Sheffield & District Family History Society have indexed these records from 1880 to 1912.
The printed calendars of prisoners contain:
The name, age and trade of the prisoners
Degree of instruction i.e. whether the prisoner could read or write
Details of the judicial process i.e. the name and address of the committing magistrate, the date of the warrant, when the prisoner was received into custody, the offence charged within the commitment, when tried and before whom
The offender’s previous convictions
Sentence or order of the court
The calendars for each session are indexed by name of prison. A full set of these survive at Sheffield Archives dating from 1880 to 1971.
Quarter sessions dealt with serious non-capital crimes, in other words, those that did not command a death penalty. Capital crimes were tried at twice yearly Assizes. The middle tier of the court system, Quarter sessions were presided over by unpaid magistrates, also known as justices of the peace, appointed by the Lord Chancellor. These magistrates tended to be prominent landowners, who held lands of more than £100 a year.
At each Quarter session two juries would be elected. The Grand Jury’s job was to hear the evidence against the accused and to decide whether the case should go to trial. If they sent it forward it was the turn of the Trial or Petty Jury who would decide guilt.
Sentences often included hard labour which would generally take the form of a physically demanding but repetitive task. Examples include breaking stones, operating a treadmill or picking oakum. Picking oakum was something that could be carried out in solitary confinement and involved picking apart tarred rope into fibres.
Prisoners might also be sentenced to crank labour, where they had to turn an iron handle, attached to a set of cogs, which pushed a paddle through sand. The prison warders could tighten the crank, hence the nickname “screws”. Prisoners had to turn the crank a set number of times a day, with a counter installed.
For the first nine months of their sentence, a prisoner would be put into solitary confinement and engaged in one of these repetitive tasks. After that they would be put to public works including working in quarries and in the docks, building roads and even new prisons.
The Quarter sessions were often covered in the newspapers of the day so you can often find further details about a case by looking in our British newspaper collection. Some examples of the kind of cases that can be found are given below:
Thomas Ford: found not guilty of assaulting a 12-year-old servant girl in July 1887
Thomas Ford, a 29-year-old shoemaker from Broomhill Street, was accused of indecently assaulting Mary Ann Edward while his wife was out at the theatre. The Sheffield Independent reported that witnesses were called to show that Ford had not been alone with the girl at any stage that evening and that the girl may have been inspired to tell tales about her employer by newspaper reports of another assault.
Mary Jane Lane: convicted of malicious wounding in December 1880
Mary Jane Lane, a married 30-year-old charwoman, was convicted of misusing a coal rake, according to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph. She was sentenced to 6 months hard labour for wounding Robert Raby, aided by William Fielding, a table blade striker. Fielding was acquitted but Mary Jane got gaol time as she had been “frequently mixed up in similar assaults”.
Harry Barkby: 6 months hard labour for fraud in July 1903
27-year-old ledger clerk Harry Barkby was found guilty of a very complicated fraud. According to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Barkby’s employers, drapers T and J Roberts, used a ticketing system where customers would be issued with a ticket for goods ordered. It was Barkby’s job to tally the tickets with the money received but instead of marking the tickets as used he saved them and sold them on to a woman called Margaret Foster. He had defrauded the company of around £1,000. Barkby was convicted and sentenced to six months hard labour.