Quarter Sessions Introduction

Sources for Epsom and Ewell History
Sources for Epsom
and Ewell History

The Guildhall in Guildford, one of the courts for Quarter Sessions
The Guildhall in Guildford, one of the courts for Quarter Sessions

From the end of the Middle Ages onwards, the county administration of Surrey was in the hands of magistrates, who met four times a year in what were known as Quarter Sessions. Their meetings rotated around the principal towns of the county - Guildford, Kingston, Croydon, Reigate and Dorking, and sometimes Southwark - and were held at Easter, Midsummer, Michaelmas and Epiphany. Quarter Sessions continued to run local government until Surrey County Council took over its functions in 1889 and after this it remained in existence as a magistrates' court until the legal reforms of 1972. In its later years, criminal jurisdiction was managed separately from the administrative functions of the meetings. Records of Epsom and Ewell crimes dealt with at Quarter Sessions 1780-1820 can be found here. But at first, all the county's business was handled at the same time.

It is not known when Quarter Sessions began to record its business, but by the seventeenth century there was an official, the Clerk of the Peace, who made notes of meetings. Following the Civil War, when local magistrates were often the only effective arm of government, the meetings of Quarter Sessions assumed a greater importance and archives began to be kept. In Surrey the sequence begins with the Order Books, which survive from 1659. The seventeenth-century Order Books are at Surrey History Centre as QS2/1/1 (1659-64), /2 (1664-71), /3 (1672-6), /4 (1676-82), /5 (1682-5), /6 (1685-92), /7 (1692-8) and /8 (1698-1701). At about the same time, the Clerk of the Peace began preserving Sessions Rolls, which run in a numerical sequence from April 1661 and are at Surrey History Centre as QS/2/5/1661 Easter, etc.. The Order Books are the central record of the decisions made at the Sessions - the judicial and administrative orders issued by the Court. The Sessions Rolls are files of the business transacted, including lists of justices and county officers, indictments and presentments of criminals, and recognisances or financial bonds binding people to appear at court. There were also Minute Books, which begin just at the end of the century with QS2/2/1 (1694-1704).

The early records of Quarter Sessions dealing with Epsom and Ewell are transcribed here as:

Order Books 1659-72
Sessions Rolls 1661-91
Minute Books 1694/5

The transcripts down to 1668 are taken from the four successive volumes of Surrey Quarter Sessions Records issued by Surrey Record Society and Surrey County Council: for bibliographical references, see Surrey Record Soc Abstracts. Later material comes from typescript volumes kept at Surrey History Centre (shelved at 347.2), which give abstracts of Order Books down to 1672 (the beginning of QS2/1/3) and Sessions Rolls down to Michaelmas 1691 (CXIX), together with the Minute Books for 1694/4. Apparently the Minute Books were the first to be transcribed, since they copy much more of the common form which padded out the records of Quarter Sessions. It sounds very villainous when we are told that a victualler has divers times before and since, obstinately without any licence of the Justices, kept a common alehouse there selling cervisiam et potum illupulatum anglice Ale and Beer in contempt of the King and Queen and their laws, against the peace and against the Statute: but all this means is that he was selling drink without a license, which can be said without going into quite so many words.

So this transcription is mostly a calendar, summarising the records in line with the original wording, with occasional passages quoted verbatim when this seemed as if it might be useful. Like all court records, the Sessions Rolls use stereotyped legal language. 'Forcibly playing at ninepins' (1688) doesn't mean that the gamesters were hitting them extra hard, it's just a way of indicating that their actions were deliberate. Sometimes common form can be confusing. When a man is said to be 'late of Epsom' it doesn't follow that he'd died, or gone to live somewhere else; it was just a way of covering the possibility that he might have moved since the case came to court. And matters weren't made any easier by keeping records in Latin. Occasionally you can share in the clerk's sense of triumph, as he remembers that a saddle is ephipium in Latin (1690) or decides to translate Gypsies as Babilonii (1677) but usually the practice of thinking in English but writing in Latin obscures whatever original sense there might have been. The Order Books, which deal with less stereotyped matters, make more use of English.

Latin was also used as shorthand for some standard phrases of court business. The commonest of these, which can be found (usually abbreviated) in the text of Quarter Sessions were:
Ad prosequendum traversiam, to attend in defence against
Ad prosequendum versus, to attend to prosecute
Ad respondendum, to answer to
Certiorari allocatum, the case is transfered to a superior court
Cessatum processum, process is stayed
Cognoscit et finitur, he acknowledges and is fined
Commissio, a commission
Culpabilis et finitur, he is guilty and is fined
Debet, he owes
Exoneratus, he is discharged
Indictamentum cessatum, indictment is stayed
Jurata patriae, a jury
Non culpabilis, not guilty
Ponit se super patriam, he stands trial
Pro bono gestu, for good behaviour
Protulit indictamentum, he brought an indictment
Retraxit et exoneratus, he withdrew and is discharged
Submisit et finitur, he submitted and is fined
Although Quarter Sessions dealt with issues which are recognisably those of local government today, such as licensing, highways, and environmental standards, the framework for doing so was legal rather than administrative. The magistrates had no staff and virtually no budget, so they got everything done by identifying somebody who ought to do it and putting legal pressure on them until they did. Sessions began with writs of venire facias, which summoned juries from the hundreds, and of capias, which authorised officers to take defendants into custody. The main business then began with presentments, in which a social issue was identified and a judgement was made on who ought to provide a remedy, or who ought to be punished for having caused the problem, or having failed to prevent it. The administrative side of Sessions was mostly executed by presentments; the criminal side was dealt with through taking recognisances. These were sums of money, usually £10 or £20 on average, binding people to appear before the court to receive judgement on their dispute. The money was forfeited if you didn't appear; in some cases it represented a surety against repetition of the offence. Many people didn't have that much cash in hand, so they had to provide securities for the money.

So a single Session - say October 1662 - would begin with writs for the hundredal juries, including one for the combined hundreds of Copthorne and Effingham which included a number of Epsom and Ewell men. It proceeded to issue writs against offenders, including Bartholomew Clarke who wouldn't hold services according to the new prayer book, and Widow Fowle who had been selling meat in Lent. Then there was a presentment on the state of Kingston Road, which ended with an order that the inhabitants of Long Ditton should repair it; and finally, amongst the criminal business of the day, John Dickeson was served a recognisance of £20 to appear on a charge of stealing hammers from William Warner's smithy, while Warner was served in the same way to make sure he appeared as prosecutor. Dickeson produced two securities, who underwrote him for £10 each, and who we can therefore assume were friends or family.

The state of the highways, from Ogilby's Britannia of 1675
The state of the highways, from Ogilby's Britannia of 1675

This was all very well in theory, but in practice the lack of a paid executive weakened Quarter Sessions' power of enforcement. It was always possible for an offender to spin out the legal process, as Bartholomew Clarke did for at least twelve months in 1661-2. The responsibility of local people for highway maintenance was routinely ignored and for decades Sessions received presentments on the bad state of Kingston Road and Cox Lane. In both cases the muddy patch was on a boundary between two parishes, each of which evaded its responsibility by blaming the other.

In the last resort it was probably the personal authority of local magistrates as local gentry which made Quarter Sessions work, and not the legal procedures of their meeting. But they also relied on the unpaid work of people lower down in the social scale, who were elected annually as constables, and had the responsibility of carrying out orders issued by the court. There was a high or chief constable for the hundred of Copthorne, and two constables for each parish. The election of high constables was minuted in the Order Books, so we know that amongst those chosen for this post in the 13 years between 1659 and 1672, there were 3 Epsom and 3 Ewell men: one every second year. This is rather more than one would have expected, since there were eight other parishes in Copthorne from which men could have come, and shows the relative importance of Epsom and Ewell in their region. High constables were typically chosen from among the more prosperous yeomen or tradesmen in the district.

The parish constable, as seen by Matthew Darling in 1771
The parish constable, as seen by Matthew Darling in 1771

The records for the election of parish constables are much more sketchy. We find from the Order Books that at Epsom in 1666 Barrett and King retired, and Palmer and Elliott were elected. The entry also confirms something that we knew from the manorial survey of 1680, that one constable was supposed to stand for Epsom itself, and one for Woodcote. The information on Ewell is fuller than this, and states that in:
1660 Dowse and Dingley retired, Isted and Dunning were elected
1666 Evans and Hoard retired, Parkhurst and Basemore were elected
1667 Parkhurst and Basemore retired, Cooper and Blundell were elected
1668 Cooper and Blundell retired, Lucocke and Dingley were elected
1672 Bartlett and Dingley retired, Parkhurst and Shirawley were elected.
This is more detailed, but it still leaves out more than half the occasions on which parish officers were chosen; evidently the record-keeping at Sessions was less thorough than you might have thought from its lengthy Latinity. The job of a constable (or of his second, the headborough) was not always a happy one, as the Sessions Rolls witness. In 1683 John Fenn of Epsom was beaten up by Ralph Mitchell when he went to arrest him for vandalism at the Wells. On the other hand Thomas Reynolds of Ewell, who had maintained the peace in 1676 by not arresting members of the Congregational Church, was fined £5 for dereliction of duty. Either way, you couldn't win. In 1659, the constables of Epsom were ordered to raise money for reimbursing the victims of a robbery in the Hundred of Copthorne: no-one seems to have known who was responsible even if they knew that a robbery had happened at all, but they were fined nonetheless. The law worked on the principle that someone, somewhere, must be responsible for everything.

Understandably, people wanted to opt out. There was a rolling dispute in 1663-4 about Worcester Park, once part of the lost parish of Cuddington, and now claimed by its occupants to be nowhere at all, and therefore not liable for public expenses. In fact, as the lists of local residents make clear, Nonsuch and Worcester Park both remained quite populous after the demolition of the Palace in 1687, with staff needed at the one big house and scattered farms of the area. This gradually came to be seen as an extension of Ewell, which was still the major settlement in the region, though only by a narrow margin. In a tax assessment of 1664, Ewell was assessed for £4 11s 10d while Epsom came in very close at £4 6s 4d.

But the input of local government was needed. It may not have provided much in the way of services, or upheld a very impartial code of law, but it did get people to live harmoniously with each other. Again and again, we find people being instructed to behave ('to be of good abearing'), and by and large they did. Most offences, from rioting to bastardy, came before Quarter Sessions because they involved deviations from the model of what a good society should be. That included fair treatment to the deserving. Charles Parkhurst, being an old Royalist soldier (who 'always was True to/ His sovereign Lord the King', as it says on his gravestone) was given a pension in 1662. Others were awarded money in 1665 and 1669, though due to shortage of funds it was often necessary to wait for an old soldier to die before the next could inherit his pension. There were old sailors, too; in 1672, two mariners were living in Ewell and one in Epsom, far from the call of the sea.

Managing a seventeenth-century gun
Managing a seventeenth-century gun

Quarter Sessions exercised control over the decisions of magistrates in carrying out the requirements of the Poor Law. In practice this was usually left to parish vestries, unless they had deliberately flouted an instruction from higher up - as John Lloyd the churchwarden of Epsom did in 1687, when he refused to accept the Stone family into his parish, even though they had been judged to belong there and not to Betchworth. The social regulation of employment and relief occupied Sessions in several ways. They might tell a labourer to get himself hired by the year to serve in agriculture, as Thomas Browne was in 1670. But they weren't always on the side of the bosses: in 1688 Henry Edge of Epsom, baker, was instructed to pay proper wages to his servant Joan Green. Sometimes this regulation of employment extended to what sound like trading standards. Thomas Life of Ewell was condemned in 1682 for setting up as a glazier, despite not having had a formal apprenticeship in the trade. He was condemned again in 1683, and then again in 1688, by which time his glazing skills must have benefited from experience if not from training.

The rootless poor were a particular concern. In 1677 James Bird of Ewell was told off for harbouring Gypsies. Eleven years later we find one Frances Bird, presumably his widow, presented for receiving vagrants and paupers, although this time their ethnicity is not disclosed. Quarter Sessions acted in 1668 against those who built cottages without giving them the statutory 4 acres of land. Occasionally they seem to be enforcing some rules of hygiene, as in the case of Maria Holmes who in 1671 built a 'house of office' too near the London Road. In 1670 and again in 1683 we find notices of people who have encroached on the highway with wooden structures between Epsom and the Wells. Here it was not the risk to travellers which mattered, but the proliferation of unauthorised cheap building - the foundations of the settlement at Epsom Common.

Petty crime came before the Quarter Sessions, although their criminal jurisdiction was less important overall than it would be in following centuries. Serious crime was referred to the Assizes - though the rape of 11-year-old Joan Pemberton in 1689 was evidently not thought serious enough for that, and was dealt with by Sessions. Most cases involved small thefts although sometimes the thefts must have taken place publicly. In 1667 William Pennifold of Ewel was found by George Palmer, underkeeper of Nonsuch Park, stealing 'wood, pales, quicksetts, etc'. Shortly afterwards he was indicted, along with Walter Pratt alias Phesy, for entering the land of George Plawe and taking off 60 elms. How does anyone steal 60 elms without being noticed? Poaching was another crime against the rich. In 1667 two labourers from Ewell were both fined - John Fuller for keeping greyhounds, and William Arratt for breaking into Nonsuch Park, intending to kill deer. In 1682 two Kingston men came down to Ewell by night to fish for carp and pike in the Hogsmill. However, poaching did not trouble magistrates' sense of order as much as it would in the following century. They were more concerned with breaches of the peace, often in pubs. When Francis Fortescue, gentleman, assaulted Jean Walker in 1672, it must have been at the Kings Head since one of the witnesses was the landlady Elizabeth Amos.

Pubs took up a lot of the magistrates' time. The commonest complaints were that beer and ale were being sold without a license, and the next most frequent were reports of disorderly houses. In 1667 Christopher Romsey of Epsom was presented for being a common drunkard, although exactly what anyone was supposed to do about this is not clear. Clearly it was hoped that close regulation of the trade in food and drink would keep excesses under control, although this backfired in 1663 and 1668, when we hear of something that sounds like a scam for taking money from victuallers under the pretence of non-existent regulations. Butchers were fined if they sold meat to be eaten during Lent and fishdays, as John Humfrevill was in 1661; the old Catholic days of fasting were still enforced, even by magistrates of Puritan sympathies, in the hope that a compulsory market for fish would help support the merchant marine. Quarter Sessions frequently stepped in to regulate trade, which they thought should be confined to a single transaction between producer and consumer. In 1669 another butcher, Edward Bushell, was presented for buying wholesale at Dorking and selling retail at Ewell. He forfeited the value (presumably wholesale) of the lambs that he had sold. In 1671 there was another presentation for 8 quarters of oats bought and then retailed within the month of August.

Church-going was another preoccupation of the magistrates. Although in the end religious diversity proved as impossible to stamp out as retail trading, Quarter Sessions did not give up on it until the seventeenth century was at an end, for local government had been tasked with ending the religious anarchy that had flourished under the Commonwealth. In Ewell the vicar, Bartholomew Clark, had taken office during the Presbyterian regime and showed no sign of changing his ways now that the Church of England was back in power. Throughout 1661 he repeatedly ignored instructions to use the Book of Common Prayer, and there seemed to be little that Quarter Sessions could do about it. In the end he was thrown out by the higher power of Parliament, under the 1662 Act of Uniformity; he appears in Calamy's list of ejected ministers, as 'Mr. Batho'.

Unlike their Catholic precursors a century before, the Puritan ministers did not go quietly; they had influential supporters. County government soon became the cockpit in which a Cavalier or Tory government, attempting to stamp out religious deviance, encountered the resistance of Whig and Dissenting interests at local level and, more importantly, in the City. The legal muscle was provided by the Conventicle Act of 1664, which made it illegal to hold private religious meetings. At first the response was muted, but in 1667 Francis Ewell was prosecuted for allowing a group of twenty London merchants and others to assemble at his house in Epsom and disturb the peace by praying. This was in August, the season for drinking the waters; not everyone who visited Epsom Spa was a drunken reprobate.

John Bunyan at a prayer meeting - anti-social behaviour, according to 1660s magistrates
John Bunyan at a prayer meeting - anti-social behaviour, according to 1660s magistrates

Prosecutions for holding conventicles continue intermittently over the years; although Charles II put the dampers on persecution with his Declaration of Indulgence in 1672, they continue regardless until 1683, a year when Eleanor Palmer, housewife and non-churchgoer of Epsom, memorably described the Book of Common Prayer per nomen de Porridge. The campaign against Dissenters was run by a small group of county magnates and it caused a lot of problems for local people, who did not like being obliged to arrest their social superiors. In 1676 Thomas Reynolds, constable of Ewell, was reprimanded for looking the other way while a meeting took place. Shortly afterwards, the authorities turned to the use of professional informers, such as Edward Evans who in 1678 snitched on a very extensive list of people who hadn't attended church. He also ran in illegal gamesters, another of the magistrates' social concerns. Later in 1681, we have a prosecution for conducting lotteries on Epsom Common, and in 1683 the same offence recurs, this time involving Michael Cope and Randall Ashenhurst, more famous as the pair who underwrote the building of the Assembly Rooms.

After this, social coercion moved from penalties to rewards. Public office was to be confined to committed members of the Church of England, a status which was proved by their openly taking communion. From 1689 onwards, the papers of Sessions include the Sacrament Certificates that attested this, and incidentally provide us with a shortlist of those who wanted some kind of government job (such as exciseman) or were simply seeking confirmation of their public status as county gentry.

Other responsibilities of Quarter Sessions have a more familiar ring. They were continually busy with the maintenance of highways - partly, as we have seen in the case of Kingston Road and Cox Lane, because parishes shrugged off the responsibility for maintaining road on their borders, and partly because there was no-one charged with the duty of repair. Under the Highways Act of 1662, the principal inhabitants had a duty to send men and carts for road repair, but in 1678 four of the main landowners in Epsom - headed by Humphrey Beane of Dorking Road and Nehemiah Bourne of The Grove - were presented for not complying. Ten years later, Bourne was told that as he had always maintained a gate, so he must continue to maintain it now; the typical logic of Sessions, which never sent a man to do a job but always identified an obligation on someone else's part to do it instead. They had no fear or favour in their demands, and even Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine and a king's (former) mistress, was presented for not maintaining London Road in 1691.

The repetitive difficulties encountered by Sessions in highway maintenance had once fortunate side-effect; they preserve information on the main routes through the area. The Chalk Lane/ Woodcote Road/ South Street line, Wilmerhatch Lane, Ewell West Street/ Pound Lane and its extension to the Common, West Hill/ Christ Church Road/ Rushett Lane, Chessington Road/ Moor Lane, London Road and the Burgh Heath Road from Ewell all make an appearance. The information is slanted to the roads most in need of repair, so that some (for instance, the old Dorking Road through Woodcote Park) do not appear because they were on chalk and so caused little trouble. But overall these highway presentments give a good insight into local routeways before the age of the first printed maps.

These roads had to be kept in repair for visitors to Epsom Spa, although it is unlikely that locals would have seen it this way. It's surprising how little interest the residents felt in maintaining Epsom as a tourist centre. In 1665 Richard Evelyn was told to shut down the Wells in case an ingress of visitors brought the Plague from London. Three years later Sara Grove complained publicly that Evelyn 'cheates the poore paupers', and her husband made his feelings felt by smashing up the well-head on the Common, in conjunction with two neighbours. They evidently saw it, not as an asset of the town, but as a private perk of their landlord. In 1682 three Epsom men broke the dam of Hilder's Pond (apparently another name for the Stew Ponds) as a sign of resentment at Richard's widow Elizabeth Evelyn. She seems to have been investing in the management of Epsom at this time, with the 1680 manorial survey and the 1684 grant of the market; not everyone was happy with this level of increased exploitation, and in 1683 the Wells were smashed up again.

The world as seen by disaffected paupers, poachers and vagrants, along with the long-suffering parish constable and anyone who lived next to a muddy highway, was a very different England from that envisaged by the elegant visitors to the Wells. But the records of Quarter Sessions provide an unequalled insight into the age as it was seen by all levels of society.

(Thanks to Surrey History Centre, to the editors and anonymous transcribers without whose labours on the original MSS this secondary transcript would not be possible, and to Sheila Ross who tirelessly typed the whole thing up)

Jeremy Harte