Court of Petty Session Records : Prosecution and litigation in the 19th century
Court of Petty Session Records are an excellent resource for family historians. They can provide insight into our ancestors' lives regardless of their social class. Even if your ancestors were law abiding people, there is still a good chance they appear in the Petty Session records - perhaps as a Magistrate, Solicitor, Policeman, or witness.
Above: An extract from the Beechworth Petty Sessions for notorious bush ranger, Ned Kelly. Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.
The Court of Petty Sessions (Petty Sessions) was originally established in the UK during Tudor times to hear minor criminal cases without the need for a jury. Cases were heard before two Magistrates (who were usually Justices of the Peace) rather than a Judge and typically related to (but certainly were not limited to) drunkenness, minor assaults, poaching, stealing vegetables, cutting wood, neighbourhood disputes, drunkenness, begging, alehouses staying open after hours, evasion of turnpike tolls, apprentices absconding and abandonment of families, workhouse rule infringement, and maintenance of bastards.
The Petty Sessions met frequently, and local matters were dealt with quickly at the grass-roots level. By the 19th century the numbers of settlement and bastardy cases declined, but more poaching and public drunkenness occurred. New case types emerged such as non-attendance at school and under-age employment. In Australia, many gold mining-related cases appeared in the Petty Sessions docket from the start of the gold rush.
Don't forget, the Petty Sessions weren't confined to cases of the Crown prosecuting people who broke the law. Often, they were used for minor civil litigation between parties, and this is where I found a surprising number of cases involving several branches of my own family, both in Australia and Ireland, in the 1800-1900s.
I've written previously about my grandmother Catherine Mohide suing her employer for non-payment of wages in the Galbally Court Petty Sessions in County Limerick. But I found several more family members in the Irish Petty Sessions records at Findmypast - both as complainants and defendants. For example, my great grandfather, James Lynch of Bosnetstown, appeared in the Kilfinane Petty Sessions records several times as a defendant between 1917 and 1918 for minor transgressions including:
being drunk on a public street;
road nuisance by unlawfully allowing his property, in the form of an ass, to wander on the public road; and
multiple cases of his son Michael's truancy for which there was "no reasonable excuse".
Above: James Lynch's 1918 record in the Kilfinane, Co. Limerick, Ireland Petty Session Court Registers (left and right side of register). Courtesy of Findmypast.
Possibly because he was a regular in the Petty Sessions and could ill afford to miss a day's labouring work, James did not attend any of his five court hearings during this period. In each case he was convicted in his absence and fined between sixpence and 1 shilling and sixpence plus costs. James paid all his fines within the required 14 days and so avoided spending seven days in prison without hard labour in lieu.
In Australia, I found many records of my great great grandfather, Peter Roney, appearing in a range of Victorian court records from Petty Sessions (at Findmypast) through to the Supreme Court. In local Petty Sessions Courts, he appeared as both a Complainant and Defendant in cases as diverse as assault, ejectment, non-payment of wages and being in arrears of council rates.
As you can see from the sample records, the Victorian Petty Session Registers hold less information than their Irish counterparts. Nevertheless, in all cases, the court records gave me a unique insight into his life, interests, and business problems.
My great great Uncle Hiram Barnes, a gold miner, appeared as the complainant in the Malmsbury Petty Sessions court in Victoria in April 1887 where he sought to recoup a debt of 9 pounds from Charles Schofield. The court found in his favour and Mr Schofield had to repay the debt plus pay 25 shillings in costs.
Above: Hiram Barnes' 1887 entry in the Malmsbury, Victoria Petty Sessions Registers. Courtesy of Findmypast.
The Petty Sessions records provide basic information about a case including:
date and location of the court hearing;
names of the prosecutor, complainant, defendant and witnesses;
reason for the court case;
the Magistrates decision on the case;
remarks about the case.
Where can I find more information about my ancestor's case?
If you are anything like me, information in the Petty Session registers will frequently leave you wanting to know more details about the incidents. Additional information about a court case can often be found in the local newspapers of the time. For Ireland, Findmypast's newspaper collection is the place to go and of course in Australia, you can't go past the National Library's Trove collection of digital newspapers.
Given the broad nature of Petty Session cases, searching these records can find family members from all walks of life. Whether they were landed gentry acting as (often untrained) Magistrates, Policemen prosecuting people who broke the law for a multitude of reasons, Solicitors appearing on behalf of complainants and defendants, or the multitude of law-abiding people called to appear as witnesses - all appeared in the Petty Session records.
My examples relate to Irish and Victorian (i.e., Australian) Courts of Petty Sessions, however, you will find similar records across most British and Commonwealth jurisdictions. The first Court of Petty Sessions in Australia was established in Sydney in 1832, although it was preceded by the Bench of Magistrates when the First Fleet arrived in 1788.
Remember, Petty Sessions were local courts. When looking for Petty Sessions records, I suggest you do a Google search for <<place name>> AND "Petty Sessions" e.g., Middlesex AND "Petty Sessions". Another option is to search FamilySearch's excellent Research Wiki for Petty Sessions records in the geographic area of your research.
How did you go?
I hope you find Petty Session records useful. If so, please let me know in the comments section at the below.
In the meantime, happy ancestor hunting.
Your Family Genealogist
England Petty Session Records,
Australia, Victoria, Petty Sessions Registers;
New South Wales Archives, History of the Local Court;
Public Record Office of Victoria;
Trove, Court of Petty Sessions Civil/Summons Register.