Back in January 2012, West Sussex Record Office Conservator Simon Hopkins and I thought up a plan to make the Quarter Sessions rolls more accessible. These are local government records: essentially the business of the courts which ran the administration of the county before the advent of the County Council. The earliest ones are fascinating although difficult to read – and by the time they reached the late 18th century, they contain a mine of fascinating information.
The rolls themselves were created out of all the paperwork connected with
the Quarter Sessions courts. The documents were gathered together, and presumably when they were no longer needed to be consulted very often, they were rolled up and tied into bundles. They grew in volume – the early ones are quite slim, but the late Victorian ones are a nightmare. At some point in their archival life they were put in pillowcases to keep the dust off them. Those from 1780-1850 have been flattened, which is a great relief to the user. When you open up an unflattened roll that hasn’t been consulted for some time – if at all – the documents jump out all over the place like a box of frogs. They won’t stay flat and they won’t stay where you put them.
Even flattened, they were still inaccessible to the untrained (and that’s most of us) user. There are formal printed documents, correspondence, accounts, summonses, lists of names – and they hold lost information that could be used by the family historian, or people interested in local history or agrarian history, judicial administration, technical innovation, engineering projects, transport, medicine, local power bases: the whole of life in West Sussex is here. So Simon and I approached making these rolls accessible from two different approaches. Simon would get funding to flatten as many rolls as possible, and I would look for a suitable way of indexing them, and the Quarter Sessions project was born.
The quantity of these should be born in mind! There were four (as their name implies) Quarter Sessions held each year. We know that in this county they had started at least by the 16th century, possibly a lot earlier; the enabling Act was enacted in 1392. The earliest at West Sussex is from 1594. By the 1780s there were usually two rolls per session; by 1850, there could be three or four. On one roll for 1841, there are 385 different documents! There will quite easily be a thousand names in that roll.
To cut a long story short, now there are about a dozen volunteers working regularly in the searchroom who know more than anybody else in Sussex – possibly in the world – about how the Quarter Sessions worked, and the information they contain. Over the last six years, they have done amazing work, and although none of them was prepared to come and talk about their work beside me, the Tuesday talk on 27th February is dedicated to their hard work and tenacity in the face of county council restrictions, Heritage Lottery Fund criteria and IT problems. The talk explores the wealth of information that the rolls contain, and how we went about pulling this information out. And indeed how wonderful the indexing volunteers are.
Book tickets for Caroline’s talk ‘A Slice of Life – Exploring the Quarter Sessions Records’ at the Record Office on Tuesday 27th February at 7pm. Tickets are £8 including refreshments, and must be booked in advance by calling our reception on 01243 753602.