The Petitions to Quarter Sessions in the Lancashire Record Office [Ref: QSP] are an extremely large and varied collection of documents beginning in 1606, and apart from a small number of gaps for individual sessions, and a gap in all sessions from 1642/3 to 1646 owing to the Civil War, extend to 1908. They also form part of one of the best and most important quarter sessions archives in the country.
These petitions relate to poor relief, repair of roads and bridges, appointment of parish constables and high constables, coroners’ accounts, applications for registration of dissenters’ meeting-places, militia accounts, goal accounts, warrants for payment of accounts for the transport of army baggage, calendars of prisoners and a great variety of other matters. In fact, it is quite safe to say that, between the opening words of the petitions” To the Right Worshipful the justices of the Peace” and the almost invariable closing phrase “And your petitioners will ever pray “ lies a complete picture of the day i of life of the period. Some of these petitions are so poignant that they are painful to read, even after two or three hundred years, and are in fact only made bearable by the realization that the troubles of the miserable wretches concerned have long been over. Others so humorous in the naivete of their presentment that they are almost the script for a modern farce ; and yet others so matter-of-fact and up-to-date that they could be found in any morning paper.
For instance, in every session there are petitions, for the greatest possible variety of reasons – which the petitioners obviously considered irrefutable – why this and that person should be exempt from serving as constable. It is quite true that few offices can have offered such an array of unpleasant duties as that of constableship. He could be called out, day or night and in all weathers, to settle fights, issue warrants or attend meetings, so obviously his time was never his own. True, this was for only one year, but during that time it is equally obvious that he could lose friends and make enemies, and from being “one of the lads” he would find himself shunned everywhere and greeted suspicion. Also, which must have been a great hardship in many cases, it is clear from the petitions that during is year of office the constable was obliged to collect and hand over certain sums of money for many different levies (which are now covered by the general rate). If, for some reason, he was unable to collect the money allocated to him, he would have to make it good himself. This is evidenced by the petition [QSP 23/29] in 1649 at Lathom when the late constables wished to be reimbursed for monies uncollected because of damage during the siege of Lathom House.
Nevertheless, the justices themselves, overburdened as they were with duties, must have found this continual reluctance more than a little frustrating and annoying. The duties of the justices were exacting and practically unrecompensed. They were allowed 4s. A day for each day of the sessions, which was paid by the sheriff from the fines and amercements received, and they were allowed small fees for enrolling deeds and take innkeepers recognizances, and other small perquisites, but taking into account the extent of their duties, this payment was negligible.
In Lancashire they were – indeed still are – appointed by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster by Commission under the Duchy Seal. The appointment was not for life, but usually for the life of the king, but they could be dismissed, which was no uncommon thing during the religious troubles in the reign of Charles II. Their duties were threefold: to conserve the peace, to administer the laws and to arbitrate. In the first capacity they were expected to watch for suspicious characters and law-breakers and to listen for any treasonable rumours. They held Quarter Sessions four times a year and here reports were received regarding condition in each parish and enrolled. In fact, the justices carried out many of the activities now the concern and local authorities. They issued orders regarding the poor, repair of highways and bridges, and gave instructions regarding the care of sufferers from plague and the control of the spread of infection. They had to arbitrate in disputes regarding responsibility for repair of roads and bridges, between the constables and the people and help in the administration of estates held by minors.
All this sound like almost limitless power, but it was far from that. Outside his own country a justice was quite powerless, and although he might take an examination or recognizance in another shire, he was not able to issue a warrant. If he should do anything by virtue of his office outside his own county it was void, and in his own county he was bound to act exactly and literally as the statute in that particular case provided.
The number of justices for a county was early settled at six, but was later increased to eight, and later still there was no restriction at all on the number appointed, until, in he reign of Henry VIII, it was stated that the number of justices had grown to such an extent that they “ouerflow each shire.” Towards the close of the reign of James I the number was again diminished in order that the best men might be chosen with an eye to efficiency.
The qualifications required for a justice were simply that he be of good character, adhered to the prescribed form of worship and owned land of tenements to the value of £20 a year. At his appointment he was required to take certain oaths. First, his oath of office as directed by an Act of 1389, an engagement, among other things, to execute justice impartially, to keep his sessions according to the statute and to take nothing beyond the fees permitted. He then took the Oath of Supremacy and the Oath of Allegiance, and lastly a declaration against Transubstantiation. A lot of work, much responsibility and little reimbursement.
By the nature of their work the justices must have been unpopular, especially with the “wide boys,” who were well to the fore at every session. For instance, in 1649 one John Allen of Bury was brought before the justices [QSP 24/27] charged with drinking and causing a disturbance of the peace and when remonstrated with by the constable stated that he “knew not who made the lawes but that they were modelised and Cromwellised.” When brought into court he was beligerent, “askinge how his worship did and calling him Knave in open courte.” No wonder he was sent to Assizes !
Two years later at Orsmkirk one Henry Raynolde appeared before the justices [QSP 51/30] “an aged phistion and surgeon belonging to the sowlderye for the Commonwealth of England “petitioning against unjust persecution by various people “bynding him from session to session upon false and feyned lyes. “Poor old man ! The outcome is not known, but one can well imagine an army doctor in 1651 making many enemies.
On many occasions when the petitions are of the most pathetic nature, one feels that the justices were unnecessarily harsh and unfeeling in their decisions, but it is quite obvious that they needed the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job to do their work at all. At many sessions, after hearing endless petitions for habitation and help from all kinds of deserving and undeserving cases, they must have turned with a feeling of relief to the more mundane business of bridge and highway repair, etcetera.
Not all the petitions are pathetic, far from it ; in some instances the picture conjured up is exactly like a scene from a modern variety. Take the petition heard at Lancaster in 1654-5 [QSP 105/9] for the release from Lancaster gaol of Mary Couperthwaite of Brigsteer imprisoned for stealing, among other things, 20-lbs of poweder blue. Anyone who has travelled north by road and passed through Haverthwaite, literally between the two parts of the factory of the Ultra Marine Company where poweder blue is made, will have marvelled how the blue has permeated everything around and wondered what happens to the clothes and even the lungs of the people employed there. Now, here is someone who stole 20-lbs of this same insidious blue, 20-lbs ! Why did she want the stuff and in such quantity ? Perhaps a woman who wanted the whitest wash of all two-hundred years ago.
And the petition (QSP 10/20] of John Jackson who was afraid of his wife Susan. Did the justices find this as amusing as it now reads ?
How did they deal with the petition [QSP 9/3] for relief for two children whose parents were executed for felony ? Could any children be better off without parents and could they possibly get away from the world of crime into which they were born, and become responsible citizens ? We shall never know the answer to this.
Surely it was horror they must have felt when confronted with the petition [QSP 319/23] for the maintenance of one Elizabeth Harrison of Liverpool, widow, “a poore distracted woman who hath lately pulled out one of her eies,” and relief when they could turn to the cleaning up of towns such as Ormskirk in 1671 [QSP 167/41] which was the home of forty-four persons who were accused of “layeing and making of Dung-hills within the Streete of the Towne”; and in 1634 Tatham, which was in very bade repute, being reported [QSP 136/27] as”…the most Theifish corner in all the shyre” and” a very Receptacle of Roages” because of the number of alehouses. And what of Billinge in 1642 when two people, Roger Taylor and his sister, could lilve in “a hole in the ground” whilst suffering from Kings Evil ? [QSP 166/73].
The 20th century genealogist, whose lot is ever hard, will ruefully read that at the sessions at Easter in 1654 the registrar complained that births were not being notified [QSP 94/2] and again the same complaints [QSP 155/21] from Wigan, Ormskirk, Halsall, North Meols, Altcar, Sefton and Aughton in 1657-8. However, although many were obviously never “on the books” as it were, they managed to live a long long time. It is very common for people who are appealing to build a cottage or for maintenance to claim that they are over ninety and in one case the petitioner claims to be 127 ! [QSP 34/7].
As if the ordinary everyday business were not enough, the justices were also burdened by the depradations caused by the army which rested, took what it needed and passed on, leaving in its wake devastation of varying kind.
Always, of course, there were the usual claims for maintenance of bastard children, but in the late 1640s and 1650s there were continual claims for reimbursement by people who were indignantly trying to replace what they army, in its passage had commandeered. At Mawdesley and Lathom the claims for reimbursements for horses taken are greater than in other towns at that time. At Mawdesley in 1649 there were : a claim for reimbursement for a horse taken by the soldiers of Cromwell [QSP 23/20] ; the same for a horse taken for a “Lievetenante under the Commande of Captayne Dicconson to Ryde on to Warrington “ [QSP 23/24] ; again for a horse taken” to carry Magzin for the forces marching in the North under the commande to Coll. Ashton “[QSP 23/30] and again for a horse taken from Lathom for Lord Fayrfax [QSP 23/32].
At Eccleston, also in 1649, there was a petition [QSP 23/41] for “the dischargeinge of the quarteridge of Capt. Bethel his soldiers.”
So it goes on: In 1653 is the petition [QSP 84/16] for relief for widows, maimed soldiers and fatherless children whose husbands or parents “were slayne att the Superizall of Boulton by Prince Rupert his Forces.”
Turning to the petitions for 1715, and a few years following, when one would certainly have expected the claims for reparation to be many and varied, it is rather surprising to find they are almost non-existent, the nearest being continual claims for payment for the carting of army baggage. Perhaps the soldiers, or their officers, had become a little more humane.
These are not novels with the inevitable “lived happily ever after” ending, they are real life stories, some stark and ugly in their realism; the stories of people whose only memorial is that one appearance in a noisome courtroom. The not very good, nor yet very bad, the weak, the strong, the brave, the fearful; the cruel landlord, the unkind neighbour, the clever trickster and those who were willing to spend their energies and talents in an effort to help the lot of those unfortunate people who could never help themselves. People who never had nor ever expected recognition, and would remain quite unheard of it were not for some oblique reference in a petition. Such are Doctor Hartley and Doctor Potter of Chadderton who in 1677 [QSP 469/16] performed an operation on the child of John Bexwick,”…borne without an Ishu at his Fundament,” not in a modern operating theatre with 20th century lighting, and without the invaluable anaesthetics and antibiotics of the present day.
In a short article such as this it is only possible to high-light a few of the thousands of petitions in this series and it is quite impossible to do justice to the kaleidoscope laid before anyone who cares to read, but anyone who does read will be fascinated and completely spellbound by the wealth of material here displayed.
Notes: This article first appeared in the Lancashire Record Office Annual Report for 1961; the catalogue of the petitions can be searched online here – select “Quarter Sessions Petitions” in the “Look in” field.