Until 1971, courts of Quarter Sessions met four times a year to hear cases relating to all but the most serious crimes. The County Record Office holds the surviving records of the North Riding of Yorkshire Quarter Sessions, with minute and order books dating from 1605 onwards. The sessions were originally heard in a number of market towns around the county before becoming fixed at Northallerton in the early nineteenth century.
The working papers of the court survive from the late seventeenth century onwards and contain a wealth of information relating to countywide administrative and judicial functions, often not reflected in the minutes of the court.
The depositions of witnesses, found amongst the working papers, allow researchers to read evidence as it was presented to the court. The depositions can be used to paint a vivid picture of everyday life and to look closely into the circumstances of individual criminal cases.
The working papers of the court include papers relating to a case against 11 year-old Sophia Constable and 20 year-old Fanny Goodchild who stood accused of obtaining, by false pretences, a threepenny loaf of bread from a shop in Church Street, Whitby in October 1872.
The witness deposition of shopkeeper Frances Mackintosh states that Sophia entered her shop and asked for a threepenny loaf, claiming to have been sent by one of her neighbours Ann Galilee, and to put it on her account. After handing over the loaf, Mackintosh suspected that she had been tricked and asked her husband to follow Sophia, who met up with Fanny before disappearing out of sight. The police were called who, familiar with both suspects, immediately apprehended both Sophia and Fanny.
The case was heard at Northallerton in January 1873 where both prisoners pleaded guilty to the offence, stating that it was only through hunger that they resorted to theft. Fanny Goodchild received one-month prison sentence with hard labour and Sophia received three weeks in prison followed by four years in a reformatory school.
Quarter sessions case papers very often show the severity of the Victorian justice system and highlight the poverty that drove many to their crimes. Many of these papers dating from the 19th century have been catalogued in detail and can be located using our online catalogue under the reference QSB.
Next time in Focus on Whitby Records we’ll explore some of our maps and plans