Monday, 3 September 2012

Family History Through The Alphabet Challenge : Q is for...

This week's letter was a challenging one I confess. I have no ancestry names that start with Q (unless you count my first cousin four times removed, Charlotte Foster who married George Quinton in 1888). No, I thought my best bet was to write about Quarter Sessions but with a Becclesian twist (being Beccles, in county Suffolk).

What are Quarter Sessions exactly? Researching Records of the Court can be daunting and just a tad mind-boggling to the average amateur genealogist, such as yours truly. Terms such as Minute Books, Order Books, Assizes, Session Rolls, and Judicial Proceedings leave my brain swimming. I can easily explain, however, that Quarter Sessions were held four times in a year (hence the name, Quarter) at: Easter, Midsummer, Michaelmas and Epiphany (January). Quarter Sessions were presided over by the town sheriff or his deputy; or a Justice of the Peace (magistrates).

The Beccles Charter of 1584 granted the right for a gaol to be built in the town. Beccles historian E. A Goodwyn wrote: "The holding of Quarter Sessions at Beccles indicates the importance of the town in the country. Theft, poaching, assault and bastardy orders here the most cases..." Public interest in crime was strong and many books on crime and criminals were sold in Beccles shops, such as Horth the chemist. A body on a gibbet was common in large towns and in market towns such as Beccles public whipping frequently followed the Quarter Sessions. It is interesting to note that public whipping was carried out to coincide with Market Days. This was done on purpose; it drew in large crowds from both Beccles and neighbouring visitors. Public whipping of women was abolished in 1791.

Image courtesy of Rictor Norton

Beccles sessions were held at the Town Hall (on the site of the old Market Cross), in the New Market-place. Beccles also had a Custom House, Assembly Rooms and a House of Correction (Gaol) near Newgate. In the first half of the nineteenth century the Earl of Gosford (then Lord of the Manor) held court in the town. The chairman was Colonel Henry Bence Bence (that is not an error, that really was his name).

Beccles House of Correction was situated on the site of the Game Place which is now covered by Tesco Supermarket (formerly, Clowes Printing Works), bordering Gaol Lane and Newgate. In 1679 it was agreed that the House of Correction should be placed on the Game Place, a former open-air theatre where plays took place by travelling acting companies. In the 1780s the Public Hall (orgininally called the Assembly Rooms) was built.

In 1865 Quarter Sessions in Beccles came to an end and all cases were transferred to Ipswich, despite initial opposition from the magistrates and townsfolk of Beccles. After this time, the House of Correction was used as a County Police Station in which there was accommodation for a married inspector and his family and three constables. The building was remodelled in 1874 which included eight cells and a large airing-yard for prisoners. Petty sessions and Police Courts continued to be carried out in Beccles.

Image courtesy of Eugene Ulph
"Time Remembered"

The Beccles Quarter Sessions paint some pretty disturbing images in history. What follows may make you laugh or cry but they are an insightful look into the life of our ancestors:

1764. Elizabeth Thornton, being disorderly, idle and refusing to work, to be publicly whipped "until bloody".
1766. Fines imposed on 5 Beccles men for non-appearance when chosen as Jury men.
1769. A woman of Beccles to be publicly whipped in the Market Place for reeling false yarn. Commited to the Bridewell for 14 days.
1771. Martha Mash and Hannah Peake for stealing 13 turkeys and one goose. Mash to be transported to America for 7 years. Peake to be publicly whipped on the next Market Day.
1777. Bejamin Eves stealing a pig. Publicly whipped the next Market Day.
1771. John Poll, charged with bastardy, to enlist for a soldier.
1774. Sarah Calver, for feloniously stealing 3 loaves of bread out of the house of John Sratford of Wenhaston, to be publicly whipped and discharged.
1790. Will Burroughs. Petty Larceny. 3 months hard labour and publicly whipped the next market day in Beccles.
1794. Ely Leggett leaving poor house at Shipmeadow and taking away apparel belonging to the same. Sentenced to 2 months hard labour and solitary confinement in Beccles Gaol.

Beccles Town Hall

A Beccles guidebook of 1888: Town Hall of Beccles now used as a Public Library and contains 6,000 volumes. In 1904 it was said to hold over 9,000 volumes and was under the control of 12 committee members. However, in 1911 the East Suffolk Gazette newspaper reported thus: The Council intends to recover possession of the old Town Hall, near the Church, now used as a Public Library, to use it as a Council Chamber and offices for the Borough Surveyor.

If you are interested in knowing more about the history of Beccles you may like to subscribe or follow my Twitter page @RelicsofBeccles where I regularly "tweet" historical facts and anecdotes of Beccles.


  1. What an inventive response to the Q challenge! I now know more about Quarter Sessions and also about Beccles - a place I had not heard about before. A very interesting post.

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment Sue. Glad I helped you to learn more about two special topics that I enjoy writing about - criminal records and Beccles! ;-)

  2. Thank you for highlighting the value of Quarter Session records. They certainly make for interesting reading, and while whipping was the punishment of the time, it's sad to think that it was a spectacle.

    1. Thank you for your comment. It was pretty eye-opening research and not always for the good. It was sad, thank goodness it doesn't happen in this day and age. xx

  3. How horrible. It would be good to find a relative in there but depressing as well. I didn't have a "Q" street I lived on either. The elusive Q.

    1. Thanks for your comment Kristin, it was pretty horrible reading. Some of my ancestors were charged at Quarter Sessions and Police Courts but mostly it was for not sending their children to school! xx