Essex Court Cases
Apart from Census Returns and BMD certificates, finding references to our working class ancestors such as agricultural labourers is difficult. Criminal court cases are one possible area of investigation.
Your ancestors do not have to be criminals, they may be mentioned as a victim or as a witness.
This is an ongoing project to create a list of court cases and those involved taken from newspaper reports and the Calendars of Prisoners at the Essex Record Office 'ERO'. Because of the time taken to transcribe, regretfully it is not possible to supply all the details of each and every case. The aim is to provide you with a starting point for further research. The information is linked via each location's home page: See our A to Z pages in the navigation above.
The information is supplied in the following format:
- (d) defendant's name, age and occupation (when given)
- (v) victim's name, age and occupation (when given)
- (w) witness names, age and occupation (when given)
- Place offence committed and places mentioned where the (d), (v) or (w) lived. Some of the defendants may have been from neighbouring parishes not mentioned by name, or itinerant wanderers.
- The court hearing the case.
- The source newspaper or archive reference.
About the courts:
The Assize Court dealt with most serious offences in Essex and in the early part of the 19th century the sentence of the court could be death by hanging or transportation, thus the database may be of great interest to Australians with convict ancestors. Newspapers covering the most notorious cases would ofetn carry detailed testimony of the witnesses, while other cases merely mention the names, offence, place and sentence.
The Quarter Sessions generally heard crimes not serious enough for the Assizes but which could not be tried summarily by the Justices of the Peace in the local Petty Sessions.
Petty Sessions or County Magistrates Courts covered a number of parishes and dealt with minor offences and held committal proceedings for the more serious offences.
Some of the records for Assizes and Quarter Sessions are available online at the Essex Record Office. (Registration is required since 21.1.2016).
Go to Essex Archives Online. In the Document Reference search box top right type> Q/SMc . You'll then have listed all the Calendars of Prisoners for Essex Quarter Sessions and Essex Assizes they have in their collection. After registration many of the images you can view online. Not all the Calenders are preserved. Most of the Calenders will provide a little more information on the offences.
There are several other court records stored in the ERO. You could try the Process Book of Indictments: Document Reference Q/SPb. If you have found the defendant's name on the above Calendars, then the Process Book also show the parish the defendant came from. Useful information to confirm the person's identity.
Very few Petty Sessions records survive in the archives. The best source for what went on in the Petty Sessions are newspapers.
About the newspapers:
The newspapers are available online at the British Newspaper Archive We have already formatted this link to help you. Once on the site all you have to do is alter 'firstname surname' and 'essexparish' to that of your ancestor and their town or parish. Keep the + sign. It then searches the Essex newspapers. If no success, you can then try other permutations of name and place name. When searching be flexible over the spelling of names, then as today newspapers often get the names wrong!
Another source is the Essex Record Office where copies of local papers such as the Essex Standard, Chelmsford Chronicle, Essex Herald and Essex Chronicle are available on microfilm.
For more information on newspaper archives see our article: Newspaper archives for family history research.
Further resources to trace your criminal ancestors:
Ancestry.co.uk digital images from The National Archives: Home Office Criminal Registers for England and Wales under Series HO 26 and HO 27 for the period 1791-1892. The database is fully searchable by name and other information supplied may include age, birthplace (not after 1802), crime, sentence and when and where tried.
Also on Ancestry.co.uk are the UK, Police Gazettes, 1812-1902, 1921-1927. Various publications produced by the Home Office and police forces on crime and criminals.
On Findmypast.co.uk are several collections from The National Archives which come under the general heading of Crime, Prisons & Punishment 1770-1934. These include Essex court cases.
Essex Record Office for newspapers, and Assize Court and Quarter Session records.
National Archives guide to Assize Records.
The National Archives podcast: From crime to punishment: criminal records of our ancestors from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Convict Records - a database of convicts transported to Australia compiled from the Convict Transportation Registers at The National Archives.