There are 47,543 Surrey Quarter Sessions records covering a period between 1780 and 1820.

The Quarter sessions were held in Surrey four times a year over a number of days, in rotation at different locations around the county. They took place in the weeks around the dates of Epiphany (January 6th), Easter (variable dates), Midsummer (June 24th) and Michaelmas (September 29th) and dealt with a variety of misdemeanor, minor offences and other crimes that did not carry the death penalty.

The sessions were presided over by magistrates, otherwise known as justices of the peace. Magistrates were appointed by the Lord Chancellor and were unpaid. They were prominent landowners, holding lands worth over £100 a year and were usually either clergy or gentlemen.

Magistrates could listen to evidence, send a case to trial and pass sentence. They also administered summary justice without a jury outside the Quarter sessions. Justice was swift at the time, with the majority of trials lasting less than a day. The defendant rarely had a defense barrister.

The most serious crimes, which did carry the death penalty, were heard in twice yearly Assizes by judges from the central courts. Those cases are not covered in these records.

While you can get a lot of information about your ancestor from these records bear in mind that names and occupations of the defendant were often false or inaccurate and aliases were often used. The defendant’s parish and county tend to refer to where the crime took place, rather than where the defendant lived.

Prisons and houses of correction are generally where the defendant would have been held to await trial. Houses of correction were also where prisoners were sent to perform hard labor. Short spells of hard labor were often used for those convicted of vagrancy and the idle and disorderly poor who were convicted summarily before the Quarter sessions.

Vagrancy is a very common crime in these records. It refers not only to people who were sleeping rough but also to those charged with workhouse offences. Riot refers to an offence involving a number of defendants. If a victim is named it would refer to an assault, if not then an attack on property. Homosexuality and bastardy (the fathering of an illegitimate child) were also offences. Bigamy was fairly common as divorces were then only an option for the very wealthy. As these records fall before the 1832 Anatomy Act, which allowed anatomy schools a more reputable supply of cadavers, grave robbing also sometimes appears as an offence.

Policing was still in its infancy at this time. It was the victim who usually brought a case to trial rather than the police. In the transcript the accuser is the person who has taken the case to court.

Transportation was a common sentence at this time, even for some quite minor crimes. Convicts (prisoners who were sentenced to transportation) from England were sent to America until the War of Independence broke out in 1776 forcing the British government to abandon transportation. Male prisoners were instead sent to prison hulk ships. The practice was revived in 1787 when the first convicts were sent to Australia.

Some magistrates continued to send convicts to America even after the practice was stopped. During this period some convicts were also sent to Africa.

These records were gathered together by volunteer indexers and transcribers in Surrey. They use two primary sources, the process book and the calendar of prisoners (or gaol calendar) to build a unified record for each case.