Unravelling the Great Rolls

on Thursday, 28 June 2018. Posted in Archives

One of the pleasures of working in a History Centre or County Record Office is that you are always discovering new material. There are many occasions when a customer has requested something and I think ‘that looks interesting, I must have a look some when.’ The list is growing ever longer and I will probably never get round to looking at everything that interests me. A few months ago one of our regular customers spent several days looking at the Great Rolls. These documents have always been a mystery to me as I have never known exactly what’s in them and how easy they are to use.

The Rolls are part of the Quarter Sessions records. Prior to the Local Government Act 1888 and the creation of County Councils, the Quarter Sessions presided over by JPs were responsible for the administration of justice. As well as dealing with criminal cases, examples of their responsibilities were the administration of poor law, apprenticeship indentures, ale house licences, plans of canals and railways, coroners’ accounts, the County Militia, Meeting House certificates, registers of gamekeepers, the supervision of prisons, the drawing up of jury lists, regulations regarding highway maintenance, the licencing of lunatic asylums and recording the names of parish constables. All of which is a wealth of information for both the family and local historian.

Here in Wiltshire we are fortunate enough to have an active Family History Society which has transcribed and indexed many of the criminal and poor law registers. One of our archivists has transcribed the ale house records. But what about the many hidden gems that we don’t know about? As well as the rolls themselves, which in Wiltshire date back to 1603, there are also rough minute books, entry books and order books. The rough minute book was effectively the clerk’s notebook. The order book records the full minutes of the court. The entry book includes names of the jury, presentments (a formal presentation of information to the court) and the names of people who were bound to appear at the court. I have chosen the year 1750 as an example.

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The term ‘rolls’ describes the documents perfectly, as the parchment and paper documents used in the court were spiked, threaded on string and rolled for storage. There are four bundles for each year, one for each of the sessions. They are still known by the four English court terms during the calendar year, Easter, Trinity, Michaelmas and Hilary. Each bundle consists of smaller rolls each covering one subject, one of which is returns of jurors.

As well as giving names, which will be of interest to family historians, the return also gives a glimpse into the workings of local government. The next layer of government below the Quarter Sessions was the hundred court. (Wiltshire was divided into 40 hundreds; a hundred was a group of parishes that functioned as one administrative unit).  This dealt with petty crimes committed in one of the parishes within the hundred.  At the top of the document are the names of the constables of the hundred. They were senior law enforcement officers (prior to the establishment of professional police forces). Next are the gentlemen summoned to serve on the grand jury at the Quarter Sessions. Finally, all the men who served on the hundred jury, with their parish, are listed. Sometimes the list will include the juror’s occupation.

The constables had to make a presentment at the Sessions detailing the crimes they had dealt with, or more serious cases to be heard at the Sessions. They nearly always say ‘we present all things well’ but just occasionally there is something of interest.

Malmesbury hundred presentment

At the Session held in Devizes on the 24th April 1751 the constables of the Malmesbury Hundred made the following presentment. ‘We present Thomas Garlick a tanner of the parish of Westport for keeping a long runing greyhound dog supposed to destroy the game and detrimental to the neighbour hood  and also to the Common wealth by kiling lambs and not being a qualified person to keep such a runing dog’. In other words, he was a poacher. The members of the jury of the hundred court have all signed the presentment.

It is pure luck as to what you will find in the Quarter Sessions and it does take a long time to search through them, but there is always the anticipation of finding something of interest that you know you would not find anywhere else. The earlier returns are often the most interesting, even though they can be a challenge to read. In 1673 one of the cases was as follows: ‘Know all persons concerned that the flue belonging to Stephen Green’s house formerly presented by Salathiel Hunt is now mended and made sufficient. Salathiel Hunt satisfied’. It is signed by the vicar, Richard Boardman, and five parishioners. (The clergy database tells us that Boardman was vicar of Collingbourne Kingston). The document goes on to say ‘We humbly desire that you would be pleased to use the said Stephen Green courteously as to his fine for he is a poore labouring man and hath nothing to maintain his wife and children with but what he gets with his hands.’ There is a note written at the bottom, probably by one of the Justices, ‘Forbear to execute your process against this man’. A faulty chimney was a serious problem, because of the risk of fire, which is why it was reported. However, Green’s neighbours were keen to point out that he had rectified the problem quickly and should not be fined; the Justice clearly agreed with them.

One final example is from 1639. At the Quarter Sessions held at Warminster on July 11th, the sentence passed on Jacobus Cox and Rogerus Cruse is in Latin: flagellari instanter in publico loco mercatorio apud the cartes tayle. Apparently the Clerk did not know the Latin for the last three words!

Helen Taylor, Senior Community History Advisor

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