4. Magistrates

Elizabethan magistrates were made responsible  for relieving the poor.

Elizabethan magistrates were made responsible for relieving the poor.

In the Tudor period the expression ‘magistrate’ began to be used as an alternative for ‘Justice of the Peace’. The 1572 Poor Law empowered them to levy poor rates. Under Poor Laws of 1597 and 1601 the Justices of the Peace supervised the Overseers of the Poor, who collected and distributed the Poor Rate and were responsible for the parish Poor House.

The Quarter Sessions were held in different towns depending on the season. The usual cycle was the Midsummer Sessions at Guildford, Michaelmas Sessions at Kingston, Epiphany Sessions at Croydon and Easter Sessions at Reigate. Occasionally sessions were also held at Dorking, Epsom and Southwark (part of Surrey until 1899).

The Sessions House, Newington,  watercolour by J Hassell , 1823.  (Surrey History Centre ref 4348/6/6/3)

The Sessions House, Newington, watercolour by J Hassell , 1823.
(Surrey History Centre ref 4348/6/6/3)

In the early 1790s a Sessions House was built at Newington and became the favourite venue. There was a marked difference between that part of Surrey around Southwark, in many ways an urban extension of London, and the rural parishes and market towns. Population density in the former was much greater, and with it levels of poverty and crime.

The Guildhall in Guildford was used for the  Quarter Sessions.

The Guildhall in Guildford was used for the Quarter Sessions.

In addition to the Quarter Sessions, the magistrates could also act without a jury, in small groups or even alone. These hearings came to be known as Petty Sessions. Special Sessions were also held for specific purposes, such as licensing.

Read more about 17th century Surrey.

Read about Surrey in the 18th century.

Find out about the Quarter Sessions and Assize Records held at Surrey History Centre.

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