Friday, August 31, 2012

Quarter Sessions

Quarter Sessions


The letter "Q" is the least frequently used letter in the English language. There are fewer words, surnames and  place names beginning with letter Q in English, than probably with any other letter. So, I knew that writing a blog linking family history research to the letter "Q", would indeed be a challenge. I had been thinking about "Q" since back at letter "N".  Something beginning with Queensland? (the state in which I was born) ... or ...I have a fabulous Medieval Quail recipe? ... Nothing took my fancy. Then by coincidence last week, I was undertaking a task that we all dread. I was cleaning my desk and filing, and whilst doing so, I came across papers which I had collected during the 13th Genealogy and Heraldry Congress in Adelaide, in March of this year, (and now you know how infrequently I tidy my desk). In a lecture I had attended about unusual names, the surname GOTOBED was cited. ( Go-TO-Bed). The lecturer claimed, that in many years of delivering this particular talk, never once to have discovered anyone who descended from this unusual name. To everyone's surprise, two people in the audience raised their hands to acknowledge that they both had the name Gotobed in their ancestry and it happened to be myself and my 'genea' and 'Kiva'* friend Kerry Farmer. [*]

In actual fact, it is my husband who descends from Ann Gotobed who was born in Bedfordshire in about 1688 and who married Richard BEARD in 1702, in Wootton By Bedford, Bedfordshire. Apart from reminding me that I still need to follow up on this shared surname with Kerry, I suddenly remembered that when researching the Beard family, I had unearthed an intriguing skeleton in the Beard family closet through the Bedfordshire Quarter Session records. And just like that... I had my "Q" post!


Often, unless we know that our ancestors had a run in with the law, we never might think to search court or criminal records for family members, and so it was when I was researching my husband's 'Beards of Bedfordshire'. My husband's maternal great great great grandfather, Joshua Beard, ( Baptised 29 October, 1816) had been a Baker in Haynes, Bedford, before immigrating to Australia with his wife and children. His father, also named Joshua Beard, had been a baker before him. It was this seemingly quiet unassuming first baker of bread, Joshua Beard, born in 1789, in Haynes (Hawnes), Bedfordshire who I discovered had led a mischievous life. Through a paper trail of evidence in the Quarter Session Records of Bedfordshire, I discovered that Joshua, not only had nine children to his wife Elizabeth GUDGIN, but in fact, had families to two other women at the same time, whilst married to Elizabeth. But for locating the Bedford Quarter Session records, held in The National Archives (UK),  I might never have known about Joshua's three families. There were no marriage records or birth records to link him to the children of the other relationships and the children of those relationships took the surnames of their mothers.  Now, I am certain you are intrigued by Joshua Beard's story, and I will tell you more of Joshua's most interesting misdemeanors after a short history about Quarter Sessions. These  records are possibly a much under appreciated source of information for family historians, and are relevant to more than just criminal records. I have spoken in previous blogs about putting meat on the bare bones of research. Quarter Session records can be an extremely useful source for filling in the gaps in our family stories. 

Bedford Gaol where Joshua Beard spent some time.


Quarter Sessions were sessions of a court  held in each county of England (except for Middlesex, which was held in conjunction with the court of Westminster) and were conducted as the name suggests, quarterly, or four times per year.  The history of Quarter Sessions dates back as far as 1327, when during the reign of King Edward III, men were appointed in every county to keep the peace. By 1368, a court system was organised, whereby Justices of the Peace were authorised to hear and make judgement on criminal matters brought before them. In 1388, it was resolved that the courts would sit in January (Epiphany), Easter, Midsummer and Autumn (Michaelmas).

Most of the crimes heard at the Quarter Session courts were of a minor nature. Major crimes, punishable by death, were tried at the Assizes, where judges were not local men. Quarter Session courts heard both criminal and civil matters and embodied a long lasting time frame from the 14th century until 1971, when a reorganisation of the British legal system saw them replaced by Crown

Quarter Session records for England are held at The National Archives [ ] and can also be located at Local County Record Offices and Local County Archives. A google search for 'quarter sessions' will produce many links to excellent websites offering information about these court records or to the records themselves. There are many surviving Quarter Session records, particularly from the 17 th century onward.

A Quarter Session record from Bedfordshire


Quarter Session court hearings were introduced in Australia, in NSW, in 1824. to deal with all criminal matters not punishable by death. These Quarter Session courts were conducted four times a year in Sydney, Liverpool, Windsor and Parramatta in 1824, Campbelltown in 1828, Maitland in 1830 and Bathurst in 1832. Surviving records can be found in a number of locations including online on the  the TROVE website [ ]. Links to the Quarter Sessions can also be found at State Records NSW [ ] and the State Library of NSW [ ]. The helpful website also has links to Australian Quarter Session records. Quarter Session records from the Maitland courts have enabled  me to accumulate such a wealth of  information regarding five of my my convict ancestors, enough so that I have constructed a story of substance about their lives ( sometimes it pays to have criminals in the family!).

A Quarter Session Court in Hay, NSW


Quarter Session records contain a wealth of historical information for family historians, and they are much more than just judicial evidence of petty crimes. These records contain witness statements and petitions from the accused, which offer colourful anecdotes and exquisite descriptions of people, places and the daily life of ancestors and which reflect the times and circumstances in which they lived. Until the institution of County Councils (in the 1800's), the Quarter Sessions dealt with civil issues such as roads, bridges, prisons, lunatic asylums, hospitals and the militia amongst other matters of great value to family historians. Records contain names of not only prisoners, but of jurors, witnesses, justices, constables, clerks and church wardens. There is a good chance that even if your ancestor was law abiding, he or she may have had their name recorded in a Quarter session record for any number of reasons. The information in these records can provide you with an incomparable insight into the lives of ancestors.

 One of the common criminal reasons for a man to appear before the Quarter sessions court, was, if a woman brought against him a charge of bastardy... and that was the very charge which disclosed  Joshua Beard's double life.


Joshua Beard, baker of Haynes in Bedford married Elizabeth Gudgin in 1808, aged 19 years. By 1822, Elizabeth had given birth to nine children several of whom did not survive infancy. There seemed not to be anything out of the ordinary in the life of this baker and family man, until a search of The National Archives UK, exposed an amazing trail of encounters with the law for Joshua Beard.

The first hint of  strife in Joshua Beard's life was a Quarter Session hearing in 1810 which stated;  'Joshua Beard, Haynes, Baker; keep peace towards William Cockerill, Bedfordshire and Luton Quarter Sessions.'

'Well,' thought I, defending this bread baking Beard from Bedford, 'anyone can have an argument.' But then I discovered that in 1814, Joshua was once again appearing before the justice of the peace in the Bedfordshire and Luton Quarter session, in Bedford. This time I was in for quite a surprise. The record showed that Joshua had strayed from his marriage only four years after it had taken place. The record read, 'Joshua Beard, Haynes, Baker, Bastardy. W.  ANN GARRET...'  This record even gave me the name of Joshua's mistress so that I could trace the child born out of wedlock.

Further investigation revealed that Ann Garrett was born in Lidlington in 1790 and gave birth to a son, named William in 1814, in Liddlington, Bedfordshire.

Lidlington, Bedfordshire

The town of Haynes where Joshua lived with his wife Elizabeth and their children and where he ran his Bakery, was 11 km south of Bedford. Lidlington lies adjacent to the town of Bedford. Joshua perhaps thought his affair with Ann Garrett was safe from discovery, with some distance between the two women. In 1818, Ann gave birth to another son, again fathered by Joshua Beard, and named Emmanel Garrett. One can only imagine how Elizabeth Beard must have felt upon discovery that her husband had been unfaithful. She herself had given birth to their third child, a daughter Emma in 1813, a daughter, named  Elizabeth, born  in 1816 and another daughter named Eliza in 1818. Eliza died that same year, the year in which Joshua's mistress gave birth to a son Emmanuel.  Elizabeth gave Joshua another daughter also named Eliza was born in 1819. The evidence shows that Joshua was having a relationship with both his wife and Ann Garrett between 1813 and 1818.

In 1833, a warrant was issued for Joshua Beard to appear before the Midsummer session of the Bedfordshire and Luton Quarter session. Joshua was 'held for want of sureties'. 

A further document reveals that Elizabeth had brought a charge against Joshua, under the 'Articles of peace- against her husband, Joshua beard, of St Paul's...'

This record is particularly significant as it divulges that Joshua was a parishioner of St Paul's Church. What is relevant about this is information, is that St Paul's Church is located in the heart of Bedford and not in Haynes where Elizabeth and the family were living. Elizabeth's claim was that Joshua had become violent towards her when under the influence of alchohol.

Bedford and St Paul's Church.

Joshua's hearing took place on the 12th of June, 1833. The record provides a physical description of the man himself. According to the Quarter Session record, Joshua Beard was 5 ' 7" tall, with 'brown' hair and was of 'sallow' complexion. Remarks from the hearing were; 'this man is insane'.  (Clearly the women in his life did not find him so). The record also shows that Joshua was living in Bedford, and indicates that 'number of children: ( were) Unknown'. Not surprising, since by this time it had become apparent, that in 1822, a third woman, named Rebecca JOYCE had given birth to a son named, Joseph Joyce, proclaimed to be fathered by none other than, Joshua Beard. Electoral Rolls and Poll Books show Joshua to be living in Haynes, in 1820 and 1831. Since Joshua Beard died in Haynes in 1836, it appears from the Quarter Session record that Joshua was not living with his wife Elizabeth in 1833 when she filed a charge against him. The charge  has remained on record for this family historian to discover some 178 years later in the Quarter Sessions of Luton and Bedfordshire. The Quarter Session records of Bedfordshire allowed me to fill in gaps in the fascinating story of my husband's great great great grandfather's real life story. Without these records, Joshua would have remained on the family tree as a 'Baker from Bedfordshire'. Now we know him to be so much more a colourful character. And importantly, we have tracked down the descendants of Joshua Beard's other relationships who live all around the world and we have united Joshua's descendants.

Marriage Record (Pallot's Marriage Index) for Joshua Beard and Elizabeth Gudgin.


  1. Great post Sharn! So much detail as usual. A new resource to add to my list - thanks!

  2. What a wonderful topic for the Q challenge. You have certainly unearthed an intriguing tale from the QS records. Thanks for inspiring us all.

  3. Thanks for another interesting and informative post. Time-poor family historians will be pleased to hear that there are several indexes to Quarter Sessions records in Australia. Titles of indexes listed in Specialist Indexes in Australia: a Genealogist's Guide (1998 edition and 2006 Supplement, described on my Web site) are 'Guilty or Not Guilty: NSW Court Records 1841-1853 (includes Brisbane)', 'Index to NSW Clerk of the Peace - Quarter Sessions', and 'State Records NSW online indexes'.

  4. Fabulous post full of interesting/ useful information about the "Quarter Sessions".
    Sorry, but just can't resist saying that... the Baker, Joshua Beard, sure did put a lot of buns in a lot of different ovens. :-)
    Thanks for sharing. Cheers, Catherine