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Interior of Bow Street Police Court, Westminster, showing the 'Bow Street Runners'.

​Interior of Bow Street Police Court, Westminster, showing the 'Bow Street Runners', 1808.

Early police court records

It’s always satisfying uncovering information that you previously thought hadn’t survived and this was the case recently for Andy Lott whilst he was researching some mid-nineteenth century criminal records.

Whilst London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) has possibly the greatest surviving series of Quarter Sessions records in the country, it has always been a bit of a bug bear that our police court (latterly magistrate court) registers, only survive sporadically from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The following are the dates of the first surviving court register for some of the major central London police courts: West London (1877), Thames (1881), Tower Bridge (1889) and Bow Street (1895), this continues through to courts like Clerkenwell, Old Street and Marylebone (all 1905) and Marlborough Street Magistrates (1908).

The registers themselves, whilst providing basic details such as the date of the case, the name of the defendant, the name of the prosecutor and details of the verdict, unfortunately provide little more than a one line entry on the nature of the crime. Compare this to the bountiful supply of depositions surviving from Middlesex Sessions’ cases, providing page after page of statements from the victim, witnesses, the arresting officer and occasionally the defendant, all giving you a real feel of the background details of the case.

Having previously pointed enquirers towards local newspapers in the hope that they may have reported some of the more juicy details of interesting cases, I was delighted to discover a series of uncatalogued depositions from late nineteenth century police court cases, which had been returned to the Middlesex Sessions. After digging a bit further I discovered earlier returns of depositions filed on the Sessions Rolls from as early as 1855.

Unsurprisingly, as I have discovered with the Middlesex Sessions over the years, the arrangement of these records is not entirely straightforward. The first important fact to stress is that because these records survive amongst the Middlesex Sessions, we are only talking about police courts north of the river Thames and outside the ancient City of London. The county of Middlesex was also radically altered in 1889 when the county of London was formed and whilst we do hold records of the county of London Sessions, a similar series of depositions does not survive.

Concentrating on the period from 1855 to 1889 the records survive in the following series:

From 1855 to December 1872 records of convictions at police courts were filed on the Sessions Rolls (ref: MJ/SR). The depositions that accompanied the case were also filed on the Sessions Roll.

After December 1872 the returns of convictions continued to be filed on to the Sessions Rolls (ref: MJ/SR); however, the depositions remain in an uncatalogued series (ref: MSJ/C/D) arranged in monthly bundles. When examining these it was notable that the depositions were often returned up to a couple of months later than the month in which the conviction was filed.

Anyone interested in using these records should note that there is a useful series of registers of Summary Jurisdiction, which provide an index to the entries on the Sessions Rolls 1855-1915 (ref: MSJ/C/R/001-009). Whilst these registers will not show much beyond the name of the defendant, the name of the prosecutor, the court and the date of trial, they do include a case number. This will correspond to the position on the session roll making your task of finding the entry a much easier one.

Out of interest, the case I was researching was that of Jane Austen convicted at Clerkenwell police court on 3 August 1863. This was of course the lesser known Jane Austen, a pick-pocket who on this occasion stole a pocket watch having walked alongside a gentleman for some 50 yards along Old Street.

Published:
02 February 2016
Last Modified:
29 September 2017

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