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Petitions to the Cheshire Quarter Sessions, 1573-1798
Thousands of inhabitants of the county of Cheshire sent written requests and grievances - 'petitions' - to magistrates over the course of the seventeenth century. Petitions could come from individuals or groups, and most concerned petty violence and anti-social behaviour, judicial favour, housing or financial support. This volume includes a sample of 291 petitions from 1573 to 1798.
Petitions to the Cheshire Justices of the Peace were sent by a variety of people, including the poor, and institutions. The majority of petitioners in this volume were men as individuals or in small groups (173 petitions); individual women represented the second largest category with 60 petitions. There was also a small group of mixed-gender petitions, mostly married couples. 42 petitions were collective requests from ‘the inhabitants’ or officials (such as churchwardens or constables) of a community, sometimes in support of a named individual. However, there are few petitions from inhabitants of Chester, with the exception of prisoners in the city gaol, as the city held its own quarter sessions.
In most cases, the petitions transcribed here were not written directly by the petitioners themselves, but rather by a local scribe, whether professional or amateur. They may also have been advised by neighbours or, more rarely, a lawyer. However, the petitioners would have at least helped to craft the text and, in some cases, they subscribed their names underneath. Ultimately, the precise authorship is often unclear, so the petitions must be read and used with suitable caveats.
The subjects of the transcribed petitions varied considerably, but the majority fit into one of seven broad categories. The largest group (100 petitions) concerned law and disorder, primarily from victims of assaults, threats and antisocial behaviour. However, this category declined in importance after the 1630s, while the second largest category of requests, about building cottages with less than four acres on common land, increased (60 petitions). This constituted a considerably higher proportion of petitions than in other counties, and almost all were requests to build a cottage; petitions against cottages were rare, though a number of petitioners claimed to have encountered local resistance after previously obtaining permission from justices of the peace. Conversely, the 41 petitions about local poor relief represented a smaller proportion of petitions than in most other counties that have been studied. A further 21 petitions concerned familial maintenance of children, mostly from unmarried women seeking support from their children's fathers, and 20 petitions were from disabled ex-soldiers seeking military pensions. Another 19 petitions were about local taxes or rates, usually complaining about unfair impositions of rates or about resisting officials' demands for payment. Small numbers of petitions (30 in total) concerned alehouse licencing, officeholding, charitable collections, employment or licencing disenters' meeting houses - some of which were considerably more significant categories elsewhere - or could not easily be categorised.
All the petitions transcribed here are held at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies (CALS). They are located in the quarter sessions files (reference: QJF), 1571-1971, which also include indictments, recognizances, examinations, orders and other miscellaneous records. Most files have not been catalogued at item level. The pre-1700 exceptions are: a detailed but partial calendar created by Paul Booth, covering the years 1572-1605 (inquire at CALS); and less detailed online catalogue entries for 1583-1594 and 1687-89, which can be searched in The National Archives online Discovery catalogue. In addition, there are extracts from selected 17th-century documents in J.H.E. Bennett, and J.C. Dewhurst, Quarter Sessions Records for Cheshire 1559-1760 (Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 1940). Microfilm images of the files from 1617 onwards can be browsed at familysearch.org.
This edition of 291 petitions includes all sixteenth-century petitions catalogued by Booth, and all surviving petitions from the ten years 1618, 1638, 1658, 1678, 1698, 1718, 1738, 1758, 1778 and 1798. In addition, petition counts have been undertaken for a larger sample of complete years. While the lack of item-level catalogue information means that the precise number of surviving 17th-century petitions is unknown, based on these samples it can be estimated at c. 5,000.
The first extant petition is from the Trinity 1573 sessions, from four inhabitants of Rostherne complaining about the behaviour of Thomas Coppocke, ‘a very unquiet and disordered person’. Before 1590, there is just a scattered handful of surviving petitions, and although they become a more regular feature of the files from 1590, numbers remain very small until 1605. In that year, there is a dramatic increase, with at least 34 surviving petitions. For the next half-century, petitions represent a significant and increasing proportion of Quarter Sessions business, peaking around the late 1640s: in 1648 the magistrates received at least 175 petitions. From the 1650s, the numbers begin to decline, and by the early 1680s, the files contain only a few petitions each year, except for a temporary boost around 1688.
Order books, which frequently contain further information relating to petitions, survive for much of the seventeenth century apart from a gap in the 1650s (QJB 1, 1559-1650; QJB 3, 1660-1818). Petitions to magistrates can also be found in the files of the Chester City Quarter Sessions (QSF), some of which have been calendared and can be searched in the CALS online catalogue or in TNA Discovery.
The cost most of the archival photography, transcription and editorial work was funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Research Grant: 'The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England' (AH/S001654/1). The cost of transcribing eighteenth-century items was funded by Economic History Society Carnevali Small Research Grant: 'Poverty, Taxation and Regulation: Petitions to Local Magistrates in Eighteenth Century England'.
The petitions were photographed by Sharon Howard at CALS. They have been transcribed by Gavin Robinson. All images and transcriptions have been published courtesy of Cheshire Archives and Library Services. We highly encourage readers to take advantage of their extensive collections to pursue further research on the individuals and communities mentioned in the petitions.
For more detailed discussion of seventeenth-century poor relief petitions, see Steve Hindle, On the Parish? The Micro-Politics of Poor Relief in Rural England, c.1550-1750 (2004), ch. 6, and Jonathan Healey, The First Century of Welfare: Poverty and Poor Relief in Lancashire, 1620-1730 (2014). For petitions about cottage licences, see Danae Tankard, 'The Regulation of Cottage Building in Seventeenth-Century Sussex', Agricultural History Review, 59:1, pp. 18-35. For petitions about alehouses, see Mark Hailwood, Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England (2014), pp. 29-58, 90-94. There is an extensive and growing literature on petitions for relief from veterans and war widows, including David J. Appleby, ‘Unnecessary persons? Maimed soldiers and war widows in Essex, 1642-62’, Essex Archaeology and History, 32 (2001), pp. 209-21; Mark Stoyle, ‘“Memories of the maimed”: the testimony of Charles I’s former soldiers, 1660-1730’, History, 88:290 (2003), pp. 204-26; Imogen Peck, ‘The great unknown: the negotiation and narration of death by English war widows, 1647–1660’, Northern History, 53:2 (2016), pp. 220-35; Hannah Worthen, ‘The administration of military welfare in Kent, 1642-79’, in David J. Appleby and Andrew Hopper (eds), Battle-Scarred: Mortality, Medical Care and Military Welfare in the British Civil Wars (2018). Unfortunately, there is not yet substantive scholarship on other types of petitions to county quarter sessions.
Transcriptions and Editorial Conventions
The transcriptions generally retain the original spelling and punctuation, with a few exceptions as noted below. In addition to the main text of each petition, subscriptions - whether signatures, initials or marks - have been identified using italics. Paratext added in separate hand - usually endorsements by the magistrates - has been signalled by indentation. However, due to the limits of the format of this edition, we encourage any readers interested in the details of layout, subscriptions or paratext to consult the original manuscripts or request reproductions from the archives.
The following changes have been made during transcription: capitalisation has been modernised, obsolete letterforms (e.g. y/th, u/v, i/j, ff/F) have been modernised, obsolete punctuation (e.g. './.') has been modernised, superscript has been transcribed as regular script, common abbreviations (e.g. 'petr' = 'petitioner') have been silently expanded, and interlined words in the same hand have been silently inserted into the main text.
The original version of this volume only included petitions from before 1700 and it was published on British History Online in September 2019. It has since been expanded to include eighteenth-century petitions and the introduction has been slightly revised to reflect these additions. The revised volume was published on British History Online in February 2020.