Petitions to the Derbyshire Quarter Sessions, 1632-1770.

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In this section


Magistrates in Derbyshire regularly received requests and complaints from the villagers and townspeople of the county about a wide range of economic, judicial and other concerns in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This volume includes transcriptions of 94 such documents, usually called ‘petitions’.

Figure 1:

The petition of Alice Ragg of Wirkesworth asking for a parish relief order in 1683, ‘being grown antient in years and weake of body’. Courtesy of the Derbyshire Record Office, Q/SB/2/350.

The people who submitted these petitions came from many different backgrounds. Most petitions came from individuals, including 55 from men and 25 from women. A few came from families or small groups such as ‘the poore prisoners in Derby Goale’ who complained of a reduced ‘bare allowance’ in 1680 (Q/SB/2/311). Ten petitions were submitted in the name of whole communities, whether from ‘the inhabitants’ of a particular village or from the ‘churchwardens and overseers of the poor’ of a named parish. 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.

Figure 2:

The petition of the inhabitants of Swarkeston claiming that Robert Boocley was unlawfully occupying their ‘scholhowse’ and asking for his removal in 1649. Courtesy of the Derbyshire Record Office, Q/SB/2/634.

The range of grievances expressed in the surviving petitions to the Justices of the Peace of Derbyshire was slightly narrower than found in most other counties that have been studied, with none relating to alehouse licencing for example. Nonetheless, the two largest categories of concern were also popular topics elsewhere. Over half the petitions transcribed here were focused on the poor relief system, and the vast majority of these came from poor women or men seeking an order from the magistrates confirming their right to parish relief. There were also two in this category from individuals seeking public reimbursement for supporting paupers and one from the inhabitants of Bowden Middlecale against the relief order granted to Nicholas Cowper in 1689. The second largest group of requests was the thirteen petitions related to crime and punishment. Most of these came from accused or convicted individuals — including several in prison — asking for mercy from the courts. There were also a similar number concerned with local taxation — called ‘rates’ — and parish officeholding. Six came from veterans requesting a military pension paid from county funds and another six petitions sought formal licences to build cottages without farmland attached. The remainder comprised miscellaneous complaints, including one from a group of parishioners in Swarkestone seeking the expulsion of a man occupying the village schoolhouse in 1649.

Figure 3:

Categories of request in surviving dateable petitions.

Archival Context

Petitions to the county quarter sessions are held at the Derbyshire Record Office. They are found in the session papers (Q/SB/2), which survive irregularly from 1633 onwards and include presentments, depositions and similar documents. A detailed list is available through in the DRO online catalogue and The National Archives Discovery catalogue. Many extracts from the papers, including some of the petitions transcribed here, were published in John Charles Cox, Three Centuries of Derbyshire Annals: As Illustrated by the Records of the Quarter Sessions of the County of Derby (2 vols; 1890).

The first extant petition with a certain date is a request from the ‘lovinge neighbours’ of Matthew Bagshaw to grant him permission to build a house in a croft at Darley, dated 20 April 1639 (Q/SB/2/85), and the last is a very similar petition for a cottage licence from 1770 (Q/SB/2/1146). A total of 94 dateable petitions survive from this period, though only 15 from after 1700. Although many years have none surviving, there is a notable cache of 51 from the 1680s. There are an additional 121 petitions that cannot be dated to a particular decade and thus have been excluded from this volume. There are also a few stray petitions regarding gaols (Q/AB/1/6/1-3) and highways (Q/AH/1/14/1-4) in other series that have not been included here.

Because the archivists found the sessions papers loose — rather than in quarterly bundles — dating many of quarter sessions documents is especially difficult and often impossible for this county. Except in the small minority of cases where a specific date was written directly on the original petition, all dates listed in this volume should be taken as probable rather than definite. This also means that, even more than usual, readers should interpret any apparent chronological patterns with great caution.

The quarter sessions order books, which often provide context for the extant petitions and evidence of others that have not survived, are available from 1682 onwards (Q/SO/1).

Figure 4:

Chronological distribution of surviving dateable petitions.


The cost of photographing the petitions was funded by an Economic History Society Carnevali Small Research Grant: ‘Seeking Redress in Early Modern England: Petitions to Local Authorities, c.1580-1750’. The cost of transcribing eighteenth-century items was funded by a later Economic History Society Carnevali Small Research Grant: ‘Poverty, Taxation and Regulation: Petitions to Local Magistrates in Eighteenth-Century England’. The other costs, including transcription of seventeenth-century items and editorial work, were funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Research Grant: ‘The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England’ (AH/S001654/1).

The petitions were photographed by the archive staff and we are very grateful to the archivists Paul Beattie, Becky Sheldon, and Karen Millhouse for arranging this. They have been transcribed by Tim Wales and Gavin Robinson.

All images and transcriptions have been published with the permission of the Derbyshire Record Office. We encourage readers to take advantage of their extensive collections to pursue further research on the individuals and communities mentioned in the petitions.

Further Reading

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 especially 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.