This free content was born digital and sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council Research Grant: ‘The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England’ (AH/S001654/1) for costs including transcription of seventeenth-century items and editorial work, with the cost of photographing the petitions being funded by an Economic History Society Carnevali Small Research Grant: ‘Seeking Redress in Early Modern England: Petitions to Local Authorities, c.1580-1750’; and 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’. CC-NC-BY.
Petitions to the Staffordshire Quarter Sessions, 1589-1799
Inhabitants of the towns and villages of Staffordshire submitted thousands of written complaints and requests, usually called ‘petitions’, to their local magistrates in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. More than 2,000 of these documents have been preserved in the county archives, though the exact number is currently unknown. This volume includes a sample of 239 items created by transcribing all surviving petitions from one year per decade over the whole period.
Around 60 percent of the petitions were submitted by individual men and 10 percent by individual women, almost half of whom were widows. About 15 percent of the petitioners were married couples or small groups, including the twenty or so ‘poore prisoners in the County Goale for debt’ who appealed to the magistrates in 1699 and 1700 about inadequacy of their allowance for bread. A further 15 percent of the petitions came from whole communities or officers acting their name, such as the overseers of the poor of Gnossall who sought an order against the reputed father of a poor illegitimate child ‘in the behalffe of the whole parishe’ in 1609.
The aims of the petitioners ranged widely and shifted in focus over the course of the period. In Staffordshire, as in Cheshire, the topic that provoked the largest number of petitions was various types of interpersonal litigation. Among the first surviving petitions from 1589, for example, was one from two men seeking release from an indictment for unnamed ‘very small’ offences and another from Ranulphe Cradocke against his son-in-law for a malicious prosecution allegedly designed to keep him ‘in perpetuall prison’. The second largest category comprised petitions related to poor relief, including many from impoverished women and men seeking orders from the justices to force parish officers to pay them a pension. Relatedly, there were also 20 concerning local taxes known as ‘rates’ — designed to fund poor relief, church repair, constables’ expenses, and bridge maintenance — and 11 focused on local officeholding, especially requests from officers for reimbursement. Many others related to poverty in different ways. A total of 17 petitions sought to secure financial support for poor children, many from single mothers against negligent fathers. Another 14 appeals asked for ‘briefs’ or ‘certificates’ to permit the petitioners to collect charity in response to house fires or other personal calamities. A further six petitions came from ‘maimed’ veterans who asked for pensions from the county as repayment for their military service. Similarly, 16 items in this sample were requests on behalf of poor individuals for licences to build cottages on ‘waste’ lands. Only two, a smaller proportion than elsewhere, concerned the licencing of alehouses. Finally, two types of petitions only began to appear in the eighteenth century. The first were the 22 applications for release from imprisoned debtors, 17 of which came from 1769 alone. The second were the 14 requests from religious dissenters for licences to establish their own places of worship under the terms of the Toleration Act of 1689.
Petitions to the county quarter sessions are held at the Staffordshire Record Office. They are found in the sessions rolls (Q/SR) and sessions bundles (Q/SBe and Q/SB), which begin in 1581 and include indictments, presentments, depositions and much else. A summary of each sessions roll can be found on the online catalogue, which notes the presence of petitions but no further information about them before 1642. From that point onwards, an ongoing volunteer project has catalogued the sessions rolls at the item level and short abstracts of individual petitions are included from 1642 to 1799.
The first petitions survive from 1589 (Q/SR/16), but they only become common in the seventeenth century. They then survive more rarely from the 1660s onwards, before returning in significant numbers in the later eighteenth century. This edition includes transcriptions of all extant petitions from one year per decade from 1589 to 1799.
Order books survive from 1619 to 1667 (Q/SO/2-7) and from 1696 onwards (Q/SO/10). Rough minute books survive from 1687 (Q/SMe/1). ‘Acta Sessionis’ survive among the rolls for c.1620-1630 (Q/SR). These acts, orders and minutes can provide further evidence about many of the petitions included here and about others that have not survived.
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 archives staff and we are very grateful to Liz Street, duty archivist, and Sue Lynch, archive assistant, for arranging their digitisation. They have been transcribed by Tim Wales and Gavin Robinson.
All images and transcriptions have been published courtesy of the Staffordshire 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.
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.