Petitions to the Westminster Quarter Sessions, 1620-1799.
This free content was born digital and sponsored by the Economic History Society and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, 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’ and the other costs, including photography and 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). CC-NC-BY.
In this section
Petitions to the Westminster City Quarter Sessions, 1620-1799
Across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the inhabitants of the City of Westminster submitted written requests and complaints to the local magistrates. These ‘petitions’ came from individuals or groups and they focused primarily on petty crimes, imprisonment, apprenticeship and poor relief. Many have survived from the 1620s to 1640s and from the 1690s to the 1750s, with scattered items thereafter. This volume includes transcriptions of every surviving petition from this period, amounting to 424 in total.
A wide variety of people addressed themselves to ‘the right worshipful his majesty’s Justices of the Peace for the City and Liberties of Westminster’, including many who were relatively poor or socially marginalised. The largest group were from individual men, followed by individual women. There were also a few married couples and small groups such as the four victuallers petitioning against fines imposed by the wardmote courts in 1645. The remainder came from the officers or ‘the inhabitants’ of particular parishes, claiming to speak on behalf of the whole community. 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 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 specifics of these petitions varied immensely, but most fit into seven broad categories. The largest group comprised requests relating to litigation. These were from victims complaining about assaults, insults or other disorder, and also from accused or imprisoned people asking for judicial favour or simply release. The items relating to litigation amounted to over one third of all the documents, a higher proportion than found in the equivalent records of most other counties. The next largest group, amounting to almost a quarter of the total, concerned employment or service in various forms. These were mostly submitted by apprentices asking to be discharged from their masters or by servants asking for unpaid wages, though some were also submitted by masters or mistresses seeking to rid themselves of troublesome apprentices. A substantial number of petitions related to local officeholding or taxation, especially in the eighteenth century when parishes sought authorisation to raise rates to fund highway repair and different candidates sought appointment as governor of the house of correction. Most of the appeals about paternal support came from unwed mothers, though there were also several from alleged fathers disputing such accusations. The small number of poor relief petitions included both paupers requesting parish relief and a few parishes seeking to ‘remove’ poor individuals to other parishes. There were also some petitions requesting victuallers’ licences and, from the 1750s, others requesting licences to host ‘publick entertainment of musick and dancing’. The remainder concerned minor public nuisances and a tiny number that do not fit into any obvious category. Unlike most other quarter sessions, the Westminster series includes no surviving petitions asking for an official certificate to collect charity or for a licence to build a cottage, and only one seeking a military pension, which dates from 1638.
All the petitions transcribed here are held at the London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell. They are found in three different series. The most straightforward are the Westminster Quarter Sessions Papers (WJ/SP), which run 1640 to 1646 and then 1707 onwards. The ‘new series’ of Westminster Sessions Rolls (WJ/SR/NS) dates almost entirely from 1620 to 1640, though unfortunately about half petitions in this group are undated, so have been assumed to come from the same period. Finally, the Middlesex Quarter Sessions Papers and Rolls (MJ/SP and MJ/SR) include over forty petitions addressed to the Westminster magistrates from 1645 and 1690-96. Because Westminster was part of the county of Middlesex, petitioners could theoretically submit their requests to either authority. Much larger numbers of petitions to the Middlesex magistrates survive from the 1690s, but these have not been included in this edition as they came from locations across to the whole county. For the eighteenth century, both Westminster and Middlesex sessions papers are available on Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker, Sharon Howard and Jamie McLaughlin, et al., London Lives, 1690-1800 (www.londonlives.org, version 1.1, 24 April 2012). For this later period, the transcriptions on London Lives have been used as an initial basis for the transcriptions in this volume, but they have been revised to the standard of accuracy used across this series.
The first four extant petitions survive from the sessions held at Easter 1620 and over 150 more survive before 1646, though about a third of these are undated. These peak in 1645, with 24 petitions dating from that year. There is then a gap of more than four decades until the 1690s, when are significant numbers surviving for every decade until the 1750s. Apart from a cache of 17 in 1770, only a few scattered items survive thereafter. The gaps and complexities of the archival collections means that these figures should not be seen to reflect the actual numbers submitted to the Westminster Quarter sessions in these periods, but they do provide enough of a selection to give a sense of the sort of petitions received in the 1620s to 1640s and 1690s to 1750s. It may be possible to find further information about these petitioners and their complaints in other Westminster quarter sessions records (WJ/CP/P; WJ/EB; WJ/SBP) and the local collections held at the City of Westminster Archives Centre.
The cost of archival photography, seventeenth-century 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 an Economic History Society Carnevali Small Research Grant: ‘Poverty, Taxation and Regulation: Petitions to Local Magistrates in Eighteenth-Century England’.
The seventeenth-century petitions were photographed by the archives staff at London Metropolitan Archives and they have been transcribed by Tim Wales. Images of the eighteenth-century petitions were drawn from London Lives, 1690-1800 and the transcriptions there were revised for a higher level of accuracy by Gavin Robinson. The texts for revision were extracted from ‘London Lives XML Data’, which is CC-BY-NC licensed (DOI reference: 10.15131/shef.data.4797829.v1). All images and transcriptions have been published courtesy of London Metropolitan Archives. We highly encourage readers to take advantage of their extensive collections to pursue further research on the individuals and communities mentioned in the petitions.
There is little published analysis of petitioning within the metropolis, but Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City (2015) makes extensive use of these sorts of sources in their broader analysis. Sharon Howard has explored the later ones quantitatively in ‘The London Lives Petitions Project’ <http://london.sharonhoward.org/llpp/>. Significant research exists on the petitions to quarter sessions outside the metropolis, which is listed in the introductions to the other volumes in this series.
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.