Petitions to the Worcestershire Quarter Sessions, 1592-1797.
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In this section
Hundreds of people from across the county of Worcestershire sent ‘petitions’ to the local magistrates from the late sixteenth century onwards. These documents were formal requests from individuals or groups seeking financial support, judicial favour or some other official ruling. This edition includes transcriptions of all of those that have survived relatively intact, amounting to 360 in total from the 1590s to the 1790s.
They were sent by many different sorts of ‘petitioners’. The largest group were poor women and men trying to secure poor relief from their parishes, but there were also many from local officers or whole communities who sought to shift their responsibilities for supporting particular paupers onto neighbouring settlements or otherwise escape financial liability. Many individuals petitioned the magistrates about legal suits, asking either for mercy for themselves or for prosecution of troublesome neighbours. Some petitioners requested licences to keep an alehouse or to build a cottage on unused land, though again there were also some petitions against such licences. Some women petitioned for court orders for maintenance from the fathers of their illegitimate children. There were also some collective petitions about broader issues such as fishing in the Severn, corn measures in the marketplace and ‘vagrantes’ wandering through the county. It is notable that there were almost no petitions from within the city of Worcester itself, apart from prisoners in the county gaol, because the city held its own separate court sessions throughout this period so local complaints were heard there instead. 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 aims of the petitioners could be categorised in a variety of ways and some fit into more than one category. More than 100 petitions related directly to local poor relief, whether petitioning for a parish ‘allowance’ or seeking to avoid paying one. A further 15 petitions came from veterans and war widows requesting a pension from the county. Judicial complaints and requests are the next largest category, comprising 67 petitions for or against a variety of civil and criminal prosecutions, including some from prisoners requesting pardon and release. The third largest category comprised 37 petitions about local taxation (‘rates’), often seeking orders against recalcitrant ratepayers or seeking some form of exemption. There were 25 petitions about paternal maintenance payments for children, mostly from unwed mothers or their supporters. Petitions about licencing alehouses or inns accounted for 20 items and those about licences to build cottages with less than four acres of land attached accounted for 15 more. A further 18 came from Protestant dissenters seeking licences to establish places of worship after 1689. Twenty petitions from imprisoned debtors for release survive, all from the 1720s onwards. A small number, 12 in all, related to parish officeholding, most seeking discharge from the post of constable or reimbursement for official expenses. Seven petitions sought charity briefs, which licenced the holder to ask for alms. Finally, there were 17 petitions that did not fit into any of these categories, which touched on a wide range of other matters, include three related to employment. In the minority of cases where the decisions of the magistrates are recorded directly on the petitions, most were successful, though there are many more where the outcome is unknowable.
All the petitions transcribed here are held at the Hive in Worcester, home of the Worcestershire Archives and Archaeology Service (WAAS). They are found in the quarter sessions rolls (WAAS reference: Ref.110 BA1), which stretch from 1591 to 1890 and also include indictments, recognizances and other miscellaneous records. The rolls were calendared by J. W. Willis Bund in Calendar of the Quarter Sessions Papers, Vol. I, 1591–1643 (2 parts; Worcester, 1900). This calendar was incorporated into a detailed list which runs to 1840, initiated by Robin Whittaker and continued by Wilf English, now available in the WAAS searchroom and on The National Archives Discovery catalogue.
The first extant petition is a fragmentary page concerning a cottage from a 1592 session (WAAS, Ref.110 BA1/1/39/25) and three others survive from the 1590s, but they do not become common until the seventeenth century. From 1592 to 1699, a total of 290 survive, an average of just under three per year, though there is a notable gap in the middle of the century with only one extant petition between 1635 and 1655. A further 66 survive from the eighteenth century, and 20 from 1800 to 1839, but the latter have not been transcribed in this volume. A few of the earlier ones that are heavily damaged and largely illegible have also been excluded. Unfortunately, the quarter session order books only survive from 1693 onwards (WAAS, Ref.110 BA1/2/12/1), though occasionally further context about earlier petitions can be gleaned from other items in the sessions rolls.
The cost of photographing the petitions and transcribing the eighteenth-century items was funded by two Economic History Society Carnevali Small Research Grants: ‘Seeking Redress in Early Modern England: Petitions to Local Authorities, c.1580–1750’ and ‘Poverty, Taxation and Regulation: Petitions to Local Magistrates in Eighteenth Century England’. The other costs, including transcription 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 at Worcester and we are especially grateful to John France, senior digitiser, for his assistance. They have been transcribed by Gavin Robinson. All images and transcriptions have been published courtesy of the Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service. 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. Some of the eighteenth-century debtors' petitions were generic printed forms with handwritten additions and these have been noted by adding [printed form] at the end of the transcription. 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.
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.