How to look for records of... Criminal trials in the assize courts 1559-1971
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
1. Why use this guide?
You can use this guide to find assize court records from England and Wales, to understand how they are arranged and what information you may find in them. You may wish to start your research by reading our guide to Looking for records of criminals and convicts.
2. Essential information
2.1 Local or national archives?
The National Archives holds records of the assizes, but local archives will have records of local quarter sessions and petty sessions held at magistrates’ courts. Use Find an archive to search for the location and contact details of local archive offices.
Bristol assizes records prior to 1832 are held by Bristol Record Office. Other records held in local archives are mentioned in paragraph 4.
2.2 Earlier and later records
Records from before 1559 are covered by the research guide on General eyres.
For records from 1972 see the research guide on Criminal courts in England and Wales from 1972.
2.3 Using assize records for family history
Assize records give the name, occupation and place of abode of the accused, but some or all of this information can be unreliable as aliases were often used and other false details were given. The place of abode mentioned is often where the crime took place rather than where the accused lived.
Transcripts of what was actually said in court do not normally survive with the records held at The National Archives. However there are court transcripts for some trials among Court of Appeal, Director of Public Prosecutions or Treasury Solicitor and Home Office records. There are sometimes additional notes which can provide insight into a trial. The following record series are the best place to start if you are looking for court transcripts:
- Treasury Solicitor and Director of Public Prosecutions: Transcripts of Proceedings in Selected Criminal Trials (1846-1958) in DPP 4
- Treasury Solicitor: Transcripts of Proceedings (1812-1963) in TS 36
- Court of Criminal Appeal and Supreme Court of Judicature, Court of Appeal, Criminal Division: Case Papers (1945-1993) in J 82
Contemporary newspapers or pamphlets often reported local cases in much detail. To find out about surviving newspapers and how to view them contact the British Library Newspaper Library or the appropriate local county record office.
The Old Bailey Online website provides detailed proceedings (although not complete transcripts of what was said) in trials at the London central criminal court.
A collection of contemporary pamphlet accounts of what was said in court is available on microfiche in the reading rooms at The National Archives. These deal mostly with celebrated trials for the period 1660-1900 although a few trials for the period 1901-1908 are also included.
Up to 1733 most assize records are in Latin.
3. Finding out where a trial took place
3.1 Pre 19th century
Not all assize records have survived as the clerks of assize sometimes destroyed them when they ran out of space. Earlier records are less likely to have been kept than later ones.
Of the pre 19th century depositions that have survived, most are from northern counties.
Of the Midland circuit records, most that survive are from after 1818.
The registers list people charged with indictable offences and provide the place of trial, verdict and sentence. They can also be seen online at The National Archives in Kew, free of charge.
The Home Office calendars (lists) of prisoners tried at assizes and quarter sessions in HO 140 can provide some useful details relating to trials and convictions. Bear in mind that due to the nature of the information contained in them, some of these files may not yet be open to the public.
For advice on how to search Discovery, our catalogue, for specific records, please refer to section 4.
4. How to find assize records in Discovery, our catalogue
Records are located within department code ASSI. For files referring to a specific person or place, search by surname or place name within ASSI. Please note that these records have not been fully catalogued and therefore searching by county may be more successful.
To find the relevant record series for specific counties please refer to the appropriate research guide as follows:
- Assizes: key to series for English criminal trials 1559-1971
- Assizes: key to series for Welsh trials 1831-1971
5. Offences tried at the assizes
Originally the assizes mainly dealt with property disputes, but eventually they began to try criminal cases as well as cases passed on from the central Westminster courts to the assizes under the ‘nisi prius’ system.
From 1559 assize judges mainly dealt with the more serious criminal offences such as
- theft (stolen goods were often under-valued as worth less than 12d to avoid making it a capital offence)
- highway robbery
6. Areas outside the assize system
London, Middlesex and the palatinates of Lancashire, Durham and Cheshire were not included in the assize system.
6.1 London and Middlesex
In 1830 the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) was established to serve London and Middlesex. From 1830 to 1834, sessions were held before the Lord Mayor. From 1834 the Central Criminal Court was the assize court for London, Middlesex and parts of Essex, Kent and Surrey. The research guide on the Old Bailey and the Central Criminal Court gives more information.
Records of the Guildhall sessions (relating to the City) and the Old Bailey sessions (relating to the rest of London and Middlesex) are held at the London Metropolitan Archives.
The texts of 197,745 criminal trials held at the Old Bailey from 1674 to 1913 are available on the Old Bailey Online website. This is fully a searchable site offering an insight into the lives of people tried at London’s central criminal court.
The National Archives has the same texts in a collection of printed proceedings. The collection is not complete, but can be found in records from the central criminal court in CRIM 10 and Old Bailey sessions papers in PCOM 1 and can be consulted in the reading rooms at Kew.
Until 1830, cases in Wales were heard at the Court of Grand Sessions of Wales and records are held at the National Library of Wales. After 1830 Wales became part of the assizes circuit system and records are at The National Archives.
In 1830 the palatinate of Chester (Cheshire) joined the assizes court system. Durham and Lancaster (Lancashire) merged into the assizes system in 1876. The records for these palatinates are held at The National Archives and the relevant record series are given in the research guide Assizes: key to series for English trials 1559-1971
7. The court system in England and Wales
From the 13th century right up to 1971, the criminal courts system in England fell into three categories:
- Magistrates’ courts where minor offences were dealt with in ‘petty sessions’
- local county courts where trials were held four times a year at the ‘quarter sessions’
- assizes where the most serious criminal trials were heard twice a year by judges appointed by the monarch
In 1956 the assizes and quarter sessions were replaced by Crown Courts in Liverpool and Manchester. In 1971 this was extended to the rest of England and Wales.
8. Assize circuits
The counties in England and Wales were grouped into ‘circuits’ where cases were heard:
- Home, Norfolk and South-Eastern Circuits
- Midland Circuit
- Northern and North-Eastern Circuits
- Oxford Circuit
- Welsh Circuits including Chester
- Western Circuit
To find records from specific circuits, please refer to the advice in section 4 above.
9. Where to start in the assize records
9.1 Assize records 1554-1971
Records for this period are held in the series ASSI (records of Justices of Assize, Gaol Delivery, Oyer and Terminer, and Nisi Prius) and are arranged by assize circuit and then by records type.
For advice on how to search our catalogue for specific records please refer to section 4 above.
9.2 Crown minute, gaol and agenda books
The best place to begin a search in the assize records is with these books. They list the accused and summarise cases heard, or about to be heard, often noting the plea, verdict and sentence. There may be a separate series of minute books for offences, such as the failure of local communities to keep local roads and bridges in a good state of repair.
These are the formal statements of the charge against the accused, usually annotated with plea, verdict and sentence and filed in large unwieldy bundles together with other miscellaneous records such as jury panels, coroner’s inquests, commissions and presentments of non-criminal offences. Further information about indictments is given in the online catalogue series description for the Oxford circuit indictment files in ASSI 5.
9.4 Depositions and examinations
Criminal depositions – witness statements and case papers – often contain lots of personal details. Quite a few from the 19th century have survived, but usually only for more serious crimes.
The depositions for the North and North Eastern circuits start as early as 1613 in ASSI 45.
You can search depositions from assize circuits by name of the accused in our catalogue. To search our catalogue for specific records please refer to the advice in section 4 above.
10. No surviving assize records?
If no records appear to have survived for your county, try the following:
- Sheriffs’ assize vouchers in E 389/241 covering the period 1758-1832. These can include lists of prisoners tried or transported, accounts for maintenance in prison or carrying out an execution. For example, for Northampton, no assize records survive for 1776, but E 389/245 lists the names, offences and verdicts of those tried at Northampton at the Lent Assizes of 1776
- Payments to sheriffs for the period 1733-1822 in T 90/146-170, which refer to individual prisoners
- Entry books of warrants of payments for the period 1676-1839 in T 53
- Copies of indictments removed to the Court of King’s Bench by writs of certiorari and returns in KB 9 of those granted benefit of clergy (before 1660) can also help to fill gaps. For further advice on records of the King’s Bench, see the research guide King’s Bench (Crown Side) 1675-1875.
11. Latin abbreviations (still used after 1733)
|Latin abbreviation||Full Latin version||English translation|
|ca null||catalla nulla||no goods/chattels to forfeit|
|cog ind||cognovit indictamentum||confessed to the indictment|
|ign||ignoramus||we do not know, that is, no case to answer|
|non cul nec re||non culpabilis nec retraxit||not guilty and did not flee|
|po se||ponit se super patriam||puts himself on the country (that is, opts for jury trial and pleads not guilty)|
|sus||suspendatur||let him be hanged|
12. Further reading
JS Cockburn, A history of English assizes, 1558-1714 (1972)
JS Cockburn, Calendars of assize records (various publications covering the home circuits)
The above are an invaluable guide to assize records. The introductory volume is particularly valuable in pointing out the pitfalls in taking the records at face value.
L Knafla, Kent at Law 1602 (1994)
DT Hawkings, Criminal ancestors (2009) also covers assizes and related records