[Skip to content]

text size: larger / normal / smaller
East Riding of Yorkshire Council Logo
East Riding Museums logo

Trials and sentencing in the 18th century - Quarter Sessions and Assizes

Local courts for trying criminals were held four times a year and were known as ‘quarter sessions’. The quarter sessions for the East Riding were held in Beverley; Hull had its own sessions. Verdicts were reached by a jury, and sentences passed down by the presiding chairman and justices of the peace, elected amateurs drawn from the local landed gentry or the aldermen of a town or city. Quarter sessions could try crimes such as larceny (thefts of low value goods) and some felonies, including thefts of more valuable items as well as assaults and rape. Common offences tried at the East Riding and Hull quarter sessions included theft, assault and poaching. Capital offences such as murder were tried by professional judges at assizes courts – the assizes courts for our area were held in York. Records from quarter sessions and assizes can provide information about the crimes committed by transportees.

Sentences of transportation increased in the 18th century (between 1718 and the outbreak of the American War of Independence, over 50,000 men women and children from Britain and Ireland were transported to the British colonies of Carribean and North America). Juries and judges were usually men of property who were afraid of the apparent rise in crimes against property, but by the end of the 18th century they were also becoming more reluctant to pass down the death sentence. Since most gaols were temporary lock ups rather than the penitentiaries we have today, transportation was one of the few alternatives that the legal system offered to either hanging or freeing a criminal; judges therefore  increasingly resorted to sentences of transportation. 

Most convicts were sentenced to be transported for either seven years or fourteen. Sentences of 10 years, or life, were occasionally passed down.

NEXT CHAPTER: Justices of the Peace

Quarter Sessions document
Records from the East Riding quarter sessions are held by the East Riding Archives and Local Studies Service.
Inside Guildhall-Courtroom
East Riding Quarter Sessions were held in the Beverley Guildhall courtroom until c.1810.
Sessions House, Beverley
From 1811 onwards the East Riding Quarter Sessions were held in the Sessions House in New Walk, Beverley