Part 2: Records and finding aids within the Great Sessions archive
The most useful Great Sessions records for researchers are Plea Rolls (the largest class), Gaol Files (the most interesting) and Pleadings, representing civil, Crown and equity cases respectively. There are no proper indexes, but many of the court’s records are complementary and can be used as finding aids. These are not comprehensive, but they are the place to start unless you know when a particular case was heard. Documents are in English from 1733, as are earlier equity proceedings, criminal testimonies and Commonwealth records, whereas most of the pre-1733 material is in Latin.
Here is what you can expect to find in the records and the internal finding aids:
PLEA ROLLS mostly comprise pleadings in cases that reached trial, giving the names and pleas of all parties, occupations and places of residence of defendants, and details of the issues under dispute and of any previous attempts to bring them to trial (noting court judgements and names of jurors). They also include recoveries (property trusts usually created for marriage settlements or disentailments), challenge pedigrees (drawn up by plaintiffs to prove family relationships to Crown officers so that defendants could not challenge the empanelment of juries), lists of attorneys, summonses and other process writs (often noting verdicts and damages awarded).
Docket Rolls and Books and Praecipe Books (for the Carmarthen circuit) record details of every case submitted, including types of actions, names of parties, properties involved and names of attorneys. They are either arranged by the name of the plaintiff’s attorney or according to the stage the case had reached.
Prothonotary’s Files include the pleas of plaintiffs and defendants, copies of supporting documents, schedules of costs, and petitions to be excused jury service. The most useful contents are challenge pedigrees (see above) and slander cases (most of which were tried by ecclesiastical courts).
Docket Books of Fines and Recoveries, Docket Books of Pleas and Fines (for the Brecon circuit) and Remembrance Rolls of Recoveries (for the Carmarthen circuit) contain final concords and pleas in common recoveries, both being fictitious collusive actions. These records are often more numerous in estate archives, which also include deeds revealing the real intention of the transactions.
Rule Books and Order Books contain judgements and instructions concerning how cases should proceed. They are often heavily abbreviated.
Imparlance Books record cases carried forward to the next session.
GAOL FILES comprise records relating to criminal cases, namely:
- Calendars of prisoners waiting to stand trial, including names, alleged offences, occupations, places of residence, sureties, who committed prisoners to gaol, prisoners pleading their belly, and some verdicts and sentences. Later calendars also name convicts. Calendars are heavily abbreviated and often worn.
- Lists of court officers and jurors of the various juries summoned to attend court (including those excused, challenged or fined for non-appearance), with names of defendants and outlines of cases.
- Indictments recording alleged offences, where and when they occurred, the names, occupations and places of residence of defendants, when they were apprehended, names of plaintiffs and other victims, and suspects receiving benefit of clergy. Details that were not crucial to the success or failure of a trial were often conflated or recorded vaguely or inaccurately, and indictments were regularly amended because of plea bargaining or the desire to avoid capital punishment. Defendants’ pleas are also commonly recorded, as are verdicts and sentences.
- Bills indicating whether juries thought there was a case to answer.
- Bonds to ensure the presence of prosecutors, defendants and witnesses in court, giving names, addresses and the date of offences. Enforcement of bonds required this information to be accurate.
- Petitions, usually comprising complaints by defendants about how cases were being handled.
- Depositions and examinations of witnesses and victims taken before trial, usually in English (often translated from Welsh) and sometimes in Welsh, containing detailed information about every aspect of daily life. These are an extremely valuable source, all the more so because oral testimony given in court was not recorded, but most were destroyed because they were not official records of the court.
- Schedules of prisoners, with case summaries to help jurors.
- Presentments by constables and the Grand Jury submitting offences believed to have been committed. These often included failure to maintain roads.
- Writs to ensure the presence of the accused, ranging from the initial summons to distraint and outlawry. The type of writ used depended on the crime and how many writs had been issued previously.
- Bills of costs, showing (among other things) how suspects were apprehended and how the court used interpreters.
- Writs moving cases from Quarter Sessions to the Great Sessions, giving basic information about cases.
- Coroner’s inquests into matters such as violent and unexpected deaths, treasure trove and wrecks. The focus was on determining whether a crime had taken place rather than establishing the facts in full.
Crown Books (only for Flintshire 1564-1666) and Black Books (only for the Brecon circuit 1726-1830) contain names of prisoners, details of offences and pleas, and verdicts and sentences. Not every case is included. The Crown Books also provide information about many of the other records found in the Gaol Files.
Calendar Rolls provide indexes to the early calendars for Radnorshire, Glamorgan, Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire.
Order Books, Rule Books and Minute Books mostly relate to civil cases but their most useful contents are criminal verdicts and sentences. Records are patchy and often heavily abbreviated. Imparlance Books have similar information for the Brecon circuit.
PLEADINGS comprise statements and answers by plaintiffs and defendants, with witness depositions. Parchment and paper records are separate, so details of a case may appear in more than one place.
Bill Books record when each complaint was first received.
Decree Books contain details of cases, summaries of pleadings, and court judgements.
Order Books contain orders of the court, including decrees.
We hope this brief account will help and inspire researchers.
Dr David Moore
This post is also available in: Welsh