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    07 March 2024

    Petty Sessions Database Release

    Petty Sessions Database Release

    Wells City Archives has now launched the complete online database summarising the Petty Sessions papers covering the years 1822 to 1899. The database can be accessed free of charge and contains information from the original records which should be of particular relevance for family and social history researchers. The Petty Sessions sittings represented the lowest level of the court system of the time and gives a fantastic insight into life and society in Wells in the 19th-Century. There are cases of drunkenness, assault, traffic offences and claims against putative fathers of children born out of wedlock. From 1872, the court also began to approve licences for the sale of alcohol. Serious cases were referred to the Quarter Sessions, the middle tier of court cases, with the Assizes above and the Petty Sessions below.

    The collection of papers in Wells City Archives is unusually comprehensive and their format is also slightly different to most other collections in England. The collection in Wells takes the form of ‘informations’, where plaintiffs are recorded as accusing or complaining against a defendant, and information on the case is given with the complaint. Most Petty Sessions documents in England from the time are recorded as minutes or registers, however, making the Wells collection a particularly interesting one.

    One example from the database shows the case against William Moore for cruelty to a cat. On 1st September 1880 it was alleged that Moore threw a stone that hit a cat on the head. Mary Sweet and Jane Bartlett of Market Street were summoned as witnesses for the prosecution. Another shows a complaint against Albert Westley and Charles Walters in 1885 of stealing apples from the property of William Bartlett in Portway. The value of the apples was recorded as 6d and both defendants pleaded guilty. Each were fined 10/- and charged costs of 3/6d or to serve 14 days in prison. The papers are also an interesting look into the lives of those responsible for the city’s law enforcement. Sergeant James Knight appears frequently and is often seen making arrests on charges of animal cruelty. One example of this shows Knight giving evidence against a High Street butcher for hitting three cows with a stick in 1895.

    The database has been created by a team of committed Archives volunteers under the direction of Dr Julia Wood (former City Archivist). The volunteers have worked diligently through all the available original records and Wells City Archives is hugely grateful for the dedication and expertise of all those who have produced the database. The information should act as a great resource not only for researchers of family and social history, but for anyone interested in the lives of people in trouble with the law in the 19th century.

    The Petty Sessions database is one of three searchable databases now available for online access, with others covering property ownership and occupation in 1860 and sacrament certificates. They can be accessed from the Wells City Archives page of the Wells & Mendip Museum website, Original documents can also be viewed by appointment with the Archives Manager, Jonathan Chivers, who can be contacted by calling 01749 673477 or by email at

    Photograph showing City Archives box-listing team in 2017 - Copyright Wells City Archives

    Photograph showing original Petty Sessions document, a forgery case, held in 1823
    Copyright Wells City Council Archives


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