How to look for records of... Criminal trials in the assize courts 1559-1971

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1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide for advice on how to find records of criminal trials held at the assize courts in England and Wales, to understand how they are arranged and what information you may find in them.

From 1559 assize courts tended to deal with the more serious criminal offences, although this was not always the case. If you are looking for records of a trial for any of the following crimes you may find you will need to look at assize court records:

  • homicide
  • theft (stolen goods were often under-valued as worth less than 12d to avoid making it a capital offence)
  • highway robbery
  • rape
  • assault
  • coining
  • forgery
  • witchcraft
  • trespass
  • vagrancy
  • recusancy
  • infanticide

For advice on similar records prior to 1559, see our guide on General eyres. For advice on locating records from 1972 onwards see our guide to records of Criminal courts in England and Wales from 1972.

Up to 1733 most assize records are in Latin.

2. The criminal court system in England and Wales until 1971

The criminal court system in England and Wales has always been divided into several categories of court, in a hierarchical structure, though courts themselves have changed and evolved. For most of the period covered by this guide the following hierarchy was in place:

  • Petty sessions where minor offences were dealt with by mostly unpaid, non-professional judges known as Justices of the Peace (also known as magistrates)
  • Quarter sessions were held four times a year and were also presided over by Justices of the Peace
  • Assize courts where the more serious criminal trials tended to be heard, taking place at least twice a year and presided over by professional judges
  • Court of King’s Bench was a central royal court sitting at Westminster with an overriding jurisdiction over the other lower courts – it was dissolved in 1875 and replaced by the King’s Bench Division (or Queen’s Bench Division) of the High Court of Justice

Originally the assize courts dealt predominantly with property disputes, but their remit gradually widened to include criminal cases as well as cases passed on from the central Westminster courts.

The counties in England and Wales were grouped into assize ‘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

In 1956 the assizes and quarter sessions were replaced by Crown Courts in Liverpool and Manchester. This was extended to the rest of England and Wales in 1971.

3. The range of assize court records and the information they contain

Not all assize records have survived as the assize clerks sometimes destroyed them when they ran out of space. Earlier records are less likely to have been kept than later ones.

In terms of information about people, assize records, most commonly, give details of the accused. Typically this includes 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.

3.1 Crown and gaol books (aka minute books or agenda books)

The best place to begin a search in the assize records is in the Crown and gaol books, also known as minute books or agenda books. These usually list:

  • names of the accused
  • charges against the accused
  • plea
  • verdict
  • 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.

3.2 Indictments

These are the formal statements of the charge against the accused, usually annotated with plea, verdict and sentence.

Each indictment usually gives:

  • name of the defendant together with any aliases
  • his or her occupation
  • a parish of residence
  • the date of the alleged offence (by regnal year)
  • details of the alleged offence, together with the name of the victim
  • a list of prosecution witnesses

The details of the defendant should be treated with caution, especially before the late 19th century. The defendant’s occupation was normally given as ‘labourer’ and the parish of residence is invariably the parish in which the alleged offence took place. The alleged offence is defined by lengthy and formal phrases and some, especially in cases of serious misdemeanour, such as perjury or libel, are several membranes long.

Indictments were filed in large unwieldy bundles together with other related records, depending on the period and the circuit, such as those containing details of jury panels, coroners’ inquisitions, examinations and depositions, gaol calendars, trial minutes, commissions, presentments of non-criminal offences and recognizances (which give names, parishes of residence and occupation and are usually far more accurate than those given on the indictments themselves).

Until 1916, assize indictments were either handwritten or partly printed and partly written on parchment. After 1916 all indictments were prepared using standard, usually pre-printed, forms. These give the jurisdiction and venue, the name of the defendant, the plea, a summary statement of the charge or charges and particulars of the charges.

3.3 Depositions and examinations

Depositions, sometimes known as sessions papers, consist of pre-trial witness statements. However, the survival rate for these records is relatively poor and those that do survive have been heavily weeded. Only depositions in capital cases, usually murder and riot, tend to survive.

Deposition files, especially those from the mid-20th century or later, may also contain items used as trial exhibits, including:

  • photographs
  • maps
  • appeal papers

3.4 Transcripts

Transcripts of what was actually said in court do not normally survive with the records held at The National Archives. A collection of contemporary pamphlet accounts of what was said in court during mostly celebrated trials for the period 1660-1908 is available on microfiche in the reading rooms at The National Archives.

The Old Bailey Online website provides detailed proceedings (although not complete transcripts of what was said) for trials at the London central criminal court.

3.5 Other records

Other assize records can include:

  • pleadings
  • statements of claim, defence and counterclaim
  • draft minutes of trials
  • correspondence of the assize clerks, mostly administrative
  • coroners’ inquisitions
  • jury lists
  • financial business including fees and costs

4. How to find records

As most assize court records remain available only in their original paper or parchment form (copies are not available online), to search for them and see them you will need to visit us at our building in Kew. Alternatively, if you can establish the record series and document references within the series, you can use our record copying service to have copies sent to you for a charge. Either way, you will need to follow these steps to locate records:

Step 1: Establish when the trial took place

If you do not know the date or even the year of a trial you may find your search hits a dead end very quickly. Unless the records are available online (most are not), establishing the date of the trial is essential before you can make any progress with your search.

If you do not know when (or where) a trial took place, for trials between 1791 and 1892 you can search the Home Office criminal registers for England and Wales (HO 26 and HO 27) on Ancestry.co.uk (£) by name of the guilty party. The registers list people charged with indictable offences and provide the place of trial, verdict and sentence.

For trials that took place between 1868 and 1971, use the records of Crime, Prisons and Punishment on Findmypast.co.uk (£) to search by name for Home Office calendars (lists) of prisoners tried at assizes and quarter sessions (HO 140). The records can provide details of where and when a trial took place. Given the sensitive and personal nature of some of the material, not all of these records are available to the public.

Step 2: Establish which kind of court heard the trial

It’s not just assize courts that were used for criminal trials between 1559 and 1971. Some criminal trials were heard at lower or higher levels of the court hierarchy, at quarter and petty sessions or at the Court of King’s Bench (see section 2 and section 6). Furthermore, some cities, counties and regions have had their own separate courts at different times since 1559. The chief among them, the records of which are not covered by this guide, are as follows:

In London

Trials took place either at the Old Bailey, Guildhall (for crimes in The City) or Middlesex Sessions House. For advice on Old Bailey records see our guide to Old Bailey records; for advice on Guildhall or Middlesex Sessions records visit the London Metropolitan Archives.

In Middlesex

Trials took place at the Old Bailey or Middlesex Sessions House. For advice on Old Bailey records see our guide to Old Bailey records and for Middlesex Sessions visit the London Metropolitan Archives.

In Wales

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 Cheshire, Durham and Lancashire

In 1830 the palatinate of Chester (Cheshire) joined the assizes court system. Durham and Lancaster (Lancashire) merged into the assizes system in 1876. Prior to these years you will need to consult the Palatinate of Chester court records, the Palatinate of Durham court records or the Palatinate of Lancaster court records.

Step 3: Decide which type of record to look for

Usually, the best place to begin a search in the assize records is the crown and gaol books. To decide which kind of record will be most useful for your research see the information on record types in section 3.

Step 4: Identify the appropriate record series and piece number

All assize court records at The National Archives are identified by the department code ASSI. You will also need a series number (each county has its own set of series) and piece number (each trial has its own set of piece numbers) before you can view a document. To find the right record series refer to Appendix 1.

5. Alternatives to assize records: where else to look

There are some other scattered records outside of the ASSI department at The National Archives which relate to criminal trials at assize courts. There are also records and accounts of trials elsewhere, in other archives and libraries.

5.1 Newspapers

Contemporary newspapers or pamphlets often reported local cases in much detail. To find out about surviving newspapers and how to view them consult the British Library Newspaper Library or the appropriate local county record office.

5.2 Transcripts

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

5.3 Payments for and expenses of imprisonment and other punishments, c.1715-1832

Payments and expenses incurred by sheriffs in the punishment of prisoners were often recorded. These records can include lists of prisoners tried or transported, accounts for maintenance in prison or expenses for carrying out an execution.

  • Sheriff’s assize vouchers are held in a subseries of E 389 and consist of pieces E 389/241 to E 389/257, covering the period 1715-1832
  • Payments to sheriffs which refer to individual prisoners are in T 90/146-170, covering the period 1733-1822
  • Entry books of warrants of payments for the period 1676-1839 are in T 53

These records are a useful alternative for the many missing assize records from this period. 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.

5.4 Judicial reviews at the Court of King’s Bench

The Court of King’s Bench would sometimes direct an assize court to send the records of a trial for review, a process known as certiorari. There are copies of indictments within the records of writs of certiorari in KB 9

For further advice on records of the King’s Bench, see the research guide King’s Bench (Crown Side) 1675-1875.

6. Quarter and petty sessions records

For the records of local quarter sessions and petty sessions that took place at magistrates’ courts you should contact the appropriate local archive. Use Find an archive to search for the location and contact details of local archive offices or search our catalogue using the phrases “petty sessions” or “quarter sessions” plus the name of a county, city or town, ensuring you select the ‘Other archives’ catalogue results filter.

7. Further reading

J S Cockburn’s publications are invaluable guides to assize records. His history of assizes is particularly valuable, with sage advice on the pitfalls of taking the records at face value.

J S Cockburn, A History of English Assizes, 1558-1714 (1972)

J S Cockburn, Calendars of Assize Records (various publications covering the home circuits)

L Knafla, Kent at Law 1602 (1994)

D T Hawkings, Criminal Ancestors (2009) – also covers assizes and related records

Appendix 1. Record series key

Search the following record series by date, using the advanced search option in our catalogue, or browse through them in our catalogue by clicking on the record series links below. For more information on whether to browse or search, see our Discovery help pages.

Of the pre-19th century depositions that have survived, most are from northern counties. Of the pre-19th century Midland circuit records, most that survive are from after 1818.

Bristol assizes records prior to 1832 are held by Bristol Record Office.

County Crown & Gaol Books Indictments Depositions Other
Bedfordshire 1863-1876
1734-1863
1876-1945
ASSI 32
ASSI 33
ASSI 11
1658-1698
1693-1850
1851-1971
ASSI 16
ASSI 94
ASSI 95
1832-1876
1876-1971
ASSI 36
ASSI 13
ASSI 34, ASSI 38, ASSI 39, ASSI 15, ASSI 90
Berkshire 1657-1971
1847-1951
ASSI 2
ASSI 3
1650-1971 ASSI 5 1719-1971 ASSI 6 ASSI 4, ASSI 9, ASSI 10, ASSI 93, ASSI 89
Bucks 1863-1876
1734-1863
1876-1945
ASSI 32
ASSI 33
ASSI 11
1642-1699
1695-1850
1851-1971
ASSI 16
ASSI 94
ASSI 95
1832-1876
1876-1971
ASSI 36
ASSI 13
ASSI 34, ASSI 38, ASSI 39, ASSI 15, ASSI 90
Cambridgeshire 1902-1943
1863-1971
1734-1863
ASSI 31
ASSI 32
ASSI 33
1642-1699
1692-1850
1851-1971
ASSI 16
ASSI 94
ASSI 95
1834-1971 ASSI 36 ASSI 34, ASSI 38, ASSI 39, ASSI 90
Cheshire 1532-1831
1831-1938
1835-1883
1945-1951
CHES 21
ASSI 61
ASSI 62
ASSI 79
1341-1659
1831-1945
1945-1971
CHES 24
ASSI 64
ASSI 83
1341-1659
1831-1944
1945-1971
ASSI 65
ASSI 84
ASSI 59, ASSI 63, ASSI 66, ASSI 67, ASSI 91
Cornwall 1730-1971
1670-1824
ASSI 21
ASSI 23
1801-1971 ASSI 25 1861-1971
1951-1953
ASSI 26
ASSI 82
ASSI 24, ASSI 30, ASSI 92
Cumberland 1714-1873
1665-1810
ASSI 41
ASSI 42
1607-1876
1877-1971
ASSI 44
ASSI 51
1613-1876
1877-1971
ASSI 45
ASSI 52
ASSI 43, ASSI 46, ASSI 47, ASSI 93
Derbs 1818-1945 ASSI 11 1868-1971
1662,67,87
ASSI 12
ASSI 80
1862-1971 ASSI 13 ASSI 15, ASSI 88
Devon 1746-1971
1670-1824
ASSI 21
ASSI 2 3
1801-1971 ASSI 25 1861-1971
1951-1953
ASSI 26
ASSI 82
ASSI 24, ASSI 30, ASSI 92
Dorset 1746-1971
1670-1824
ASSI 21
ASSI 23
1801-1971 ASSI 25 1861-1971
1951-1953
ASSI 26
ASSI 82
ASSI 24, ASSI 30, ASSI 92
Durham 1770-1876
1753-1858
1858-1944
DURH 15
DURH 16
ASSI 41
1582-1877
1876-1971
DURH 17
ASSI 44
1843-1876
1877-1971
DURH 18
ASSI 45
DURH 19,
ASSI 46, ASSI 47, ASSI 87, ASSI 93
Essex 1734-1943
1826-1971
ASSI 31
ASSI 32
1559-1688
1689-1850
1851-1971
ASSI 35*
ASSI 94
ASSI 95
1825-1971 ASSI 36 ASSI 34, ASSI 38, ASSI 39, ASSI 90
County Crown & Gaol Books Indictments Depositions Other
Glos 1657-1971
1847-1951
ASSI 2
ASSI 3
1662-1971 ASSI 5 1719-1971 ASSI 6 ASSI 4, ASSI 9, ASSI 10, ASSI 89, ASSI 93
Hampshire 1746-1971
1670-1824
ASSI 21
ASSI 23
1801-1971 ASSI 25 1861-1971
1951-1953
ASSI 26
ASSI 82
ASSI 24, ASSI 30, ASSI 92
Herefordshire 1657-1971
1847-1951
ASSI 2
ASSI 3
1627-1971 ASSI 5 1719-1971 ASSI 6 ASSI 4, ASSI 9, ASSI 10, ASSI 89, ASSI 93
Hertfordshire 1734-1943
1826-1971
ASSI 31
ASSI 32
1573-1688
1689-1850
1851-1971
ASSI 35
ASSI 94
ASSI 95
1829-1971 ASSI 36 ASSI 34, ASSI 38, ASSI 39, ASSI 90
Hunts 1902-1943
1863-1971
1734-1863
ASSI 31
ASSI 32
ASSI 33
1643-1698
1693-1850
1851-1971
ASSI 16
ASSI 94
ASSI 95
1851-1971 ASSI 36 ASSI 34, ASSI 38, ASSI 39, ASSI 90
Kent 1734-1943
1826-1971
ASSI 31
ASSI 32
1559-1688
1689-1850
1851-1971
ASSI 35
ASSI 94
ASSI 95
1812-1971 ASSI 36 ASSI 34, ASSI 38, ASSI 39, ASSI 90
Lancashire 1524-1843
1686-1877
PL 25
PL 28
1660-1867
1877-1971
PL 26
ASSI 51
1663-1867
1877-1971
PL 27
ASSI 52
PL 28
ASSI 46, ASSI 53, ASSI 93, ASSI 86
Leics 1818-1864
1864-1875
1876-1945
ASSI 11
ASSI 32
ASSI 11
1653, 1656
1864-1875
1876-1971
ASSI 80
ASSI 35
ASSI 12
1862
1863-1875
1876-1971
ASSI 13
ASSI 36
ASSI 13
ASSI 15, ASSI 34, ASSI 38, ASSI 39, ASSI 88
Lincolnshire 1818-1945 ASSI 11 1868-1971
1652-1679
ASSI 12
ASSI 80
1862-1971 ASSI 13 ASSI 15, ASSI 88
London & Middlesex 1834-1949 CRIM 6 1834-1957
1833-1971
CRIM 4
CRIM 5
1839-1971
1923-1971
CRIM 1
CRIM 2
CRIM 7, CRIM 8, CRIM 9, CRIM 10, CRIM 11, CRIM 12, CRIM 13
Monm 1657-1971
1847-1951
ASSI 2
ASSI 3
1666-1971 ASSI 5 1719-1971 ASSI 6 ASSI 4, ASSI 9, ASSI 10, ASSI 89, ASSI 93
Norfolk 1902-1943
1863-1971
1734-1863
ASSI 31
ASSI 32
ASSI 33
1606-1699
1692-1850
1851-1971
ASSI 16
ASSI 94
ASSI 95
1817-1971 ASSI 36 ASSI 34, ASSI 38, ASSI 39, ASSI 90
Northants 1818-1864
1864-1876
1876-1945
ASSI 11
ASSI 32
ASSI 11
1659-1660
1864-1675
1876-1971
ASSI 80
ASSI 95
ASSI 12
1862
1864-1875
1876-1971
ASSI 13
ASSI 36
ASSI 13
ASSI 15, ASSI 34, ASSI 38, ASSI 39, ASSI 88
County Crown & Gaol Books Indictments Depositions Other
Northumberland 1714-1944
1665-1810
ASSI 41
ASSI 42
1607-1971 ASSI 44 1613-1971 ASSI 45 ASSI 43, ASSI 46, ASSI 47, ASSI 87, ASSI 93
Notts 1818-1945 ASSI 11 1868-1971
1663-4, 82
ASSI 12
ASSI 80
1862-1971 ASSI 13 ASSI 15, ASSI 88
Oxford 1657-1971
1847-1951
ASSI 2
ASSI 3
1661-1971
1688
ASSI 5
PRO 30/80
1719-1971 ASSI 6 ASSI 4, ASSI 9, ASSI 10, ASSI 89, ASSI 93
Rutland 1818-1864
1864-1876
1876-1945
ASSI 11
ASSI 32
ASSI 11
1667, 1685
1864-1875
1876-1971
ASSI 80
ASSI 95
ASSI 12
1862
1864-1873
1876-1971
ASSI 13
ASSI 36
ASSI 13
ASSI 15, ASSI 34, ASSI 38, ASSI 39, ASSI 88
Shropshire
(Salop)
1657-1971
1847-1951
ASSI 2
ASSI 3
1654-1971 ASSI 5 1719-1971 ASSI 6 ASSI 4, ASSI 9, ASSI 10, ASSI 89, ASSI 93
Somerset 1730-1971
1670-1824
ASSI 21
ASSI 23
1801-1971 ASSI 25 1861-1971
1951-1953
ASSI 26
ASSI 82
ASSI 24, ASSI 30, ASSI 92
Staffs 1657-1971
1847-1951
ASSI 2
ASSI 3
1662-1971
1662
ASSI 5
ASSI 80
1719-1971 ASSI 6 ASSI 4, ASSI 9, ASSI 10, ASSI 89, ASSI 93
Suffolk 1902-1943
1863-1971
1734-1863
ASSI 31
ASSI 32
ASSI 33
1653-1698
1689-1850
1851-1971
ASSI 16
ASSI 94
ASSI 95
1832-1971 ASSI 36 ASSI 34, ASSI 38, ASSI 39, ASSI 90
Surrey 1734-1943
1826-1971
ASSI 31
ASSI 32
1559-1688
1689-1850
1851-
ASSI 35
ASSI 94
ASSI 95
1820-1971 ASSI 36 ASSI 34, ASSI 38, ASSI 39, ASSI 90
Sussex 1734-1943
1826-1971
ASSI 31
ASSI 32
1559-1688
1689-1850
1851-1971
ASSI 35
ASSI 94
ASSI 95
1812-1971 ASSI 36 ASSI 34, ASSI 38, ASSI 39, ASSI 90
Warw 1818-1945 ASSI 11 1868-1971
1652, 1688
ASSI 12
ASSI 80
1862-1971 ASSI 13 ASSI 15, ASSI 88
Westmor 1714-1873
1718-1810
ASSI 41
ASSI 42
1607-1876
1877-1971
ASSI 44
ASSI 51
1613-1876
1877-1971
ASSI 45
ASSI 52
ASSI 43, ASSI 46, ASSI 47, ASSI 53, ASSI 86, ASSI 93
Wilts 1746-1971
1670-1824
ASSI 21
ASSI 23
1729
1801-1971
ASSI 25
ASSI 25
1861-1971
1951-1953
ASSI 26
ASSI 82
ASSI 24, ASSI 30, ASSI 92
Worcs 1657-1971
1847-1951
ASSI 2
ASSI 3
1662-1971 ASSI 5 1719-1971 ASSI 6 ASSI 4, ASSI 9, ASSI 10, ASSI 89, ASSI 93
Yorks** 1658-1811
1718-1863 1864-1876 1876-1944
ASSI 42 ASSI 41
ASSI 11 ASSI 41
1607-1863 1868-1875
1876-1971
ASSI 44 ASSI 12
ASSI 44
1613-1863 1868-1875 1876 1971
1877-1971
ASSI 45 ASSI 13 ASSI 45
ASSI 52
ASSI 15, ASSI 43, ASSI 46, ASSI 47, ASSI 87, ASSI 93

* You can search by name and the term ‘assize’ for the calendars of Essex Assizes indictments in ASSI 35 (1558-1714) on the Essex Record Office catalogue.

** For Yorkshire there are two series of Crown & Gaol Books for the earlier period so you will need to check both.

Appendix 2. Latin abbreviations still used in the records after 1733

Until 1733 (with the exception of the period of the interregnum), records were written in Latin and in distinctive legal scripts. The annotations on indictments are often in Latin abbreviations which remained in use even 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
cul culpabilis guilty
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

Guide reference: Legal Records Information 13