Devon Heritage Services

The Right to Remain Silent: Cataloguing the Devon Quarter Session documents (1734-1804) – Devon Heritage Services (formerly Devon Record Office)

Date: 2012-2013


The main activities of this project were:

  • cataloguing the documents in the Devon Quarter Sessions bundles from 1734-1804 to item level
  • volunteer engagement: volunteers were recruited by giving a number of presentations about the project and the kind of work volunteers would be involved in as part of the project. Any enquiries about volunteering opportunities at Devon Heritage Services were given details about the project
  • promoting the project to the public, user groups, and local history societies through presentations and talks both on site and externally
  • conservation of documents by the conservation team

The project was funded by a National Cataloguing Grant of £32,000.


The initial scope of the project grew when work began.

  • The documents were found to be very disorganised and cataloguing the material was far more time-consuming than originally estimated as it required an especially meticulous approach
  • The amount of material in each box was found to be more extensive than initially estimated when the project archivist began work
  • Large tranches of earlier material dating back to 1723 were discovered at a later stage, and had to be catalogued as part of the project

Responding to the challenges

Volunteers were used to help re-organise the material before cataloguing the documents as well as surveying the records and researching the collection alongside the work of the Project Archivist. This allowed the Project Archivist extra time to catalogue all the collection.


The project blog has created a focus for researching and presenting the collection, and has created a number opportunities for outreach activities and community engagement to promote the project. For example, positive feedback on a blog post about a shipwreck in 1738 led to a display at the Heritage Open Day, and the some of the more quirky and entertaining features from the blog will be presented in a talk given to the Friends of Devon Archives in October 2013. The Project Archivist has made weekly updates on interesting topics or discoveries emerging from the cataloguing work.

Such discoveries have been included in presentations to promote the project locally and regionally through official DHS events such as the recent re-launch and Open Day and, through the feature of the project in Family Tree Magazine, to a national readership.

What were the outcomes?

Using volunteers to rearrange the collection meant that up to 1,500-2,000 documents were catalogued each month as the Project Archivist was free to concentrate on cataloguing work. Between the beginning of August 2012 and the end of March 2013 around 10,000 documents were catalogued.

There was greater volunteer involvement with the project than had originally been planned. Having developed considerable palaeographical skill and accumulated valuable experience during the project, one volunteer has now decided to pursue a career in archives, stating that ‘I have really enjoyed the volunteering work that I have done and the project is very rewarding. I hope to continue my work in this fascinating area.’

The public have engaged with the blog, with over 2,000 hits recorded from Europe, Africa, North South and Central America, Asia and Australasia. Comments have praised the informative and engaging style of the blog posts, and an individual has requested help with a family history enquiry regarding a woman transported to the Americas in the 1730s.

Family Tree magazine ran a feature on the project in March 2013. Devon Heritage approached the magazine as it was felt that family historians were an important target, and that engaging with this audience would be an excellent opportunity to demonstrate that, contrary to popular perception, all kinds of individuals besides those merely caught up in the judicial system can be traced through these records. This also helped to show that Quarter Sessions material need not merely be viewed as a set of records for research of criminal ancestry.

Use of the catalogue has resulted in a diverse range of enquiries about the material, including requests for more information concerning transportees and persons bound into recognisances, as well as interest regarding the use of Quarter Session material for local history, such as research into the parish constables of a given parish. Some of the questions received have also come from researchers who have used the catalogue and asked for further background information about the workings of the court system.

Presentations about the project to the public, user groups and councillors have generated public interest in the documents and the project by demonstrating the diverse nature of the collection and its value to many areas of research, such as for enquiries concerning local land holding, office holding, the operation of the Poor Law, and the maintenance of the county’s roads and bridges.

The project has also been promoted to visitors on tours of the building, groups that have included county councillors, Open University students and local interest groups.

What went well?

  • The process of arranging the material went very well as within a few weeks the volunteers had become an effective team
  • Interest in these records by local groups helped to highlight how important the Quarter Sessions records can be for the local and social history of a county

What didn’t go quite as well?

Outreach work surrounding the project was delayed over a month into the cataloguing process due to the initial work rearranging the documents before volunteers arrived. Dedicating a morning each week to outreach work from the outset, irrespective of other pressures of the project would have been a more desirable approach.

How will this work be developed in the future?

The catalogue is only a first step, and there are numerous smaller projects arising from the work done so far:

  • Freeholders books found with the bundles have been calendared by volunteers. The books provide valuable information regarding 18th century Devon landholders and in some instances provide one of the only records of inhabitants for some areas of Devon for this period
  • There are plans to digitise and index the Sessions Order books, and a separate project will work on the settlement and removal documents which accompany the Sessions bundles to develop these into another important resource for the public. The aim of this project is for a group of volunteers to transcribe and index the names of those settled and removed by the justices, after which the documentation will be incorporated into an already-existing sequence of the catalogue. This will further improve discoverability of persons caught up within the Quarter Sessions administration and lead to better understanding of the operation of the settlement system in Devon

Find out more about the project or the project blog or contact Robert Bennett, Project Archivist.