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Male occupations in quarter sessions recognizances

Male occupations in quarter sessions recognizances

As discussed elsewhere on this website, occupational information from parish registers and testamentary documents have been the project's main sources of data for creating long-run male occupational structures between c.1600 and c.1820. In this combination, testamentary data, with their wide temporal and geographic spread, are used to interpolate and extrapolate the more reliable but less widely spread parish register data. However, even testamentary data are not (yet) available always and everywhere within the 1600-1820 time period. This had led to the recent exploration of yet another seventeenth- and eighteenth-century data source: quarter sessions recognizances.

The quarter sessions were local administrative and judicial bodies administered by Justices of the Peace (JP) that served a variety of functions, such as adjudicating misdemeanor cases like theft and assault, and administering bastardy orders. Within the quarter sessions, recognizances were documents issued by the JP which usually bound the parties involved in a case to appear at the next meeting of the local quarter sessions, where the case would be adjudicated by the JP. For much of my period, private individuals (usually the plaintiff) were usually responsible for pursuing a case rather than those in public office such as constables. Individuals who were issued recognizances usually had to name two sureties who were bound to pay a sum if the subject did not satisfy the condition of the recognizance. Subjects and sureties were almost always identified in recognizances by their name, place of residence, and occupation – which makes them promising sources of occupational data.

Using recognizances as a source of (male) occupational information is not entirely new. Paul Glennie recognised their potential in his systematic evaluation of male occupational sources.1 Henry Court and Mary Rowlands used them as sources of occupational data in their influential regional studies.2 Historians like John Styles have recognised that quarter sessions recognizances are likely to have covered a much wider share of the population than other court records, since they deal with petty rather than severe crimes.3 Nevertheless, they have not been used at the scale at which they are currently being employed in the Occupational Structure Project, to fill geographic and temporal gaps in our understanding of occupational developments and to test our results from other sources. In a recent master thesis, Tim Rudnicki employed over 88,000 occupational descriptors from quarter sessions in Cheshire and Lancashire.4 More recently still, James Wells based his study of occupational developments in Kent during the seventeenth and eighteenth century mainly on this data source.5 Currently, two more master's students connected to the Occupational Structure Project are using recognizances as a major data source in estimating the male occupational structure of eighteenth-century Devon and eighteenth-century Glamorganshire.6

Comparisons between quarter sessions recognizances and data sources of know reliability, such as parish registers, show that the occupational impressions derived from recognizances are fairly representative, certainly compared to testamentary data. As figure 1 shows, scope for further calibration of recognizances-based estimates exists, and is currently being explored.

Comparison recognizances and parish register occupational data

Figure 1. Comparison of male occupational data in parish registers and quarter sessions recognizances
(Lancashire, c.1820)

Source: Rudnicki, 'The male occupational structure of northwest England, circa 1600 to 1851' (University of Cambridge, master's dissertation, 2015), p. 26.


1 Glennie, 'Distinguishing men's trades': occupational sources and debates for pre-census England (Bristol: Historical Geography Research Group, 1990), pp. 39-42.

2 Court, The Rise of the Midland Industries, 1600 – 1838, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1938); Rowlands, Masters and men in the West Midlands metalware trade before the industrial revolution (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1975).

3 Styles, The Dress of the People: Everyday fashion in eighteenth-century England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 329.

4 Rudnicki, 'The male occupational structure of northwest England, circa 1600 to 1851' (University of Cambridge, master's dissertation, 2015).

5 Wells, 'The male occupational structure of Kent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries' (University of Cambridge, BA dissertation, 2017).

6 Andreas Doukakis and Masa Masayuki, respectively.