Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Excursions through the Petty Sessions. (Introduction)

For anyone with an interest in the social history of a specific time, place and/or individuals, one of the best resources available can be records of the Petty Sessions.

The Courts of Petty Sessions were local to a district and usually overseen by a justice of the peace or magistrate. Originating in England in the early 1700s, they dealt with minor matters such as theft or larceny, assaults, drunkenness, debts, licensing, deception or defamation and even allegations of illegitimacy. 

Experienced magistrates would have heard all the typical excuses! 

Any case that the magistrate could not resolve or was deemed to be more serious would be sent on to a higher court in a nearby major town or city. Most British colonies in the 1800s followed the English system.

Bram Stoker, author of Dracula,
wrote a book about the duties of Petty Sessions Clerks
Irish Family History Centre

Cover from a typical 19th C Petty Sessions record book
This one for Colac, Victoria, 1849-1865

Within those records, there are often shocks and surprises for those who are researching their ancestors. For historians, there is much intimate detail that can be revealed about what was going in a certain society at a particular time. There are rules, regulations and fines that today may seem to us onerous or unjust. The foibles and personal lives of individuals are made public, whether to do with debt, drunkenness or assault. Often, the magistrate makes arbitrary comments on failures in moral standards. But it is the glimpses into the gossip, jealousy and squabbling that was, and still is, common to small communities that can be the most fascinating.

A browse of the entries from the mid-19th Century collection, Victoria Petty Sessions for Maldon (Australia), has led me to investigate some individuals in more depth and with intriguing results, and this will be the first in a series of posts generated by some such cases.

Maldon Court House built c. 1861
This painting by Henry J.C. Mitchell from 1864 shows the Volunteer Rifle Corps
drilling in front of it.

The building is little changed today
Heritage Council Victoria.

Here is a snapshot of a single page of the Petty Sessions listing the issues heard at Maldon between 28 November and 9 December 1862:-

Assaults. Various outcomes. Fines between 5/- and 10/- (five and ten shillings) or the option of 12 hours of hard labour or 24 hours in prison. Perhaps some of the defendants had little money and opted for prison or hard labour.

Damage. Not specified what was done, but stated to be £2.12s.0d. (two pounds twelve shillings). No result as the defendant was remanded until another day.

Debts. Various. In one case a debt of £6.18s.7½d (Six pounds eighteen shillings seven pence halfpenny) was resolved by the defendant agreeing to pay off the debt at 7/6 (seven shillings and six pence) per week.

Theft. “Illegal detention of a tent and seven goats, value £8”. Defendant to repay.

Animals. These disputes can get quite complicated. They include the following:

For “killing a goat worth 10/-,” the defendant agreed to pay plus costs.

Three men were charged with “Permitting horse/s to wander on the public street” each fined 5/-.

Four men were charged with “Keeping unregistered dog/s” and fined.

Of the latter, two were well-known businessmen in the town of Maldon, Charles Webster, a Chemist, and George McArthur, a Baker. They are entered consecutively in the Petty Sessions and likewise they have adjacent advertisements on a page from the 1864 directory as shown below.

George McArthur and Charles Webster both had to cough up 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence) for having unregistered dogs. In the remarks column, it seems Charles did not follow up the fine by registering his dog, although George subsequently did. Is this is a subtle clue as to a difference in character; George perhaps more willing to be seen to do the right thing and have it recorded?

The two men pop elsewhere in the Petty Sessions for a variety of reasons. George McArthur left a lasting and mostly positive legacy in Maldon but within two years Charles Webster would be facing the death penalty when he was indicted for murder!

More on that in the next post ...

Tarrangower, past and present: a history of Maldon from 1853. Guide, business directory and calendar. Reminisences of the good old times by Jonathon George Moon.” pub. 1862

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