THEY were the days when petty crime was rife, justice was all too often arbitrary and punishments could rarely be said to truly fit the crime.
A new light has been shed on Yorkshire justice in the late 19th century through records held by Sheffield Archives being made available to the public for the first time thanks to the work of local historians.
And they show that individuals who found themselves in front of the notorious Court of Quarter Sessions in the city could not expect a sympathetic hearing.
Crimes that would today lead to a fine or suspended or community sentence for all but the most persistent offenders, would then lead to long periods in horrendous prisons or worse.
Typical cases revealed by the newly catalogued records include that of Joseph Badger, a 21-year-old silversmith, who stole two boxes of crab and kippered herrings from Mark Athey in 1880 and was jailed for 18 months with hard labour.
Table blade grinder Isaac Leasley, 22, was found guilty of stealing a goose at his trial in 1881 and was imprisoned for seven years.
In all, the harsh punishments received by around 7,000 of Sheffield’s 19th century thieves and fraudsters have been documented.
Cheryl Bailey, senior archivist at Sheffield Archives, said: “The Quarter Sessions and magistrates’ court heard thousands of cases every year and our records provide a fascinating insight into the hardships everyday families faced in the Victorian and Edwardian eras where children were forced to work in factories, adults toiled in workhouses and prostitution and petty crime were rife.
“We are really proud to have the Quarter Sessions revived at the archives and they show one of the many educational and fascinating resources we have within Sheffield’s libraries.
“We hope they inspire people to think about researching Sheffield’s rich history or to look into their family tree. You never know what, or who, you might find.”
The Quarter Sessions earned their name from the fact they were held on a quarterly basis through the year to hear cases thought too serious to be dealt with by justices of the peace.
The records of the hearings have been made accessible to the public thanks to the work of members of the Sheffield and District Family History Society.
They have spent the past year going through the details of the details of the victim, the defendant’s age, address, their crime and punishment that were published after each hearing.
The information has been collated into a “calendar of prisoners”, indexing what happened to every person who appeared before the Quarter Sessions between 1880 and 1910.
Anne McQueen, secretary of The Sheffield and District Family History Society, said: “The calendar of prisoners has been a fascinating project for us to work on. People researching Sheffield’s history or their ancestry can now access information at the touch of a button.
“The archives service shows the value library services can have on people’s lives and the many ways information can be resourced and shared.
“It’s a treasure trove of historically important documents and we hope the new calendar of prisoners inspires others to come and delve deeper into our archives.”
The society has previously worked on a project to list 18,000 patient admissions to Middlewood Hospital in Sheffield between 1872 and 1910.
Their work has helped improve accessibility to the archives which include a priceless letter from Mary Queen of Scots, who was imprisoned under the care of the Earl and Countess of Shrewsbury at Sheffield Castle and Manor Lodge by her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, who feared she would raise support from the Catholics and take the throne.
The huge array of material held by the Sheffield Archives includes records dating back to the 12th century and continuing all the way to the present day providing a treasure trove of letters, diaries, deeds, maps, film, photographs and accounts to historians, researchers or people looking to trace their family’s past.
Councillor Mazher Iqbal, Sheffield City Council’s cabinet member for communities and inclusion, said: “The rich history of Sheffield never fails to surprise me and the Court of Quarter Sessions index at Sheffield Archives is a fantastic insight into a bygone era and how justice was administered in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
“It shows the wealth of historically important information storied at the archives and I hope it inspires more people to learn about our city.”