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Guides to Our Sources

Crime and Punishment


The following notes are made for the information of a wide variety of users.  

It should be recalled that the use of Latin in English official records was not totally abolished until 1733, apart from a short break at the time of the Commonwealth, and that writing earlier than 1660 may provide you with problems in reading.   Apart from the modern records, the vast majority of the material in the records described here is un-indexed.

Most courts created more than one class of record, and different classes of document may be more or less useful to different users.  The two most useful types of court record, if they survive,  are the depositions  (evidence filed by witnesses and the accused) and the indictments  (the charge, or offence, often giving the criminal's address).  Where records are held in Devon's record offices, advice about this should be sought from the search-room staff, and catalogue lists should be examined where these are available.   Among the Diocese of Exeter Consistory Court records, for example, the Deposition books are generally more informative than the Act books.  Devon County Quarter Sessions Papers and Process Books should be used together with the Order Books, and Exeter City Gaol records are particularly full and varied, to give only a few examples.

Records relating to crime and punishment are held in different repositories in England, and the location of trial records depends on the type of court where the trial was held.

Family historians should note that most Assizes records are not kept at Exeter, but at the The National Archives at Kew (series ref: ASSI.)  There is more information on these records below.

Some 20th century records are subject to a closure period of 100 years and are therefore not available for general public inspection.



Assizes courts generally dealt with the most serious crimes (e.g. murder and treasonable activities).

From the 13th century, judges and senior lawyers had been commissioned as justices to ride off into the counties and hold the king’s courts.  A pair of judges would cover a Circuit, each Circuit covering a group of counties.  By 1559, the assize judges were mainly dealing with the most serious crimes not normally handled by the local courts of Quarter Sessions.  These crimes included murder, infanticide, theft, highway robbery, rape, assault, coining, forgery and witchcraft, trespass, vagrancy, and recusancy.  The assizes were held in Exeter at  Lent, Lammas and in the winter.

Before 1733 most Assize records are in Latin. Note that they do not normally give the age of the accused, nor details of his or her family.

Records of the Western Circuit, which included Devon, survive for 1611 - 1936, although not all series are complete like other Assizes records, they are held at the The National Archives, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU (Tel: 020 8876 3444).

  • There is also a printed Guide to the Contents of The National Archives Vol. 1 - Legal Records, HMSO, 1963, p.127, available at large public and university libraries

  • A booklet titled Assizes and Quarter Sessions in Exeter, published by Exeter City Council, is on sale through Devon Record Office - see Publications  

Devon County Assize Gaol Calendars

These survive among the County Quarter Sessions records and are held at the Devon Record Office.  Some gaol calendars survive for the years 1784, 1843-1845 and between 1854  and 1919 (ref: DRO Q/S 34/1-65).  These list prisoners held for trial at the next County Assizes.  

An additional series of gaol calendars (ref: DRO Q/S 32/92-379) covering the years 1825 to 1882, list prisoners in custody after committal at the Assizes.  

Devon Record Office also holds certain Transportation records.

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City of Exeter Mayor's and Provost's Courts

These courts were concerned with a wide range of offences within the City's limits (the limits of Exeter were variously defined at different times). Their records are part of the Exeter City Archives collection, held in Devon Record Office.

Records of the Mayor's Court run from 1264 to 1836, with a few gaps.  

The Provost's Court, dealing with more minor crimes and some civil cases, has records which cover the period 1337 - 1881.

Quarter Sessions

The Court of Quarter Sessions dealt with crimes less serious than those dealt with by Assizes, but still sometimes punishable by death.  Quarter Sessions records are held in local record offices.  Separate quarter sessions were held in Devon for the following:

  • County of Devon

    The County Quarter Sessions Records (ref: DRO Q/S) covering the years 1592 - 1971 are held at Devon Record Office and form the longest unbroken run of such records.  A catalogue listing the County Quarter Sessions holdings can be searched on-line through the Access to Archives (A2A) website which is sponsored by The National Archives.  Search under the Place of Deposit category for 'Devon Record Office'.  There are also personal name and subject card indexes to Quarter Sessions Order Books,  1734-1802, in the search-room.

  • City of Exeter

    The City of Exeter records cover the period 1557 - 1971, although some series are incomplete.  They are part of the Exeter City Archives (ECA) collection, held in Devon Record Office

  • City of Plymouth

    Plymouth Quarter Sessions records are held at Plymouth and West Devon Record Office.  The catalogue can be searched on-line through the Access to Archives (A2A) website.  Search under the Place of Deposit category for 'Plymouth & West Devon Record Office'
    More information about visiting  Plymouth and West Devon Record Office

  • Some boroughs in Devon

    Borough Quarter Sessions records are held at either North Devon Record Office (ref: NDRO) or Devon Record Office (ref: DRO)

    They survive for the following Boroughs

    Bideford Borough,1659 - 1888 (refs: NDRO 46 and 1064)  

    South Molton Borough, 1671 - 1775 (ref: NDRO 1190)

    Torrington Borough,1686 - 1836 (ref: NDRO 2558 M)  

    Dartmouth Borough, 17th –19th cents. (ref: DRO - part of DD series)
    Tiverton Borough, 1740 -1813 (ref: DRO - R 4/1), and 1836 – 1950 (ref: DRO 1143)

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Petty Sessions

The Courts of Petty Sessions dealt with poaching, minor theft, and later with driving offences. Records are held in local record offices. In Devon, records are traceable to the late 17th century, and licensing records of this early period survive. No judicial (court) records survive before the 19th century.  

Devon Record Office holds the following:

  • Registers of Summary Convictions, Exeter, 1865 - 1911
  • Registers of Summary Convictions, County of Devon, 1824 – 1915 (Ref: DRO Q/S 11 and 12)
  • Earliest surviving dates for the Petty Sessions Registers for other divisions are as follows: Axminster, 1880;  Crediton, 1859;  Crockernwell, 1915; Cullompton, 1915; Holsworthy, 1861; Honiton, 1880; Stanborough and Coleridge, 1876; Ottery, 1915; Teignbridge, 1879; Tiverton, 1905; Tiverton Borough, 1885: Woodbury, 1891; Wonford, 1926.

Diocese of Exeter Consistory Court

This church court exercised ecclesiastical jurisdiction in disputes over wills, tithes and a wide variety of moral matters.  The Diocese of Exeter included the county of Cornwall until 1876. Court records are found among the Diocesan records in Devon Record Office and cover the years 1508 –1933.  Some series are incomplete.

  • Devon Record Handlist no 1 -  J.A. Vage. The Records of the Bishop of Exeter's Consistory Court to 1660, Devon Record Office (1981) is an explanatory list of the records to 1660.  It is on sale through Devon Record Office - see Publications
  • Colin Chapman. Sin, Sex and Probate: Ecclesiastical Courts, Officials and Records, Chapmans Records Cameos series, Lochin Publishing, 2nd edition, 1997 is on sale through the Society of Genealogists and the Federation of Family History Societies bookshops, and other genealogical book suppliers, by post, email or on-line order .

Archdeaconry Courts

These church courts also held ecclesiastical jurisdiction.  

Some records for Barnstaple Archdeaconry, covering the years 1682 - 1857 (ref: NDRO 1127) are held in North Devon Record Office.   

Records of the Exeter Archdeaconry Court are held in Devon Record Office at Exeter.

Records of the Archdeaconry of Cornwall are held by Cornwall Record Office, County Hall, Truro.

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Records held in Devon Record Office

To colonies in America

  • Devon County Assizes and Quarter Sessions - contracts and bonds (listed) 1726 – 1773 (ref: DRO Q/S 129/1-94)
  • Entries in County Quarter Sessions Order Books 1718 - 1775 (ref: DRO Q/S 1/16-20)
  • Exeter City Quarter Sessions – orders, contracts and bonds, 1718 -1746 (ref: ECA Ancient letters series).  For more information, see the published HMC Report on the Records of the City of Exeter, Series 73, 1916, p. 237, available in the Devon Record Office searchroom.

To colonies in Australia

  • Financial papers relating to removal of convicts from Exeter to Portsmouth (males) and to Woolwich (females) prior to transportation, 1821 - 1825, in voucher bundles, County Treasurers records (ref: DRO Q/S 134/5/1)
  • Sentences in County Quarter Sessions Order books, 1802 - 1854 (ref: DRO  Q/S 1/22-30).  These are indexed.
  • Exeter City Sessions orders, 1801 - 1863 (ref: ECA books 267-269)


Some records relating to former prison premises are held at Devon Record Office.

Dartmoor Prison

County Prisons

  • The former County Gaol, on the site of the present Devon County Prison in Exeter, is documented in minute books of visiting justices, committees and reports; contracts and plans, 1787 - 1849 (ref: DRO Q/S 101-103; Q/S106; Q/S108-110)
  • The County Debtors Prison (Sheriffs' Ward) in St. Thomas, Exeter, is covered in several documents, 1746 and 1818 (ref: DRO Q/S 100/1, and 104/1-3)
    For information on a published booklet about the County Debtors' Prison.

Exeter City Prisons

These are more fully documented in records held at Devon Record Office.

  • The City Prison (Rougemont site), 1819 - 1863 (ref: DRO ECA books 252-294, with some omissions)
    ECA book 251 relates to the old South Gate Gaol (1816 - 1818),  and there are also lists of debtors, for the years 1818 - 1863  (ref: DRO ECA books 272-3)

Local county Police Stations, Lock-ups and Petty Sessions Rooms  

Devon Record Office holds some surviving plans and contracts, 1858 – c.1930 (ref: DRO Q/S Series B 13 and Drafts Files 582-590 and 591 A).


Exeter City's Watch Committee Minutes run from 1836 - 1966 (ref: ECA collection).

County police forces were, of course, formed at a slightly later date, and Devon Police Committee Minutes date from 1859 only.   From 1889 these become "Standing Joint Committee" Minutes.  Devon Record Office holds volumes up to 1958 (ref: DRO Q/S 156/5 - Devon County Council Standing Joint Committee records.)

Some Police records and artefacts are held at Devon and Cornwall Police Museum: contact Amanda Sutherland, Devon and Cornwall Police Museum, Middlemoor, Exeter EX2 7HQ, Devon - tel:  +44 (0)1392-203025/452275.