One of the many functions of the Justices of the Peace in the 18th and 19th centuries was to hear, at what were called petty sessions, charges of minor breaches of the law and to impose penalties on those whom they convicted. For Gloucestershire relatively few records of petty sessions survive from the period, but there survives for the years 1781-1837 a series of files containing the notes of convictions at petty sessions which the JPs submitted to quarter sessions. During those years statutory legislation increased the range of offences punishable by the JPs. It was a time, also, when urban areas were rapidly extending into the surrounding countryside, in Gloucestershire notably around Bristol and Cheltenham.
The notes are often tantalisingly brief, particularly in recording the large number of convictions for assault. Typically, however, in addition to the name of the offender or offenders and the nature of the offence (with the objects of theft and damage specified), they give the offenders occupation and where he or she lived, the names of the JPs (sometimes stating where they heard the case), the names of victims, complainants and witnesses, and the penalty imposed. The penalty was usually a fine, with the alternative of a term in the local house of correction if the fine was not paid. A few of the notes, recording poaching or the unlicensed taking of game, rehearse some of the evidence. In all there are notes of more than 6,000 convictions, providing a fascinating picture of Gloucestershire life, particularly low life, in the period.