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Quarter sessions

Norfolk was administered from Tudor times until the late 19th century by justices of the peace (or magistrates), through the system of quarter, general, special and petty sessions.

The senior justice and first civil officer of Norfolk was the custos rotulorum (keeper of the rolls).

From the 16th century onwards, this office was held in tandem with that of lord lieutenant.

The custos rotulorum was entitled to preside at quarter sessions and he selected all the county's justices for approval by the lord chancellor.

He also appointed the clerk of the peace, a lawyer who administered the quarter sessions' secretariat and looked after the records on his behalf.

Quarter sessions appointed the county treasurer and also the county surveyor, who was responsible for the county’s bridges and buildings such as prisons and the Shirehouse (or Shirehall).

Individual parishes took responsibility for roads. Parish surveyors of highways were often presented at quarter sessions if they had neglected particular roads and were ordered to repair them.

Norfolk was one of the earliest counties to adopt the Act for the Better Care and Maintenance of Lunatics being Paupers or Criminals in England (1808). 

The Norfolk County Asylum (later St Andrew’s Hospital) was opened in 1814 in spacious grounds at Thorpe St Andrew, to care for the mentally ill from across Norfolk.

The committee of visiting justices, which was appointed by the quarter sessions and was answerable to it, oversaw the asylum's construction and its subsequent running.

Norfolk was also quick to adopt the County Police Act of 1839.

A special session of magistrates on 22 November 1839 decided to appoint a chief constable, 12 superintendents and 120 constables, thus forming Norfolk Constabulary.

Previously, each hundred in the county had a high constable. He would convene a meeting of all the parish constables in his hundred in order to discuss presentments before each quarter session.

The quarter sessions lost some power in 1877, when The Prisons Act removed its responsibility for the county prisons and vested it in the prison commissioners.

It was part of a gradual process of democratisation throughout the 19th century.

The sessions system had always relied on the sense of duty and public spiritedness of an unelected body of men from a narrow class of society.

But that system was to change with the Local Government Act of 1888, which created a new governing body for the counties: the county council.

Elections were held in Norfolk on 24 January 1889 and the first meeting of the fully-constituted Norfolk County Council took place on 13 April 1889, effectively ending the administration of the quarter sessions.