The Quarter Sessions court had administrative functions in addition to their primary judicial role and over several hundred years these included gathering hearth taxes, maintaining juror’s and freeholders lists, keeping boat owner’s and printing press records and the slightly bizarre sounding Hair Powder Tax Certificates.This tax, introduced in 1795 was the brainchild of William Pitt, the younger, who was trying to find ways to fund the war against Napoleonic France and estimated that it would raise £210,000 per annum. This was never achieved because the imposition of a guinea charge for an annual certificate or license for each person who wished to powder their wigs hastened the end of the fashion for most people. The Hair Powder Tax records for 1795-6 list the householder, and other family members and servants all of whom required the guinea certificates. Thus the records can be used as a census substitute albeit only for the wealthiest classes and their servants. The illustration above shows the entry for William Withering, (Lunar Society member) and his wife, Helena, who were living at Old Square in 1796. Records such as the Printing Press Records are rich in detail. Thus Myles Swinney’s and Henry Hawkins’s entry in August 1799 provides details of the number of printing presses they have and intend to use for the printing of Swinney’s Birmingham Chronicle and another press for copper plates in a separate building all behind their premises at 75 High Street. This appears to be the first entry for a Birmingham Printer collected as a result of the ‘An act for the more effectual suppression of societies established for seditious and treasonable purposes; and for the better preventing treasonable and seditious practices’. Swinney, who was the printer for Withering’s “Account of the Foxglove” can also be found in the Hair Powder Tax records.
This Unlawful Societies Act was also behind the collection of Freemasons’ Records (1799-1857). These annual returns of the names and descriptions of the members of Masonic lodges had to be presented to the Quarter Sessions in pursuance of the Unlawful Societies Act of 1799. The first entry in the Warwickshire Freemasons’ Records is for the Union Lodge (No. 514) which met at the Rose Inn on Edgbaston Street, Birmingham. Samuel Toy, gilt and steel worker, and William Brooks, taylor (sic), were the members responsible for registering the Lodge and providing the list of members. Some of the information can be derived from early trade directories (see collection on the West Midlands Historical Data website which is free to use within Birmingham Libraries) but it is interesting to see who was associating with whom in the different lodges within the town.
These examples highlight just some of the sources for local and family history that can be found online. They provide insights into the social and political history of the age and add to our depth of understanding of our ancestor’s lives. And the early records that pre-date the 1841 census and 1837 advent of civil registration can provide vital clues to family relationships.
Liz Palmer, Library and Archives Assistant