The office of county coroner was established in 1194, the coroner acting as the local keeper of the pleas of the Crown. Medieval coroners had a wide range of duties besides the investigation of unnatural, sudden or suspicious deaths and deaths in prison. These included: keeping of rolls of persons suspected of crimes which were presented to the king's justices during the Eyre; holding of inquests into wrecks, treasure troves and royal fish; conduct of outlawry proceedings in the county courts; hearing of matters involving deodands. Most coroners were elected by a body of freeholders in the county court until the Local Government Act of 1888, since when they have been appointed by local authorities. Theoretically a coroner's jurisdiction covered a whole county, although many cities and boroughs and some other areas obtained the privilege of appointing a coroner for their own area of jurisdiction.
By the 19th century a coroner's principal duty was the holding of inquests on the bodies of those who had died suddenly, violently, unnaturally, in prison or in suspicious circumstances. Inquests are held in public unless there is a threat to national security. As a result, reports have appeared in national and local newspapers for over 200 years. Official guidelines recommended the destruction of many records after a limited time period, so in general, it is more likely that the newspaper report will survive than the coroner's record for the 100 years before World War II.
Arrangements in Surrey
Until 1825 Surrey had one coroner covering the county and separate local jurisdictions for the boroughs of Guildford, Kingston and Southwark. In 1825 Surrey was divided into two districts. The main subsequent changes to coroner's jurisdiction in Surrey began in 1888 when the Local Government Act transferred responsibility for the Newington and Camberwell districts (including parts of Lambeth and Southwark) to the newly formed London County Council. Croydon was also granted county borough status with the right to appoint its own coroner. In 1892, a Standing Order of Surrey County Council divided the administrative county into three coroner's districts, Guildford, Kingston, and Reigate. This tripartite arrangement continued until 1933 when the county was divided into two districts, Eastern and Western. Coroner's jurisdiction changed once more with the London Government Act of 1963 and from 1965 a single coroner was appointed for the entire administrative county of Surrey with the exception of the borough of Guildford. This new arrangement continued until 1974 when, under the Local Government Act, 1972, the separate arrangement for Guildford borough was terminated and one coroner was appointed for the entire administrative county of Surrey.
Surviving records for Surrey
The Surrey Quarter Sessions papers (QS2/6) include, from 1753, accounts submitted by the coroner for expenses in attending inquests, which often give the name of the deceased and location of the inquest. A few inquest records survive for the Eastern District, 1867, and the Reigate District, 1909, as well as a register of inquests for the Reigate District, 1912-1933, but otherwise in Surrey, newspaper reports are usually the only surviving record of inquests until 1925. However, after 1925 there are few gaps in the records at Surrey History Centre and we are happy to check the archives to see if individual inquest papers have survived. Access restrictions do apply to coroner's records less than 75 years old, although under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, access may be granted to these papers if permission from the current coroner is received and no exemptions to disclosure are applicable. If you want to see records less than 75 years old please contact us first.
It is worth noting that, because of the high level of casualties, the Home Office abandoned the statutory requirement for coroners to perform inquests on civilians and military personnel who had died as a result of wartime operations between 1939 and 1945. The records also include treasure trove inquisitions, from 1968 onwards.