All good things….

Most people reading this blog will no doubt be familiar with the old adage that all good things come to an end. As summer approaches, the Quarter Sessions cataloguing project of which this blog is part and parcel is coming to a close, and your tireless qsarchivist is moving on to pastures new. So it’s a goodbye from me, and an opportunity to look back at the project and some of the things we’ve brought to light this year.

We’ve seen evidence of famines, plagues, wars and crises of all kinds for the inhabitants of Devon, examined the inner workings of eighteenth century justice and the Poor Law, borne witness to fire and flood, and puzzled over skulduggery in Aveton Giffard. There have been shipwrecks, mishaps, implausible excuses for failing to attend court, petitions from prisoners starving in the gaols, and some truly lamentable examples of sentencing excesses by the justices. The Quarter Sessions are akin to the society they reflect; colourful, expressive, lucid, and full of variety and contradiction in equal measure, and it’s been my pleasure to open the eighteenth century world they document up to examination by readers of this blog and those using the catalogue at Devon Heritage Services.

I’d like to thank readers of this blog for their contributions this year and for joining me on a fascinating journey into the past. If I were to bring all the strands of thought in this blog into a final thread as the project closes, it would be through returning to a theme I’ve spoken of through the year, a thought and motivation that has underpinned much of my enthusiasm for this project and which is one of my many motivations as a professional archivist. This theme is that of wishing to inspire in others a sympathy for and love of the past.

The documents we’ve been exploring this year convey real, not imaginary, events, and though the persons caught up in them are removed from us by a gulf of time, they were no less real, for all that, than the people around you today. Their hopes, dreams and ambitions, their passions, grievances, tragedies, trials and tribulations were as human and complex as any today, and played out across the backdrop of a world that was no less real or wonderful and frequently as cruel as our own can be today. These actors on a stage set against a vast and oft-forgotten backdrop of a former world, are our relatives, our forebears, separated from us in time but linked to us inextricably in language, custom, geography and our common humanity.

Just as I would hope that our descendants, living in an age with greater knowledge and the benefit of hindsight, will not assess our era too harshly from their point of vantage, I’ve always felt that we should be sparing in our judgments of those who went before us. They are, after all, our kith and kin, who shaped the world around us before our time. For a brief moment in time, we now occupy the places formerly held by them, and after us others will follow. What will those who follow make of our era? To care about and be inspired by the past, then, is to care about people, to be inspired by others and to be willing to learn from those who came before us.

I hope that this blog has helped to bring this past world to life, and has brought you all closer to the people who lived in it. If I have managed to achieve this in my writing, then I’ve succeeded in what I set out to do when I began writing many months ago.

Thanks once again for reading and taking part this year, and all the best!


Eighteenth Century Record Keeping…..

QS/1 is the series of Sessions Order Books, an official record of much of the business of the Quarter Sessions. QS/1/20 is the book for the years 1759-1776 and is packed full of interesting bits and pieces of information. Tucked away on the bottom of page 343, written for Easter Sessions 1768, is an innocuous comment that could easily be skimmed over, but which caught the attention of one of our volunteers:

“Ordered that the arms and old military stores now in the chamber of the chapel be removed from there to a more convenient place and that the gunpowder now in the chamber adjoining to the Record Room in the castle be forthwith removed from thence and that there be never anymore put there for the future”.

While I’m glad that some clear-headed folks decided to start implementing some sensible record keeping procedures in 1768, (because, thankfully, we still have the Quarter Sessions records to enjoy) I have to ask who on earth thought putting gunpowder next to the records room was a good idea in the first place! We’ll never know of course, but from a twenty-first century perspective it illustrates a few interesting points about attitudes to records.

At some point, after all, people either weren’t too bothered that these records might get lost in a calamity, or at least didn’t place storing them safely as too high a priority, and yet later on attitudes changed and the records were regarded as meriting much safer storage. There were probably plenty of possibilities for these records to become destroyed or damaged in their history, yet they survive, really, because ultimately they’ve been deemed to have some value. The value placed on these records has been variable at times as this example neatly illustrates, but they have at least been kept, despite everything that’s happened around them down the centuries. There’s an interesting point to be made here, too. It’s an irony known among archive and conservation professionals that often rare books and manuscripts have been given, historically what was then effectively regarded as being scrap paper for the end papers of the binding. Occasionally such documents as these are now regarded as being of enormous historic value in their own right, simply because of their comparative rarity, yet to our ancestors, they were scrap, and expendable. In other words, both the records deemed worthy of keeping and those deemed scrap have turned out to have a value to society in the end.

There’s all sorts of side debates we could fall into here about the records of our own time, and what exactly constitutes a historic document or a document likely to become regarded as having a historic or heritage value, and to a large extent there are often no easy answers for some material. The judgements we make today might be ones our descendants regard as invalid, of course, and it may come to pass that in centuries to come archivists and archive users place a vast historic value on records that we today currently don’t. That’s the way of the world, I suppose, but one thing we can be glad about is that although our society will doubtless not preserve everything our descendants would wish it had done, at least those records we do decide to keep should be kept, in theory, a lot more safely than the Sessions bundles were up until 1768!

How do you solve a problem like Leonard Pocock?

This post is about circumstances. It’s about elusive circumstances, to be exact. So many times as I catalogue these records I stumble across crimes that leave more questions than answers, like the indictment I saw today in which an apparently rather annoyed chap decided to assault three passers by in the road and then chuck a great amount of bloody, filthy, stinking water over them and all the goods they were taking to market in Plymouth. Why? Good question, I haven’t the foggiest, I’m afraid, but I’d love to invent a time machine that would enable me to go back and find out the details, because frankly it’s quite an odd crime.

So you can imagine how I feel about the rather contentious figure of Leonard Pocock. Mr Pocock (the spelling of his name varies but Pocock is the most common form) was a yeoman who lived in Ottery St Mary, and who seems to have had more than his fair share of trouble with tresspassers. Mr Pococke’s troubles seem to have started around Midsummer 1732 when a John Hoskyns of Kentisbeare was indicted for breaking into a close of land belonging to him at Kentisbeare called Heywoods, and for stealing two horse seams’ worth of wood. Problems for the Pockocks continued. In Epiphany 1735 Leonard’s wife, Elizabeth, gave information before a justice that during her husband’s recent sickness several items, namely a packsaddle, some girths, bags and a bridle, had been taken from a stable on their farmstead, and that she suspected one Charles Churchill or his wife of being the culprit. She claimed to have found some of these items in Churchill’s home and that he had given a spurious account of having received them by borrowing them from others.

In Midsummer 1736 John Gardiner of Ottery St Mary was presented for breaking and entering the dwelling of Mr Pocock, and Elizabeth and Sarah Taylor of the same parish were also presented for stealing from his land. All seems fairly quiet until Easter 1741 where, amongst other things, Pocock’s land was raided for wood and timber by various people in the locality, and Ann Clement of Ottery St Mary, Sarah Harris of the same parish, widow and Elizabeth Taylor of Taunton St Mary Magdalen in Somerset, were indicted for assault and battery on Elizabeth Pocock, Leonard’s wife. At the same time the Pococks were indicted for assaulting Ann Clement, who was the wife of Mr Henry Clemennt of the City of London, ‘haberdasher of small wares.’ Things were clearly becoming a bit more heated.

By Midsummer of the same year Elizabeth Taylor, who had now moved to Taunton in Somerset, was indicted for stealing a peck of beans from Pocock’s land. At the same time, John French of Ottery St Mary cut down an ash tree growing on Pocock’s land, too. Ann Clement (whose husband, interestingly, is this time given as Henry Clement of London, linen draper) was again indicted for stealing from the Pocock’s dwelling, and for attacking Pocock’s wife, and Leonard was indicted for retaliating in kind. Here’s where it gets a bit weird though. The Pococks were also both indicted at Midsummer 1741 Sessions for “unlawfully breaking and entering, using counterfeit keys and unlawful and private ways, into the dwelling of Samuel Stoddon, and for taking several chairs of the value of five shillings.”

Finally, the following year, Leonard was indicted for “in consideration of the sum of three guineas paid to him, obliterating the name of John Annear from a warrant for the arrest of John Annear, James Tozer and Peter Palmer, former officers of the parish of Kentisbeare” which had been issued to Pococke due to the failure of Annear, Tozer and Palmer to attend a previous sessions to present the accounts of the parish as directed, and to give the parish book of Kentisbeare as evidence in the case. What happened in this case is uncertain, in that there was no verdict recorded concerning it. Short of it having been tried at the Assizes or the charges having been dropped in documentation which didn’t survive, it’s unclear what happened to the Pococks in this case. But it’s certainly an interesting note to disappear on. A freeholders book for 1746 has been transcribed by a volunteer and Mr Pocock doesn’t appear at any point in the list for Ottery St Mary, so it’s possible that, at least by 1746, he’d died. A George Peacock, alias Poake, perhaps a relation, is listed as living in Kentisbear, however, and a William Pocock was a freeholder in Clayhidon at this time.

So what are we to make of the discord in Ottery St Mary? The Pococks clearly managed to stir up some opprobrium against them and it looks to have degenerated into something of a feud between themselves and a few particular individuals and their associates. The true ins and outs of it all will probably never be known to us but one thing I think it’s useful to bear in mind when piecing together a puzzle like this is that we’re looking at a point in time when land previously held in common was rapidly falling into the ownership of individuals as the manorial system gradually declined through changes in agricultural practice, and changing social trends. Was it the case that people had been used to using the resources growing on the Pocock’s land in recent years, and did Leonard and Elizabeth mark themselves out for opprobrium through overly-vigorous prosecution of infringements of their property rights?

It seems almost as though people began to make a point of breaking into their dwelling and of making petty thefts from their lands, and I can well imagine the kind of siege mentality that might have developed as a result. The Pococks themselves don’t seem to have been above a spot of breaking and entering of course, though how much was this a response to years of provocation? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were many other incidents between the Pococks and their neighbours that never reached court. The falsification of a writ, however, puts Leonard in a particularly interesting light. Although we don’t know for certain what happened regarding the allegation, he seems on the face of it to have been considered capable of petty corruption; did he have a reputation in the area for actions like this, and was he hated on these grounds? We’ll probably never know but they’re interesting questions to pose all the same.

So, if any of you are reading this from the pleasant environs of Ottery St Mary bear in mind that, for a brief period in the eighteenth century, your locality was the scene of something of a crime wave, and a seemingly vicious feud with more twists and turns than the plot of an episode of Midsomer Muders!

The laughing justice


A short update this week just to show you something we stumbled across in one of the boxes in the strongroom. One of the clerks had a bit of an artistic streak and tended to do little sketches on the reverse of the public orders, and sometimes coroners bills. I thought this example was pretty charming!

All the best folks and happy Easter!

Another Mystery Solved

It’s funny in life how one piece of research can suddenly spark off another and within the space of a week another major discovery about the Devon Quarter Sessions bundles has been made. Since the beginning of this cataloguing project, it’s been painfully apparent that a huge amount of the documentation relating to the Sessions bundles has been incredibly disordered, and arranging this material logically has taken a great deal of time and effort, and the assistance of a team of dedicated volunteers. Many of the boxes containing Sessions bundles are, before cataloguing, originally labelled thusly: “1742 Easter+Midsummer and loose.” The ‘and loose’ part of that label is the pertinent bit here. What it means in practice is that the box will usually contain several stacks of documentation more or less thrown together at random, often encompassing material spanning many different years and many different sessions. Witness statements for cases that were before the court several years ago survive alongside constables’ presentments for a completely different Session, for example….occasionally there are whole boxes of this material more or less thrown together at random.

What hasn’t been clear until now, however, is why this material is so disordered. In previous posts I’ve made various comments suggesting that at some point in this material’s custodial history the documents had clearly become disordered, but I’ve not really entertained much hope of discovering why during this year, suspecting that the reasons for the disorder might be lost in the mists of time, or might only re-emerge after considerably more research had been done.

Happily, however, a chance discovery while researching something entirely different has gone a long way to solving the mystery. In 1800, Parliament commissioned a Select Committee to make an enquiry into the state of the nation’s public records, (which itself created a report with the catchy title : “Reports from the Select Committee Appointed to Inquire into the State of the Public Records of the Kingdom, Etc”), and in an appendix to that report, the Clerks of the Peace of the various Counties of England and Wales gave brief answers to various questions posed about the records in their care. Devon’s Clerk of the Peace at the time was a chap called Richard Eales, junior, and he made some tantalising comments on pp266-267 of the Report regarding the manner in which the records had been kept up to 1800.

Previously to 1773 the Quarter Sessions material had been kept in the records room at the old castle in Exeter, but in 1773 the old castle was taken down, and the records that were held in the record room were ‘thrown together and I have from time to time since I became acquainted with the office (twenty four years) spent with the late clerk of the peace many months in arranging them in some order, and for one hundred and fifty years back the records are now pretty well arranged and deposited in large presses made for the purpose in the record room.”

It would seem then that this innocuous statement is the key to the mystery of the stacks of loose documents that survive with each of the Sessions rolls, and which are composed of such disorganised material. The material had been thrown together in complete confusion around 1773 and what we find in the boxes prior to cataloguing is the clerk’s best guess at restoring some order, done, it has to be said from the point of view of the archivist who inherited the situation, with varying degrees of success!

Eales was clearly a pragmatic sort and some of his other comments, particularly with regard to indexing the collection, are quite informative:
“I am of the opinion, that if the rolls were completely arranged and indexed, it would save great trouble to the clerk of the peace, as they could be sooner turned to and inspected, but I know of no other utility that could arise from it: the Trouble and Expenses attending from such an arrangement would be immense, and I could not undertake to do it, with an additional clerk, in less than twelve months.”

I have to admit to chuckling when I read the above. I wonder what he’d make of this twenty-first century cataloguing project, using electronic computers, cataloguing software, the Internet, IRIS machines for making faded ink as clear as day to the eye again, and all the modern research tools of our era? Food for thought, anyway!

What I like most about the above though is that it gives a satisfying sense of filling in some of the missing pieces about these records. Part of the point of this project is to help us to better understand the records being catalogued, and that includes the history of how the collection itself was kept by past generations. Now we have a very important piece of the puzzle, and can speak with more confidence about how the records came to be the way they are today, with all the challenges and charms they bring to present-day archivists and researchers.

The Mystery Bundle of Midsummer 1747

My last post was concerned with a mystery bundle of indictments tentatively termed a ‘process file’ which came complete with a mystery inscription and very little other indication of what it was and why it was in the Midsummer/Michaelmas 1747 box.

I’ve been doing research on this material to answer some questions about it in order to catalogue it, and I thought you’d like to know what I’ve uncovered so far. In Midsummer 1747, George II issued a free and general pardon and Act of Grace to forgive all treasonable offences and felonies committed against him during the Jacobite Rising of 1745 (where, briefly, it had looked as though his crown might’ve been in jeopardy as the pretender to the Scottish throne, Bonnie Prince Charlie stormed as far south as Worcester). You might expect, with some justification, that a pardon such as this would have had little, really, to do with the sorts of offences the Quarter Sessions dealt with, but apparently it was applied and interpreted very generally and very liberally indeed. Evidence from outside Devon, in the County of Middlesex, corroborates this, and shows this Act being plead to forgive an assault and battery case, for example.

This file seems to be composed of what had been, prior to the Act of 1747, ‘live’ outstanding indictments dating back as far as 1723. After the Act, which was applied from July 1747 (Midsummer Sessions) these indictments became spent. That this was the case is attested by two intriguing sets of records held under series QS/9 and QS/9A. These indices to process files, which reference one another and point to process notes about cases before the court, refer in some cases to the ‘Great Bundle’ and in one or two cases note on the front cover that “after the Act of Grace a new book was made for all offences committed after that time.” While I’ve not yet been able to use the indices to successfully search this particular mystery bundle, I’ve seen copious notes made to cases I’ve seen in previous cataloguing, and once I’ve catalogued this process file the ways in which the indices can be used to refer to the ‘mystery’ bundle will probably become a bit clearer.

So it’s been an interesting few days of delving in the archives and the mystery bundle is a mystery no longer! My own view then is that, rather than interpreting this bundle as being evidence that Devon was a seething hotbed of sedition in 1745, we should interpret things a lot more pragmatically. The offences being pardoned here have little or nothing to do with Jacobitism anyway after all, and it has to be borne in mind that this pardon applied everywhere, not just in Devon, and seems to have been liberally interpreted elsewhere too. This 1747 pardon was applied generally, in my view, not so much because Devon had been full of Jacobites who needed pardoning then, but more because there were a lot of outstanding indictments on the books and interpreting the pardon as liberally as possible was probably a pragmatic way of clearing them, as well as clearing the gaols, and freeing up the court’s time, attention and resources for more pressing matters than keeping an eye out for troublemakers who had so far evaded justice (for whatever reason) for minor and petty offences. Convictions in some of these cases, particularly the earlier ones from the 1720s, were probably a remote possibility by the late 1740s anyway; most of the persons involved had probably gone to their graves in the intervening decades. When you consider just how much business the courts had before them in other areas such as vagrancy and highways, the chance to clear the books in this area of the court’s business and start afresh may have been a welcome one.

So the process file full of outstanding material seems to have been deemed no longer relevant after 1747, and for whatever reason the clerks decided the best home for it was with the Sessions bundles. Did they try to place some of the indictments it contained back with their original material? Well, to be honest, I think they did. Because presentments and indictments had been a bit odd from 1743 onwards anyway, I’d started keeping a log of strange material that was appearing that seemed very out of place, and along with a number of the 1740s presentments and indictments, there has been, surprise surprise, 1720s material tacked on to the end of some of the batches of documentation. My thinking is that the clerks were trying to put some of these spent indictments back where they thought they should have been, perhaps made a bit of a hash of things and decided in the end to give up and leave the bundle be.

As with all things like this of course, research by others will no doubt help clarify things further. In the end, this all underlines why cataloguing is such an important task, because it’s the first step to making the material accessible to researchers, who will then be able to come to far more definite conclusions about it than I can with the limited time available to me. It’ll be interesting to see what gets turned up by future researchers, but, tentatively and at least in part, the ‘Mystery Bundle of 1747’ is a mystery no longer.

The Quirks of the Job, part II

Remember a month or so ago when I wrote a post stating that documentation from the 1740s, particularly the presentments and indictments, was getting a bit iffy? Presentments weren’t there when they should have been, material from decades earlier or later had been chucked in at some point in the past seemingly at random, and I speculated that somewhere there’d probably been a huge mix up with the documents and that perhaps some poor clerk had dropped a huge file of material on the floor?

Well it seems the clerks of three hundred years ago may have got just as puzzled as I did with it all and in the end they seem to have given up completely and left a mystery file with the Michaelmas 1747 Sessions bundle. Ladies and gentleman, I give you….THIS:


This is what is rather hopefully termed a ‘process file’, found in the Michaelmas 1747 box. The rear of the file has a wrapper with a somewhat cyptic inscription: ‘process file, home to ye pardon, M[ichaelmas] 1747.’ Indictments are present in the file ranging in date from Michaelmas 1747 back to 1723 (possibly earlier, I’m yet to catalogue it). Although loosely sorted into chronological order, the emphasis there is on the word ‘loosely’. There are 160 documents in this stack of parchment alone (just to put that into perspective, an average 18th-century Devon Quarter Sessions bundle has around 180 documents altogether!) and each of them has clearly been removed at some point from its original bundle (because many of them are marked with a former numbering system that doesn’t correlate to the documents around them) and slung together in one great mass of material.

A number of the 1740s bundles have seemed a little bit lacking in presentments and indictments given the amount of business attested to be before the court by the recognisances, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a large amount of that material has ended up here. There are also some notable cases that dropped off the radar that I’d assumed had ended up being tried before the Assizes (the records for which are in the Western Circuit papers at Kew). We never found out what happened to the wreckers of the Dutch Ship, for example. Were they dealt with by the Quarter Sessions after all, and are their presentments and indictments in here?  

No doubt this file will answer a lot of questions but it’ll also pose many new ones, chief among them being, why did the indictments never get placed back with their original material? Clearly there was a purpose to pulling all of this material out, and it seems that in many cases referred to in this file, defedants appeared many years after the original indictment was made, and submitted to justice, indicating that perhaps this file was originally for ‘open’ cases that had yet to be concluded. However, defendants appearing some time after originally indicted, often many years later, as is happening very often in this file, isn’t something that’s unique to this file. In fact, this happens all the time with presentments and indictments in the main Sessions bundles, and usually the indictment remains in the bundle relating to the date when the offence and trial were finally concluded.

For some reason then these indictments were all treated differently, and for some reason, in 1747, this ended. Did the clerks switch over to a new system of filing indictments treated in this way? And why, if they ended the file in Michaelmas 1747, did they not return the documents to their original contexts? Was it perhaps too much of a job? Or, did they start and then give up? I’ve been finding 1720s material in some of the 1740s bundles, seemingly at random, and perhaps this is evidence of the clerks attempting to return some of this material to where they thought it belonged. Perhaps, in the end, the clerks decided it’d be best to leave the file along with the Sessions bundle which related to the latest material contained within it, and start a new file. It seems odd though that they didn’t decide to keep this process file separately to the Sessions bundles, since there was clearly, at some point, a logic to separating this material out from them.

All in all, the reasons as to why this file of material ended up in the Michaelmas 1747 Sessions bundle box are puzzling. The material contained in this file spans well over two decades of legal material, however, and returning all of the indictments to their original bundles would certainly have been a formidable task. For whatever reason the file was left in the Michaelmas 1747 box, waiting to be discovered, and now comes the challenge of cataloguing it.

Cataloguing this material is going to be a very painstaking business. All records will have to be cross-referenced as far as possible, and for each session for which out of sequence material survives in this bundle, notes will have to be made and placed within the boxes on the shelves in the strong room going back as far as the 1720s to ensure that future researchers are made aware that material pertinent to their research survives, of all places, in the Michaelmas 1747 box.

I’ve catalogued around 10,000 documents now and this discovery underlines another important point: no matter how much experience you gain with this material there’ll always be something new and unexpected to discover. And in the end, that’s what makes a job like this such good fun, really!

Ten Green Bottles….

If there’s one thing I’ve learned while doing this job it’s that the inhabitants of eighteenth century Devon (and eighteenth century anywhere, I expect!) liked a good drink, so it’ll be no surprise that alcohol features fairly prominently in the records in one guise or another. We’ve already seen, after all, that if you fling an otherwise perfectly serviceable ship full of wine towards the 1730s Devon coastline these friendly folks will extend a permanent axe-and-hatchet invite to the ship and crew and start the celebrations on the beach.

A search for the word ‘cider’ on the catalogue at present yields 39 hits, not bad for a generally mundane keyword. Some of these hits are to do with fairly straightforward, open and shut cases, like for example the presentment of John Ellis of West Allington, labourer, for breaking open the cider cellar of William Gilbert, gentleman, and taking half a hogshead of cider (QS/4/1745/MICHAELMAS/PR/33).

On other occasions though the crime committed or recorded is a little bit more complex, such as the record for the presentment against John and Susannah Browning and Edward Tolley John Lock James Hill and Lawrence Luxton of Drewsteignton and John Croot of South Tawton, who were accused of turning Joan Browning of Drewsteignton, widow, out of her home and assaulting her and keeping her out of the property (QS/4/1744/Easter/PR/29). Although the following section of the document, listing the goods they took out of the building, is recorded as though it were a burglary, it looks as though this was some form of bungled eviction or property dispute that hasn’t been resolved according to the letter of the law, and hence the events have been recorded on the indictment as full criminal offences. What’s interesting for our purposes however is the list of property taken from the premises, including “one half hogshead, five barrels, twenty gallons of ale, [and] five gallons of vinegar [and] five gallons of cider.” It looks to me as though Mrs Browning might’ve been running an inn of some kind, though the building isn’t recorded as such and it may have been one of the many such premises around at the time that seem pretty much to have been run out of somebody’s front room (more on that later).

For William Yelland of Sampford Courtenay, John Netherburne James Newcombe George Lamphye Robert Welland Thomas Estabrook Richard Medland Robert Earle and Edward Rowe, cider was apparently just an incidental detail. These fellows were accused of breaking down the cob walls of the dwelling of William Bellamy at Exbourne and assaulting his wife, destroying “the plancheon and stairs” of the dwelling and, for good measure, smashing twelve bottles of cider of the value of four shillings. QS/4/1745/MICHAELMAS/PR/32.

Then of course you’ve got the folks who keep their premises open during the hours of divine service. Sometimes in these kinds of cases it doesn’t seem as though inns are involved at all. In 1742 Abraham Addicott of Halberton, labourer, was presented for being a ‘prophaner of the Sabbath’ and for ‘on the pretence of giving cider to various of his majesty’s subjects, enticing Bartholemew Martin of Sampford Peverell, cordwainer and James Pring of Halberton carpenter and a great many others to come to his dwelling and tipple during the hours of Divine Service celebrated in the parish church of Halberton.’ Mr Addicoott appears to have been a serial offender in this regard, having been presented for the same offence in 1737. (QS/4/1737/Midsummer/PR/44).

Besides cider, eighteenth century Devonians also seem to have been partial to October beer, perhaps a taste acquired in the county through its pronounced maritime links with Germany and the Low Countries. So far there have been no references to gin in the records but given that this was an eighteenth century staple (for the higher orders, at least) it’s reasonable to assume the county would have been awash with it in places.

What isn’t recorded, sadly, is the number of crimes carried out in a state of inebriation by the defendants. I’m assuming that in many cases the various brawls and assaults may have been fuelled by drink but there’s no way to be completely sure since this information isn’t usually recorded in the documents. If I do find any particularly colourful drinking episodes recorded in the documents, I’ll let you know.

On that note, have a great weekend.

Spare a thought….

….as you pass through the area of Exeter known as St Thomas, as this is where the debtor’s prison stood.

Now the site of Cowick Motors, the debtor’s prison once had a fearsome reputation, as the records of the Quarter Sessions show. During the period I’m cataloguing, imprisonment for debt was a common occurence, and bearing in mind that you had to pay your court fees and, generally pay for your upkeep while imprisoned, this created a situation whereby people imprisoned for debt could remain in the debtor’s prison for many years, and even die there.

The failure of logic behind this system is very apparent to modern eyes; by remaining imprisoned a person lacked the means to earn a living, or a profit, from which to extricate themselves from their indebtedness, yet it seems that the logical absurdity of the practice of locking up debtors took a long while to dawn on society at large. That a problem was at least recognised was apparent in the various periodic Acts for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors, through which means persons confined for debt (often termed ‘prisoners of the sheriff’s ward) could apply to have their petitions heard, and their creditors could apply to the clerk of the peace for an assignment of their estate to offset their losses. After having followed due procedure a debtor would then, in theory, be eligible to leave the place of confinement. It seems however that there were many Acts passed for this purpose, indicating that they only applied in certain circumstances, to people who had been confined at certain times, so it doesn’t seem as though everybody could apply at once for their (eventual) release. Even for those who did apply, it could still take a considerable period of time for the petition to be heard, for the creditors to make their applications, and for the unfortunate debtor to be released.

The plight of those confined to the sheriff’s ward is ably demonstrated in a document dated 25 May 1744, reference QS/4/1744/Midsummer/NO/4. This document is a petition made by a certain Mr Andrew Pime, formerly of Westleigh, imprisoned in St Thomas’ gaol at the suit of a Mr Charles Cutcliffe of Bideford. In the course of explaining his plight to the court he notes that he has been imprisoned there for over three years, and ends his missive: “pray sir be my frend [sic] in this case or els [sic] I shall never be able to get out of this miserable place.” 

In this day and age, where most people have an overdraft, it seems a very strange idea that being indebted to somebody could lead to a term of indefinite imprisonment, but this was sadly the way of things in the eighteenth century. That’s bad enough on its own, of course, but when you take into account the state of eighteenth century gaols, and the frequent outbreaks of epidemic disease in the unsavoury conditions that prevailed within these terrible buildings, imprisonment for debt could often turn into a death sentence in its own right. So next time you’re wandering about in Exeter and you happen to find yourself in St Thomas, spare a thought for poor Mr Pime and the countless others like him.

The world beneath our feet….

I’ve been working with eighteenth century records on a daily basis for six months now, and as would be the case with any experience in life, this experience has added another layer to the way in which I look at the world around me. Walking out to Topsham over the weekend my eye was drawn to the eighteenth century buildings first; walking through Exeter the eye becomes attuned to details in the buildings that perhaps others might not have noticed. Gandy Street, where we know that John Fortescue, Deputy Clerk of the Peace had an office, and to which a great deal of Sessions documentation would have been sent, still preserves a great deal of its historical charm, and of course there are still traces of the earlier, medieval layout of Exeter throughout the city too.

Modern archives, (take a modern record office, for example) can hold collections that can cover an absolutely enormous range of subjects. From the records of local government (an exhaustive topic in itself), to local maps and plans, the records of local businesses and industries, diocesan records, estate collections…..the list is almost endless. An archivist needs to have a good working knowledge of all of these things in order to help answer enquiries by the public. It follows, then, that an archivist needs to have an enquiring mind, and to keep asking questions.

Not every question can be answered, of course, and often documents throw more questions out than they answer. There are an enormous number of questions that strike me as I work with this collection which I know I’m never realistically going to be able to answer by myself, and which I’m hoping to speak about at a talk later this year. Hopefully, the catalogue will provide the means for others to research this collection effectively in the long-term, and so answer many of these questions in time; and if this proves to be the case, it’ll be very satisfying to know that the catalogue has served one of its intended purposes.

Archives, then, in a sense, serve both to answer questions, and present new ones. Archives aren’t always the start of the questions, of course. It never ceases to amaze me just how close to the surface of every day life our history, the world of our ancestors, and the beginning of the next set of questions can lie. Recently I’ve been reading W.G. Hoskins’ excellent book ‘Fieldwork in Local History,’ which emphasises this point very well. In the book he details how mapwork, fieldwork, and diligent research at the archive can uncover histories of a given parish or place in ways that might not at first seem obvious, even to the veteran researcher. Just to take an example, Hoskins notes how the construction ‘Barton’ in a place name in the South West often denotes that the area of land at one time formed part of the demesne, or home farm of the manor. Hedgerows running unbroken for long stretches across the landscape, in certain parts of the United Kingdom, often follow the lines of ancient parish boundaries, and Hoskins even gives details of how to date a hedgerow by the number of different species of plant surviving in it. It’s a brilliant book, and well worth a read, and I’ll be willing to bet good money that if you do, you’ll end up pondering over the local maps for hours!

But what it highlights to me is something that I’ve long felt; that we move through a world filled in a sense with ghosts of the past. Beneath our feet in the fields and on the moors, within our towns and settlements, lie the settlements and traces of our ancestors. Exeter, known by the Roman name Isca, is a long-settled place, and the area around Exeter had been inhabited for many thousands of years before the Romans arrived. By the period of time covered in the documents I’m cataloguing, people had been living and working in Devon for thousands of years, and questions about those inhabitants of Devon can be prompted as much by a walk down the street or a glance at the map than by a diligent search of an internet search engine.

Even with questions which originated outside the archive, the archive then becomes the hub, or engine of the question since the question leads ultimately back into the archive and its records. How old is that cottage on the way towards that village? It looks eighteenth century, but is it? That patch of land marked on the map as ‘Fortescue’; which branch of the Fortescue family did it belong to, and what was it used for? When does that bridge date to, and can its construction be traced? Is the path I’m walking more ancient than it appears at first, and what was its original purpose? Besides being fun in its own right, asking and answering questions like this is part, I think, of developing the skills of an archivist. If I’ve gone down a route of enquiry myself, after all, it’ll be easier to point others in the same direction.


The archivist as a signpost to future researchers. I like that idea.