Cataloguing update: The Documents I: Recognisances, Presentments and Indictments

Good morning everyone! As promised, this week’s first update will be dealing with the subject of what documents tend to appear in the Quarter Sessions bundles, and how they can be used. I’ll also be mentioning some of the more unusual ‘one-offs’ that I’ve found so far as well!

I say first update for the week because I’ve been away on leave so I’ll be treating you to an extra update to make up for it; and it’ll be an update with a decidedly nautical theme so if ships and shipwrecks are your thing, stay tuned!

But first, on to the documents. There are a good many of main types of documents, and I’m going to detail some of these in separate posts for easier reference.

Recognisances (category ‘RE’)Probably the most numerous document of which the rolls are composed is the ‘recognisance’ (catalogued under my scheme as ‘RE’). These documents are effectively a bond for the appearance of an individual in court at the following sessions. They come in two main varieties, recognisances for people accused of crimes, and recognisances for witnesses. In general, an accused person (or sometimes several accused people) will be the first named person on the document, and they will be bound in a certain amount of money for their appearance. Usually, other people, often related or tradesmen in a similar or related profession, stand as sureties, usually bound in a lesser amount.

The amounts by which persons are bound vary, but they are frequently over ten or twenty pounds, (which was an impossible figure for most people to pay) thus ensuring most people would simply have no choice but to turn up to court at the next sessions. Sometimes, the primary person on the bond is not the accused, but a relative, often a spouse. Often, though not always, details of the offence are given; frequently an individual is bound to appear ‘to answer for such things as he stands indicted by Nathaniell Drake of Crediton concerning an assault and battery” for example.

Often individuals are ‘bound over’ to keep the peace towards a certain person, or ‘to be of good behaviour’ for a set period. These kinds of agreements were a useful method of keeping a lid on disputes between quarrelling individuals until tensions cooled, and if the dispute continued the individuals concerned could be held to account for failing to keep the peace that they had agreed to uphold.

The other kind of recognisance which tends to appear, usually bundled separately to the main bundle, is the group of recognisances for witnesses. These oblige persons to present their evidence against the accused, and otherwise tend to follow a similar format to the first kind of recognisance, though I have found that in general there are rarely sureties asked; frequently only one individual is named and made to put up security for their attendance in court at the next session.

So why are recognisances useful? Well, not only do they give names and often help point out the familial relations between individuals, but they also usually (though not always) give professions of the named individuals, and there are a huge variety of professions appearing already. Peruke makers, periwig makers, clockmakers, tailors, husbandmen, yeomen, sergeweavers, worsted combers, blacksmiths, butchers, white bakers, to name but a few….yesterday I even had a ‘haberdasher of hats’ appear in my records!

For a family historian, or a historian of labour, the 18th century economy, social historians to name but a few, these are extremely useful details. They help to give an impression of the variety of occupations that existed and whereabouts they were found, and they frequently demonstrate families either in the same or related occupations. They can help to pinpoint what exactly it was that your ancestor did professionally, and firm details of that kind of information is not always easy to come by in family history research.

Presentments and Indictments (category ‘PR’). The next extremely important document to consider is the ‘presentment’ so called because, as the document is worded, the jurors ‘present that [ Joe Bloggs ] did X at X place’ and give details of the allegation being investigated. Presentments are classed under my catalogue as ‘PR’ and this category also covers indictments. Presentments are the first stage of a formal accusation. In general, if the jurors decided that there was indeed a case to be answered, they would endorse the document as a ‘true bill’ in which case the presentment became a formal indictment. For whatever reason this rule is not always followed hard and fast; the presentments for which ‘no bill’ was found tend to be bound together, but within those that a true bill was found for, there are often documents that aren’t endorsed either way. Villiage and hundred constables could also present persons to the court, and constables presentments, or returns of constables of the hundreds which document that they have nothing to present, are also catalogued with the main sequence ofp resentments, as are Grand Jury and Petty Jury presentments.

In one of those cases where archival documents might fit comfortably into two categories (thus providing headaches for the archivist!) towns and parishes were frequnently presented for failing to repair their highways. These presentments are usually bound up with the ‘criminal’ presentments and have been catalogued accordingly, but the rest of the documentation about the highways, including the orders for the repair of a given road or bridge, and the notice sent by the court to the parish that they had been presented at the sessions, are catalogued under my broad ‘highways’ category, HI.

Presentments are fantastic documents, and one of my favourites. Not only do they give frequently intricate detail about an offence, such as ‘QS/4/1738/Michaelmas/PR/10’ which documents an assault on a justice, and exactly what words were said by the defendant whilst carrying out the assault, for example. They are also one of the classes of documents that betray the Quarter Sessions’ medieval roots. The standard formula of words for an accused person is that they ‘with force of arms and bows and arrows at X place did X’. The ‘force of arms and bows and arrows’ bit is, by the eighteenth century, a standard legal form of words that had been used since time out of mind and isn’t to be taken literally, but it derives ultimately from the time when disputes really were settled in that manner, by the great landowners, at least. As such they are in effect a meaningless pomposity at this stage which help to give an unintentionally ridiculous air at times to allegations; the denizens of eighteenth century Devon are portrayed as stealing cider or legs of lamb ‘with force of arms and bows and arrows.’

Presentments, then are the bread and butter of the Quarter Sessions bundles, and as you can imagine I always look forward to cataloguing them. There’s always an interesting case or two which are out of the ordinary; this week alone I’ve had several cases of assault and battery on a justice of the peace, theft of beehives, theft of ten gallons of cider, and a bull chase through the streets of Newton Abbot! In one particular document a burglary was presented, and all of the stolen goods listed ,which effectively detailed absolutely everything the unfortunate victims owned. For many kinds of research this sort of detail is essential, since it clearly documents the standard of living of a section of society, and the kinds of goods and luxuries they had access to. Through the presentments I’ve been able to glean details of eighteenth century pastimes, the types of goods on sale to people, I’ve viewed petty rivalries and fallings out between professionals (such as the assorted shoemakers who cut up Squire Smith’s display of shoes at the open fair in Crediton, see QS/4/1738/Epiphany/PR/48), and much more besides. They offer a fascinating view into the lives and pre-occupations of the eighteenth century, and they’re a joy to work with.


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