Cataloguing update: The Documents II: Highways, Discharge Papers and Informations and Examinations

Highways material (category ‘HI’) is probably the next most numerous class of documentation, and is composed generally of highway repair orders, orders for the repairs of bridges, and certificates that they’ve been repaired after inspection by one of the County’s surveyors. Notices that a parish has been presented because the highways are unusable frequently survive, as do all manner of supporting documentation. For anybody interested in the development of the road network within the County, the state of the County’s bridges or eighteenth century civil administration in general, these documents are a must-see. Within the documentation there are often estimates for the cost to repair or rebuild given bridges; an estimate for the construction of a new bridge in Topsham indicated a cost of £300, (£25,749 in 2005 money, according to TNA’s currency calculator!).


Discharges (Category ‘DI’) are documents detailing the discharge of persons from recognisances, or from duties or offices that had been assigned by the court. The eighteenth century justices system was one of private prosecutions pursued by private individuals. It may be that two aggrieved parties reached a settlement out of court, and the complainant would write to the justices to ask that the charges against the defendant be dropped and that he or she be released from his or her recognisance. Requests for discharge from offices are relatively uncommon though, for example, in Michaelmas 1734 Henry Butson requested discharge from his office of constable of the hundred of East Budleigh on the grounds of his deafness (QS/4/1734/Michaelmas/DI/3). Requests for discharge from jury service are rather more common and some of the excuses proffered can be quite interesting.


No doubt there were frequently valid reasons for absence though the veracity of the sudden appearance of health complaints might be difficult to prove….and for the Epiphany Sessions 1737/8 on 9 January 1738, Robert Colman requested that he be excused from attendance at the court because ‘the undersherrif hath issued out a warrant against me and designs to have me took to the Castle at the castle if I appear, for that reason I humbly desire to be excused this time and the next assizes I design to take off the indictment’. (QS/4/1738/Epiphany/DI/5) What the justices made of that one is anybody’s guess!


Informations and Examinations (category ‘EX’) are some of the most interesting documents in the sessions bundles. Informations are effectively the witness statements given by persons purpoting to have witnessed a crime or event with which the court is interested. Examinations are the results of questioning of the accused. Frequently these documents provide fascinating detail and they are well worth a ready; for reasons of speed and brevity of cataloguing I often tend to simply give the names of the persons giving the information and perhaps the alleged offence to which they are related, but for particularly out of the ordinary cases or events I will often give a more detailed description. One fascinating document I unearthed the other day was the examination of one James Matthews, (QS/4/1738/Epiphany/EX/3) in which he seems to have recounted his life story, including his birth in Dublin, his moving to Spittalfields in London for five years, his settling down and starting a family in Gloucester, his work on the Bristol-Ireland shipping routes and a journey to the West Indies aboard a vessel from Ireland. Finally he details the wrecking of his vessel and how he came to be landed from the wreck in Cornwall, and maintains that on 4 April 1737, near Caraline Bay Bar (where he was shipwrecked) he was struck blind by lightening. I’m yet to determine where ‘Caraline Bay Bar’ is, so if anyone out there has more information I’d love to hear from you, but the detailed first-hand account of this shipwreck, just one of the shipwrecks I’ve uncovered in the documentation, is fascinating. I have further documentation about another shipwreck emerging from the ‘EX’ class of documents for the bundle I’m currently working on at the moment, so stay tuned!


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