Apprenticeship material (category ‘AP’) documents apprenticeship indentures created or discharged by the court in session. Usually (though not always) a poor child of a parish, being maintained through the parish poor rate, is placed by the churchwardens and overseers of the poor of the parish with a person in the community who takes them on as an apprentice and undertakes to teach them their trade. The potential flaws in such a system can probably be guessed at, and there are frequent cases brought before the courts by apprentices who claim that their masters have failed to feed or clothe them adequately, or have beaten them to excess, and instances of apprentices running away from their masters are not uncommon. In one notable case the apprenticeship of Joseph Hendy of Plympstock to Edmond Ley, a yeoman of the same parish, was discharged because Ley was not only violent and abusive towards Hendy, but he also ‘went about with pistol and sword, asking Hendy to supply him with powder and shot and threatening to kill him’ if he refused. (QS/4/1734/Epiphany/AP/8). Running away from one’s master, of course, was no small matter, and could have dire consequences. In 1738 Philip Edbury of Crediton was presented for harbouring and entertaining his daughter, Anne, who had run away from her master, James Reed junior. Reed had it proclaimed by the town crier that Anne had left his service without permission and that no-one was to entertain or harbour her. The reasons for Anne’s fleeing her master can only be guessed at but the efforts of her family to come to her assistance resulted in criminal proceedings.
Convictions (category ‘CO’) are not what they might appear at first glance. Usually only a small number of these documents are found in a bundle if at all, and they are not notices of conviction as we might more widely understand them today. Instead, they document convictions for profanity or the swearing of oaths, for which the convicted might be fined a certain amount to be contributed to the upkeep of the poor of the parish where the offence took place. More details of the offence, such as where and when it occurred, if it happened on a Sabbath or during the hours of divine service are given at times. These are interesting little documents, which together with presentments for disorderly alehouses which permitted tippling on a Sabbath, or presentments for working or carry on a trade on a Sabbath or during the hours of divine service, help to demonstrate a society that was still very much upholding the ordering of society by norms of expected religious observance.
Rates (category ‘RA’) One of the duties of the Quarter Sessions, as we have seen, was to conduct civil administration, and there were several rates which it was the duty of the jurors of the Quarter Sessions to establish during the sessions. These rates were the rates of the price of corn, rates for the price of land carriage, and rates of wages, which quite literally dictated how much an individual in a given trade was permitted to earn. For a historian or researcher of the economy these documents should be particularly interesting but they also have important social implications too, because they demonstrate the extent to which the economy and, by extension, the standard of living of persons within the various strata of society was governed and administered centrally. They are demonstrative of attempts to regulate the economy but also by extension to maintain a social order.
Notices and General Administration (Category ‘NO’). It’s something of an in-joke within the archive profession that archivists aren’t meant to create a ‘miscellaneous’ category….but within the Quarter Sessions bundles there are certainly plenty of documents that appear as ‘one-offs’ and don’t have a category of their own into which they can easily be placed. Where, for example, should one place a document detailing an order of the Privy Council to transport mariners to the Royal Navy’s dockyards on the south coast for impressments into the Navy? (QS/4/1734/Easter/NO/2). What about the printer’s bills for the books of statutes, and the calendar of clerk’s fees? This category serves to bring together all such kinds of general administrative documentation with which the court was presented. Within it, you’ll find the occasional heart-rending petition, such as that for the various prisoners languishing in Exeter’s County jail in 1738 who had been sentenced to transportation, some of them many sessions ago. Such prisoners were entitled to an allowance paid by the sheriff for their upkeep while awaiting transportation, yet for seven weeks the allowance had not been paid, leaving the prisoners on the brink of starvation. (QS/4/1738/Michaelmas/NO/4).
Likewise, in pursuance of an act for the release of insolvent debtors, an individual in the County jail imprisoned for debt applied to be relieved at the Michaelmas Sessions. In order to do this a formal notice had to be published, and as a result, a copy of the London Gazette for August 1738 with the appropriate notice survives in the Michaelmas 1738 bundle, which besides other things, documents a battle between the Russians and Turks in the Russo-Turkish war of 1736-9. At first glance you might mistake this document for a relatively modern newspaper, and once again, its survival in the bundles gives another interesting ‘one off’ that adds a real flavour to the overall material.
So, last few posts are a general breakdown of most of what you’ll tend to find in the Quarter Sessions bundles. There are other classes of document such as ‘bastardy bonds’ settlement and removal orders, and gaol calendars to name but a few, which are being dealt with a little differently and I’ll come to those in a future update (I think I’ve probably given you enough to plough through for now!). But hopefully today’s set of updates will help to give anyone interested in consulting this material something of a flavour of what can be found and how it might help their research, as well as an indication of just how varied and interesting the world of the Courts of Quarter Sessions, by virtue of their wide remit, could be.
As you can probably tell from the above, working with this material is absolutely brilliant; you can never tell from one day to the next what strange and wonderful, quirky or downright odd details might emerge amongst all of the otherwise relatively routine of the court’s business. If there’s one thing for sure though it’s that there’s never a dull moment with the Quarter Sessions!