18th century trades…

Found in one of the Quarter Sessions bundles and looks to be the genuine 18th century article, made of linen and hand-stitched!

Above, well, (if it displays above!) is an eighteenth century linnen ribbon, found in the bundles and used to tie them together. Hand-made and stitched, it is a fine example of eightennth-century textile workmanship, and examples of material of this kind come out of the records every now and again, having remained in the bundles for three centuries, to all intents and purposes untouched by human hand for all that time.

Clearly, someone, somewhere, was making linen items that were being supplied to the court, but the court had other suppliers too. Perhaps the most prolific is Mr Score, a printer who supplied the updated statutes to the Sessions, printed tables of clerk’s fees and conducted other printing work for the justices of the peace. His trade was lucrative and the income regular; accounts material, where it survives in the bundles, almost always includes items concerning Mr Score’s bill. Things like this, as you catalogue, become little familiarities you look forward to encountering again, little reminders that behind the drama and often crushing social injustices that the Quarter Sessions highlight so vividly, life was continuing as normal for many, and the routines of life were continuing as they had done for centuries previously. Masons worked on the castles and brideswells, glaziers repaired damaged windows, carpenters outfitted the court chambers, and created beautifully-carved mahogany seats with sumptous crimson damask cushions for the justices to be seated on. The bills for these tradesmen’s work survive, often giving precise detail as to when the work was completed; I’m yet to discover whether the seats I’ve mentioned here survive in the castle, but if I find at some point that they do, I’ll let you know.

Beyond the trades supporting and supplying the Quarter Sessions, of course, the community was full of other tradesmen and artisans. Britain was not yet fully industrialised of course, but the first stirrings of industry were soon to make themselves felt. The Industrial Revolution, when it finally arrived in earnest, didn’t arrive in a vacuum. Britain, as with every other nation, was a land populated by craftsmen and tradesmen in addition to those working the land as their forbears had done for generations. The Quarter Sessions records give quite a good indication of just how many craftsmen and tradesmen there were operating in society, and the sheer range of occupations undertaken by them, since in the vast majority of recognisances and a good many presentments, the occupations of those named in the documents tend to be given. There were soap boilers, perriwig makers, clock makers, masons, glaziers, tailors, mariners,  brewers, innkeepers, cordwainers, sergeweavers, weavers, woolcombers, bricklayers, apothercaries, surgeons, barbers, hotpresters, shopkeepers, and the wonderfully titled ‘haberdasher of hats’ to name just a few.

As with many things I find when cataloguing these records, there’s an interesting project in there for any reasearcher bold enought to attempt it: wouldn’t it be interesting to collate all these various trades and professions, quantify them in terms of numbers for each trade over a given period, and build up a picture of their distribution throughout the County, using the records of the Quarter Sessions? Well, it’s a thought, anyway!


“Where is the black bull? Where is the black bull?” Or, The Ragdoll Effigy of Aveton Gifford….

Something came up in the Quarter Sessions cataloguing today that can only be described as weird. At the midsummer sessions 1739 most of the inhabitants of Aveton Gifford were presented for rioutous assembly with over a hundred other people unknown to the jurors. They had apparently gathered outside the home of one Charles Jones, gentleman in Aveton Gifford, and were indicted for making an assault on his wife, Mary. That would be a bit unusual in itself, but the assault isn’t all they were indicted for, because here’s where it all gets a bit Wicker Man….

The crowd all had blackened and disguised faces, and ran up and down asking Charles Jones ‘where is the black bull?’ Two of the crowd, John Macy and Jon Pinwell, were riding back to back on an ass, dressed in ‘ludicrous and antic’ costume and wearing habits, and the crowd carried a large pan filled with rams horns with tips of gold, adorned with flowers, and a mock child made of rags and other materials. There they remained for the space of five hours, throwing lighted squibs, beating drums, winding hunting horns, reading ‘scandalous and libellous papers’ and ‘making loud huzzars, hellooes, terrible noises and outcryes, issuing scandalous, injurious and reflective speeches and menaces, contemptuous and immodest jokes and derisions and other wicked and indecent and ludicrous gestures and behaviour.’

Pretty weird! So what was going on? My first thought, given the midsummer date, the motifs of the ram’s horns adorned with flowers, the questioning about the bull and the mock child made of rags was that this was some sort of annual village midsummer festival held as a propitiation for a good harvest that had got out of hand, and that perhaps Charles Jones had denied the villagers the use of his bull for the celebrations that year, so that perhaps they’d decided to hold the festival on his doorstep, pointedly. The motifs involved are all commonly associated with pagan fertility rituals and ideas, and are often part of the ancient origins of celebrations that became, eventually, some of the more unusual village festivals held today in peaceful hamlets up and down the country.

But what might be more likely is that this is a very graphic description of a bone fide Skimmington Ride, a practice which was apparently common in the West Country, and occurred in various forms in other parts of the country and is depicted by Thomas Hardy, among others. A ‘Skimmington Ride’ usually involved the local community gathering together to express their disapproval of a moral failing in the community, frequently involving husbands being cuckolded by their wives, and often took the form of a procession with many of the elements described here, sometimes with a very pointed stop on the doorstep of the person at which the procession was aimed. Apparently the targets of such events were often forced to join in the festivities. Had Mary Jones caused scandal and outrage by becoming pregnant with another man’s child? Was that perhaps the reason for the mock child made of rags? Or was there some other motivation for the gathering?

As with many things that come up at random in the Quarter Sessions material these events leave more questions than answers. I can tell you that uniquely so far in my cataloguing, this case was taken to a higher court by those being prosecuted, who secured a writ of certiorari to have the Quarter Sessions’ verdicts reviewed. But before I head off for the weekend and go and buy a copy of The Wicker Man, spare a thought for the poor Jones family.

There you are in eighteenth century rural Devon, with no electric lighting, no phones, no police force, and a torchlit procession gathers outside your house. Through the flickering light of the torches you can make out two men in grotesque costume, and the whole village with disguised faces crying out ‘where is the black bull?.’ Dimly, you can see something being carried by the crowd….is that….yes, that’s an effigy of a child, and someone’s holding a pan with ram’s horns dipped with gold…..the air is abuzz with the sound of hunting horns, drums and revelry, revelry with a very pointed edge.

Whatever the Jones’ offence, or perceived offence had been, the message, dressed up in festivities as it might have been, was clear: ‘we know, and we don’t approve of you, whatever convention says has to be said and done the rest of the time. We don’t approve, and we’re just letting you know, so you don’t ever forget.’

Freaked out much? So was I when I read the document!

And with that, I’m off to watch the Wicker Man and feel glad that I don’t live in 1739, have a great weekend!

The Strange and the wonderful, part II

As promised last week my update this week is to do with some of the more unusual things I’ve discovered while cataloguing this collection. One of the great things about the Quarter Sessions records are that extremely colourful snapshots of eighteenth century life can be gleaned from many of the events described.


This was a world in which scientific understanding was yet to pierce the veil of mystery that surrounded many of the more unusual or extraordinary occurrences that might befall a person, and something of that mystery clings to an unusual examination of a defendant, James Matthews from Epiphany 1738. In this examination Matthews, an Irishman originally from Dublin, pretty much gives his life story to the justices of the peace who are questioning him, and documents the various voyages he has undertaken, both on the Bristol Channel-Ireland run and much further afield, including the West Indies. His final voyage saw him shipwrecked at a place given in the document as ‘Caraline Bay Bar’ and Matthews, one of only 11 survivors of a crew of 34, was rescued and taken ashore at a place given as ‘Whitsun Bay’ near Penzance, Cornwall. Whether this is the bay now known as Whitsand Bay is unclear. A shipwreck, as you might have gathered, always tends to pique my interest, but Matthews went further, claiming that at some point in time close to the shipwreck, on 4 April 1737, he was struck blind by lightening, and claimed still to be blind many months later when giving his deposition.

It’s one of the great joys of working with this material to absorb the intricate details of the eighteenth century world conveyed in the documents. Presentments and recognisances detailing offences to do with the theft and chasing of bulls occur in the documents almost yearly and generally seem to detail that bull running took place particularly in Newton Abbot in the summer months. It seems often that a group of local tradesmen from the town would band together and ‘borrow’ a bull belonging to a local yeoman or landowner, and chase it with dogs through the streets of the town. This was all highly illegal of course, but besides the aggrieved owner of the bull in question (and, presumably, the bull!) the townsfolk seem to have enjoyed themselves and as far as can be discerned actively joined in the proceedings.

The eighteenth century world, just like our own, was one of capital and business, and the range of occupations undertaken by persons whose names occur in the documents is often quite surprising. In 1737 there seems to have been a major falling out between the shoemakers of Crediton and one Squire Smith. The details of what the dispute was about aren’t clear, but what is clear is that at the open fair in Crediton that year, several shoemakers stole shoes from Squire Smith’s stall, and cut them to pieces. Squire Smith, as can be imagined, was not best pleased, and had the offending shoemakers presented at the Epiphany sessions, 1738.

Eighteenth century Devon, like all parts of the UK in this period, suffered periodic outbreaks of epidemic disease. So it is that at the Michaelmas Sessions 1736 a Mr John Staple wrote to John Fortescue, deputy clerk of the peace, to ask that he be excused from the sessions due to the recent smallpox outbreak. At the same sessions a doctor presented a bill for treatment of the prisoners in the county gaol, indicating that the prisoners were probably suffering as badly, if not worse, as the rest of the population outside.

Prison conditions in eighteenth century Britain were, frankly, appalling, without epidemic disease to contend with. Just how appalling they were however can be gleaned from a petition sent to the justices of the peace from the prisoners in the county gaol, Michaelmas 1738. The prisoners in question were all convicts awaiting transport to the New World for having committed various thefts, and I know from previous cataloguing that several had been in the prison for a considerable period at this point. The prisoners state that the sheriff, who usually paid them an allowance for their subsistence while awaiting transport, had not done so for seven weeks, as a result of which they were quite literally starving to death.

It was not until much later, in the nineteenth century, that movements for prison reform really started to gather momentum, and it was largely in response to events such as these and the continual threat of epidemic diseases faced by the prisoners in cramped, unsanitary gaols which gave rise to calls for reform. Getting convicted in the eighteenth century world might, to modern eyes, seem bad enough on its own, but even being convicted of a non-capital offence was no guarantee that you’d live long enough to be released, or even to stand trial.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about some of the more off-beat and unusual Quarter Sessions records this week, and have a brilliant weekend!

The strange and the wonderful, part one

Whilst cataloguing this collection I’ve stumbled upon quite a number of strange and wonderful documents. There’s the account of a shipwrecked mariner who claims he was struck blind by lightening, or the letter to the Clerk of the Peace requesting absence from the Sessions because of a smallpox outbreak. There have been petitions from the prisoners in the gaols which detail some of the terrible conditions there, bills for treating them for various ailments, and some quite unusual crimes, to modern eyes, such as the theft and chasing of bulls through the streets of various Devonshire towns, and an unprovoked attack on a collection of apparently very fine shoes. In an update next week I’ll be going into more details about some of the more off-beat things that the Quarter Sessions records occasionally contain, so watch this space, and have a great weekend!