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!


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