Floods, floods, and more floods….

Anyone living in Devon will have been experiencing the misery caused by flooding either directly, or indirectly, in the last week or so. The UK has once again been plagued by especially wet weather, with the South West in particular taking considerable damage and disruption.

Nowadays, of course, we have the Environment Agency monitoring river levels, the Met Office issuing severe weather warnings, and government disaster relief contingency plans to fall back on when the worst should happen and Mother Nature gets testy. In the eighteenth century none of these existed, and as such it fell to the justices of the peace sitting in the courts of Quarter Sessions to keep organising the roads of the counties and to make sure that the bridges were useable.

Having worked with this material on a daily basis for four months, there are things I start to notice about particular sessions in each year, and the way the preoccupations of the court reflect the season’s round. Midsummer and Michaelmas sessions tend to have presentments detailing thefts of cider, for example, while Epiphany and Easter tend to document thefts of food and fuel committed during the long months of winter. Michaelmas also tends to be the point in the year where the justices of the peace had to issue large numbers of highway repair orders, and this makes sense, since it was around this time of year that the roads would have begun to turn to quagmires as the rain fell and what drainage existed became clogged with fallen leaves, and as trees were blown down by the autumnal gales.

Besides the inferences that can be made from the numbers of different types of document being issued by the court of course, there are also more direct indications of the difficulties faced by the Quarter Sessions in keeping Devon’s ways and bridges in good repair, and nature at least to some extent in check. At the Michaelmas session 1739, the inhabitants of Kings Nympton were presented for failing to maintain the river banks in the parish, such that a road was flooded. (QS/4/1739/Michaelmas/PR/19). Often, the headaches for the justices of the peace were caused by local inhabitants. In Easter 1740 Susannah and Sarah Richards of Topsham, spinsters, were presented for having failed to maintain and repair a flood hatch over a road in Woodbury, which had been in place ‘since time immemorial.’ Although the repair or roads was frequently a parochial duty, those who lived or held land near a particular road might also be expected to maintain it, often simply by custom, and in this case the Richards were expected to repair the flood hatch because of their tenure ‘of a certain grist mill’ in the vicinity. (QS/4/1740/EASTER/PR/8).

The flaws in the system of expecting people to repair roads they happened to live by are fairly obvious and often these local customs, where they existed, were just another imposition on a person’s time and resources; the Richards probably didn’t possess the means to repair the flood hatch, and so it was left to decay until such time as it eventually made the road so poor that it provoked the wrath of officialdom. Another way of getting things done was to employ local labour, as reported to the Sessions by John Woolcombe on 12 January 1741. A bridge over the River Meavy, called simply ‘Este Brige’ [East Bridge] the maintenance of which was nominally the responsibility of the county, was in danger of collapsing, and a Mr Cooper struck a bargain with ‘an honest mason’ who lived locally to make repairs, for which he bought 30 bushels of lime and re-laid the paving of the bridge. (QS/4/1741/Epiphany/HI/1).

Further problems for the road network could be cause by nuisances which we would recognise today as fly tipping. In Easter 1739, James Burden of Northam, mariner and James Bond of the same, joiner, were presented for throwing ‘great quantities of rubble’ in the road at Northam, blocking a watercourse and causing flooding to nearby housing. (QS/4/1739/Easter/PR/26, and QS/4/1739/Easter/PR/54). Blocking roads with rubbish, especially heaps of dung and straw, was fairly common, as was enclosing highways without licence to do so, and I even have a presentment against a Mr John Staple of Membury for building “a stable, wringhouse, a linney and a carthouse on part of the king’s common highway in the parish of Membury called Plaistreet Lane” (QS/4/1739/Midsummer/PR/27).

The great beauty of the above documents of course, is that they frequently give enough information for somebody familiar with the locality to be able to pinpoint the whereabouts of the place being referred to in the document. One of my volunteers, a local to Devon who has worked with Quarter Sessions material before, has found a number of documents detailing flooded roads in areas of the county that still flood today. The fact that we’re still battling the same problems 300 years later despite all of our modern equipment, advanced road-building technologies, and planning infrastructure, gives you some idea of the scale of the challenge poor weather caused to the justices of the peace and the inhabitants of Devon long ago!


Judicial overkill….

You may remember a few weeks ago I posted about a period of hardship in Devon resulting in a spate of thefts of food and fuel, in particular, and that I noted that the justices of the peace were somewhat….uncompromising in their approach to sentencing the various persons convicted. Well, just to put the sham of eighteenth century ‘justice’ into context rather neatly, here’s the case of Mary Howe of Heavitree, spinster. Mary Howe fell foul of the law by milking some cows in a field at Heavitree then belonging to George Tarr, a place then known as the Seven Acres. She ‘feloniously’ milked the cows, which also belonged to Mr Tarr, taking several quarts of milk, of the value of (wait for it!) five pence. Her fate? As with most of those convicted of petty thefts at that particular sessions, she was transported to the colonies. Yes, that’s right. For taking goods worth five pence.

Because I have an insatiable curiosity, (and, happily, because it’s also my job!) I thought I’d compare Mary Howe’s fate to those of the men and women charged with stealing milk at the Midsummer sessions a year later, in 1741. Of those found guilty, all were sentenced to be whipped and discharged. As I noted in my post the other week it did seem as though the justices had been trying to make a point with their sentencing at the Midsummer 1740 sessions; confronted with a crime wave, the knee-jerk reaction was to come down hard on those found guilty. But this total inconsistency in policy between identical crimes illustrates just how senseless eighteenth-century judicial policy was, in my opinion. Had Mary Howe committed her crime a year later, on the evidence it seems that she’d most likely have been treated like anybody else and been whipped and then discharged.

But she committed her offence at the height of an epidemic of thefts, as people struggled to survive a brutal winter. This was a winter so severe, incidentally, that there was frost until July, people camped in tents on the Thames, and birds froze to death in the air; in London throughout January and February, the temperature never rose above freezing, according to Met Office pre-instrumental meteorology records. (Thanks to my colleagues in the Met Office for providing that information, by the way!). For Mary Howe, an identical crime, a theft of goods of the value of five pence, meant transportation. Not only was this quite patently a ludicrous over-reaction, demonstrative of the very worst of eighteenth century judicial excesses, but it also made very little sense from the point of view of costs to the court, and ultimately to the people of Devon. Put it this way, the cost simply of having Mary Howe’s case heard by the court vastly exceeded the sum of five pence, let alone the cost of transporting her half way around the world, providing for her en-route and ensuring that she were able to complete her sentence. It seems an obscenely petty crime to merit such a draconian response.

Zen and the Art of Cataloguing

I promised you when I started writing this blog that it’d be a bit of an insight into the world of the cataloguing archivist, besides everything else, and as I have a little bit of time this morning I thought I’d run through what I’m up to today and talk about some of the other tasks involved with a project like this, so that you can get a bit of an idea of what a typical day might involve.

I always like to plan ahead in life and my cataloguing project is no different.   The volunteers have sorted out quite a volume of paperwork from the ‘loose documents’ bundles that accompany the main sessions bundles, having organised them by document type ready for cataloguing. Having scoped the amount to be done on Friday last week, I set myself the task of getting through a good chunk of this material on Monday and Tuesday this week, so that there’s lots of space available in the relevant sort boxes for volunteers to begin sorting again on Wednesday.

On a day like today when I’m focusing purely on doing this, the numbers of documents I get through are generally a little bit lower than usual, as there’s more organising of the catalogue to be done, in creating all the different file and item level entries. Generally speaking I’ll already have ploughed through the presentments, recognisances and wrappers for the sessions beforehand, so in reality I’m sort of ‘filling in’ the remainder of the records for that session in retrospect. I prefer working this way as it means I’ll know, roughly, who is before the court and for what reasons, which gives me a good working overview of that session while I’m cataloguing the material.

I’ll frequently be doing material from several different sessions, sometimes in different years, as I go. Today for example, I’ve sorted out a number of dsicharges and highways documents from Epiphany session 1740, and I’m moving on to some Easter 1741 examinations. There’s some Midsummer 1741 documents to come after that, and a little bit of 1742 documentation I’d like to get done too, if I have the time.

Although the volunteer-sorted documentation is my focus today, there are other things I like to get done on a day like today. A day like today gives me a great chance to do some research on matters arising from documents I’ve recently catalogued, for example. Besides interesting things cropping up in the catalogued material, often volunteers will do research using the sessions books and bring up interesting material referenced there, which I’ll then follow up when I have quiet moments, and make public on the blog, especially if we can find supporting documentation from the sessions bundles.

There’s also the matter of dealing with some of the more complicated deeds enrolled before the court, which might require a bit of a quiet moment to catalogue in more detail. One particular deed I catalogued last week had had it’s entire right hand edge chopped away at some point in its past, and as is often the case, most of the salient details seemed to have been written on that edge, which meant I had to be especially careful in working with the material to make sure I’d recorded it as accurately as possible.

Besides all of the above, of course, I like to press on with producing supporting material to the catalogue when I get a spare moment. I’m working on a number of user guides to help explain the remit of the Quarter Sessions and the general scope of the material, and to explain how the material might best be used by researchers. After all, cataloguing is not just about recording the material you have, but also about making it available and useable to the public. As I write these guides I keep a weather eye on the possibility of including aspects of what I’m writing about in talks, classes and presentations in the future.

The role of a cataloguing archivist is a bit different, then, to the role of an archivist working primarily in the searchroom, but I hope, with the above, to explain a little bit about what the role really involves on a day to day basis. There are other things I could talk about too and will do in future updates, but I felt that some of you might like to know a bit more about what it’s like to do a job like this. As you can probably tell from my updates I really enjoy the scope of this kind of work; no two days are ever the same, and I think most archivists I know, whether they’re cataloguing, working in the search room, doing outreach, or running research enqiries, will tell you that the variety of the job is one of the main attractions to working in the profession.

But besides that, in what other profession do you get to learn so much on a daily basis and get such a connection to the world of the past? I hope from the above, and from the rest of this blog, I can show you why this job is so enjoyable, and if anyone reading this is interested in becoming an archivist, or is in training, or is looking to volunteer one day, I can heartily recommend it. You won’t regret getting involved.

The Apprentice (circa 1740)

Far from being lightsabre wielding would-be masters of the Force or business-savvy would-be masters of the universe looking for the patronage of a billionaire businessman, apprentices in the eighteenth century had a rather more humdrum time of it in general.

The system of apprenticeships, as with much of the Poor Law, was born (if we’re making a charitable interpretation of its motivations) out of good intentions, but as with many of the systems the Poor Law evolved, it was often somewhat lacking in its execution, and this is what my post today will be looking into.

As you may be aware, the ‘old’ Poor Law basically worked on a parochial system, whereby the parishioners of a parish were assessed and made to pay a so-called ‘Poor Rate’ to assist the poor of the parish, who might be destitute, sick or infirm, or in need of poor relief for any number of reasons. The kind of disputes and inequalities of provision this system threw up can be guessed at and need not concern us directly in this post, but it’s useful to know the general background to understand why the system of apprenticeships came into being. Having sustained or provided for an orphan child born into the parish workhouse, or having sustained pauper families through the poor rate, the parish was keen to enable the child to provide for themselves by learning a trade to use later in life, and, less altruistically, so that they were no longer a burden to the parish rate either from that point forward or in the future.

As a result, such children were bound out as apprentices to local individuals who either volunteered to take an apprentice or had one to some extent imposed on them. Their masters and mistresses were to provide for their apprentices in terms of food and lodging, and also clothing. In return, apprentices were to serve their masters and mistresses faithfully for a period of time, usually a term of years. At the end of this term the apprentice would be discharged, and able to legally practice a trade (practicing a trade without having served a recognised apprenticeship could, after all, land you in trouble with the Quarter Sessions, though the cases of this I’ve seen indicate that it was a difficult crime to prove).

So there’s the basic theory, what of the reality?

Well, as you might have guessed, cases of masters and mistresses not caring for their apprentices and failing to provide for them come up fairly regularly in the records. So too do cases of ‘excessive’ beating of apprentices, with one particularly nasty case coming to my attention the other day when I catalogued a recognisance dated 22 August 1740, in which Mr William Philips of Whitestone, husbandman, was bound to appear at the next sessions to answer charges of assaulting and beating his apprentice, Sarah Pring, and for striking her violently on the face with a pike, in two places. (QS/4/1740/Michaelmas/RE/3).

It’s perhaps no surprise then that cases of apprentices leaving their masters and mistresses are fairly common occurrences too, and often when charged for absenting themselves by their master, you’ll find a counter charge brought by the apprentice, of mistreatment or a failure of provision. Almost without exception in the records I’ve catalogued so far, female apprentices were bound out to men and again almost without exception they were bound out to learn the ‘trade’ of ‘housewifery’ or ‘good housewifery.’ Almost without exception, and unsurprisingly given the uncompromising nature of 18th century justice, apprentices are found guilty of absenting themselves from their masters or mistresses, while convictions for failing to provide for apprentices or administering excessive beatings are rare, though if a case was particularly bad the churchwardens and overseers of the poor of the parish, who originally bound the apprentice, might discharge the apprenticeship and re-bind the apprentice to someone else.

The sad truth is that in many cases an apprentice was probably regarded as an unwelcome burden, and an extra mouth to feed. In times of hardship cases of apprentices not being provided for tend to be more common. Nor were masters or mistresses necessarily people of particularly good moral standing. At least one apprentice, Joseph Hendy of Plymstock, was forced by his master Edmond Ley, yeoman to provide him (on pain of being killed), with powder and shot, for which the churchwardens and overseers of the poor rebound the hapless apprentice to another master.

It comes as no surprise that family members, perhaps fearing the kind of exploitation the records hint at, might object to their children being bound out as an apprentice (though the poor relief could be witheld from them if they tried to prevent their child being bound out). In 1739 George Gay the elder of Pilton was presented for refusing to hand his son over to the overseers of the poor of the parish so that he might be bound out. (QS/4/1739/Michaelmas/PR/9). Frequently, when apprentices did leave their master or mistress’ service, it was of course to their families they returned. But harbouring an apprentice who had absented themselves without permission from their master’s service was regarded as an offence, akin to harbouring a fugitive. The master was well within their rights to inform the town crier that their apprentice had absconded, and that nobody was to harbour or entertain them. This happened when Anne Edbury absconded from her master James Reed junior, going to her father, Philip Edbury of Crediton, who was subsequently prosecuted for having harboured and entertained her. (QS/4/1738/Michaelmas/PR/30) The circumstances surrounding her decision to leave are not recorded (nor are they in any cases I’ve seen).

The apprenticeship system, as we can see, left a lot to be desired, though it’s important to kae a balanced view. In some cases it must surely have provided people with the means to earn their living after their service was completed, and the traces of the apprenticeship system recorded in the Quarter Sessions are often going to have a negative air to them given that we are dealing in the end with court records. It’s important not to portray the entire system as hopelessly corrupt; to do so would be to get trapped within the sources, after all.

Nevertheless, the experience was undoubtedly mixed, and like many things in the eighteenth century, being a poor child of a parish bound out as an apprentice was yet another life lottery. Some would undoubtedly have prospered as a result, but I can’t help feeling that for many who faced neglect, abandonment and exploitation by their masters and mistresses, this would undoubtedly have seemed an appalling and perhaps even tyrannical system, leaving them branded as criminals if they attempted to escape or take their chances to improve their lot.

On the positive side the apprenticeship system highlights one way that 18th century society attempted to tackle the problems of poverty in its midst. Yet on the negative side the flaws in the system sometimes provided a means whereby the poor could be exploited. Once again though I’m left to conclude that I’m glad I don’t live in eighteenth century Britain!

The ‘Great Frost’ comes to Devon?

A double update for you this week, because, as often happens, another strand of interesting material emerged which I just had to share. As you can imagine, after cataloguing a collection for a few months you begin to become aware of things that are outside the normal run of things, such as a preponderance of highway material for a session, indicating that the road network was particularly suffering at that point in time, or documentation about out of the ordinary events, like the ‘skimmington ride’ I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

Well, for Midsummer Sessions 1740 there were no fewer than 85 presentments (these are the documents detailing allegations) and 113 recognisances (binding people to turn up to court to answer charges, or give evidence about crimes committed). While these are relatively large numbers, that’s not completely out of the ordinary, but the fact that the crimes are, in the majority, related to thefts of food, agricultural equipment and fuel, indicated that times had been hard in Devon the previous winter, and the Midsummer sessions was mopping up the resulting crime wave.

So, I did a bit of digging, and it turns out that 1740 was a terrible year in Ireland, a year whose winter and sping were known as the ‘Great Frost,’ where families burned through winter fuel reserves in matters of days to try to survive, where harvests were meagre, and people perished of famine. Although the hardships of 1740 have been overshadowed by the terrors of the Potato Famine a century later, the Irish Famine of 1740-41 was so terrible that contemporaries called it the ‘Bliain an Áir’ or ‘Year of Slaughter.’

Most scholarship I’ve found so far focuses almost without exception on the situation in Ireland, but even within this scholarship there is an acknowledgement that the weather system causing the hardship in Ireland prevailed over most of Europe; indeed, weather readings from mainland Britain indicate that the weather was just as bad on this side of the Irish Sea, too.

What caused the unseasonal weather is not currently known with any certainty, though similar years or periods of hardship and unseasonable winters affecting the entire Continent often have links to volcanic eruptions in other parts of the world lowering global temperatures through the accumulation of ash and soot in the Earth’s atmosphere, as happened after the Krakatoa eruption in the nineteenth century (the noise of which interestingly, produced what is reckoned to be the loudest sound ever heard in human history). The 1783 eruption of Laki, in Iceland, caused famine across Europe thanks to the volume of ash ejected blocking sunlight, and the flouride within the ash which poisoned crops and livestock. In this light, the eruptions of Mount Asahi and Mount Tarumai in Japan in 1739 and the subsequent unusually cold weather in Europe may indeed be related.

But what of the people of Devon? Well, depressingly it seems the justices of the peace, confronted with this crime wave, reacted by transporting just about everyone convicted of crimes of theft. Eighteenth century society, though often branded ‘enlightened’ had yet to make the link between the reality that when people were facing starvation they became more likely to turn to  crime to survive the period of hardship. It was not the nature of the eighteenth century world to attempt to understand the underlying reasons for waves of crime of this nature; instead such episodes were seen as threats to the social order which had to be removed, in this case to the colonies.

As is often the case with cataloguing this material, I feel gald that I don’t live in the eighteenth century world. We have the tools to understand these kinds of social situations more deeply, and the capacity to respond to them with greater humanity than our forebears did. Nevertheless, we must always remember that it is not whether we call ourselves ‘enlightened,’ as our eighteenth century forebears did, that actually makes us so, but whether we act in similar situations today with an enlightened attitude towards the genuine human misery these situations can cause.

As an optimist, I like to think that we do. And on that philosophical note, I’ll wish you all a great weekend!

Don’t underestimate Totnes!

As many of you may have seen recently, the Devon market town of Totnes has made headlines recently for bringing the multinational coffee chain Costa Coffee to rethink its decision to open a branch in Totnes’ famously independent high street. This penchant for standing up for the unique identity of Totnes has historical precedent, too, as a document from the Quarter Sessions records demonstrates.

At the Midsummer sessions 1739, Christopher Predam, then mayor of Totnes, wrote a strongly-worded letter to John Fortescue, clerk of the peace, asserting Totnes’ right to try various men involved in an alleged incident of bull-baiting in the town, citing their case as being the proper jurisdiction of Totnes’ borough courts by right of the town’s charter:

‘the justices of the county at large being by an express clause in our charter prohibited from any wise intermedling with matters that arise within the borough or parish of Totnes, as this riotous bull-beating it seems did, and is so lain on the indictment, which therefore I apprehend will (if proceeded upon) be an infringement of the liberties of the borough: and as the Office I bear therein, obliges me to use my best endeavours to prevent all such, I now write you this to acquaint you therewith, and desire that you will withdraw those processes and proceed no further therein.’

Just in case anybody doubted his intentions Predam thought it necessary to add a postscript:

‘I propose, God willing, to show our charter to the next Judges of Assizes and to have their directions on it for I am perfectly desirous that all justice should run in its proper channell, but will not tamely submit to any innovations.’

I wonder what Predam would have made of the citizens of Totnes’ efforts to preserve their high street’s independence? I think he’d have approved!