The laughing justice

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A short update this week just to show you something we stumbled across in one of the boxes in the strongroom. One of the clerks had a bit of an artistic streak and tended to do little sketches on the reverse of the public orders, and sometimes coroners bills. I thought this example was pretty charming!

All the best folks and happy Easter!

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Another Mystery Solved

It’s funny in life how one piece of research can suddenly spark off another and within the space of a week another major discovery about the Devon Quarter Sessions bundles has been made. Since the beginning of this cataloguing project, it’s been painfully apparent that a huge amount of the documentation relating to the Sessions bundles has been incredibly disordered, and arranging this material logically has taken a great deal of time and effort, and the assistance of a team of dedicated volunteers. Many of the boxes containing Sessions bundles are, before cataloguing, originally labelled thusly: “1742 Easter+Midsummer and loose.” The ‘and loose’ part of that label is the pertinent bit here. What it means in practice is that the box will usually contain several stacks of documentation more or less thrown together at random, often encompassing material spanning many different years and many different sessions. Witness statements for cases that were before the court several years ago survive alongside constables’ presentments for a completely different Session, for example….occasionally there are whole boxes of this material more or less thrown together at random.

What hasn’t been clear until now, however, is why this material is so disordered. In previous posts I’ve made various comments suggesting that at some point in this material’s custodial history the documents had clearly become disordered, but I’ve not really entertained much hope of discovering why during this year, suspecting that the reasons for the disorder might be lost in the mists of time, or might only re-emerge after considerably more research had been done.

Happily, however, a chance discovery while researching something entirely different has gone a long way to solving the mystery. In 1800, Parliament commissioned a Select Committee to make an enquiry into the state of the nation’s public records, (which itself created a report with the catchy title : “Reports from the Select Committee Appointed to Inquire into the State of the Public Records of the Kingdom, Etc”), and in an appendix to that report, the Clerks of the Peace of the various Counties of England and Wales gave brief answers to various questions posed about the records in their care. Devon’s Clerk of the Peace at the time was a chap called Richard Eales, junior, and he made some tantalising comments on pp266-267 of the Report regarding the manner in which the records had been kept up to 1800.

Previously to 1773 the Quarter Sessions material had been kept in the records room at the old castle in Exeter, but in 1773 the old castle was taken down, and the records that were held in the record room were ‘thrown together and I have from time to time since I became acquainted with the office (twenty four years) spent with the late clerk of the peace many months in arranging them in some order, and for one hundred and fifty years back the records are now pretty well arranged and deposited in large presses made for the purpose in the record room.”

It would seem then that this innocuous statement is the key to the mystery of the stacks of loose documents that survive with each of the Sessions rolls, and which are composed of such disorganised material. The material had been thrown together in complete confusion around 1773 and what we find in the boxes prior to cataloguing is the clerk’s best guess at restoring some order, done, it has to be said from the point of view of the archivist who inherited the situation, with varying degrees of success!

Eales was clearly a pragmatic sort and some of his other comments, particularly with regard to indexing the collection, are quite informative:
“I am of the opinion, that if the rolls were completely arranged and indexed, it would save great trouble to the clerk of the peace, as they could be sooner turned to and inspected, but I know of no other utility that could arise from it: the Trouble and Expenses attending from such an arrangement would be immense, and I could not undertake to do it, with an additional clerk, in less than twelve months.”

I have to admit to chuckling when I read the above. I wonder what he’d make of this twenty-first century cataloguing project, using electronic computers, cataloguing software, the Internet, IRIS machines for making faded ink as clear as day to the eye again, and all the modern research tools of our era? Food for thought, anyway!

What I like most about the above though is that it gives a satisfying sense of filling in some of the missing pieces about these records. Part of the point of this project is to help us to better understand the records being catalogued, and that includes the history of how the collection itself was kept by past generations. Now we have a very important piece of the puzzle, and can speak with more confidence about how the records came to be the way they are today, with all the challenges and charms they bring to present-day archivists and researchers.

The Mystery Bundle of Midsummer 1747

My last post was concerned with a mystery bundle of indictments tentatively termed a ‘process file’ which came complete with a mystery inscription and very little other indication of what it was and why it was in the Midsummer/Michaelmas 1747 box.

I’ve been doing research on this material to answer some questions about it in order to catalogue it, and I thought you’d like to know what I’ve uncovered so far. In Midsummer 1747, George II issued a free and general pardon and Act of Grace to forgive all treasonable offences and felonies committed against him during the Jacobite Rising of 1745 (where, briefly, it had looked as though his crown might’ve been in jeopardy as the pretender to the Scottish throne, Bonnie Prince Charlie stormed as far south as Worcester). You might expect, with some justification, that a pardon such as this would have had little, really, to do with the sorts of offences the Quarter Sessions dealt with, but apparently it was applied and interpreted very generally and very liberally indeed. Evidence from outside Devon, in the County of Middlesex, corroborates this, and shows this Act being plead to forgive an assault and battery case, for example.

This file seems to be composed of what had been, prior to the Act of 1747, ‘live’ outstanding indictments dating back as far as 1723. After the Act, which was applied from July 1747 (Midsummer Sessions) these indictments became spent. That this was the case is attested by two intriguing sets of records held under series QS/9 and QS/9A. These indices to process files, which reference one another and point to process notes about cases before the court, refer in some cases to the ‘Great Bundle’ and in one or two cases note on the front cover that “after the Act of Grace a new book was made for all offences committed after that time.” While I’ve not yet been able to use the indices to successfully search this particular mystery bundle, I’ve seen copious notes made to cases I’ve seen in previous cataloguing, and once I’ve catalogued this process file the ways in which the indices can be used to refer to the ‘mystery’ bundle will probably become a bit clearer.

So it’s been an interesting few days of delving in the archives and the mystery bundle is a mystery no longer! My own view then is that, rather than interpreting this bundle as being evidence that Devon was a seething hotbed of sedition in 1745, we should interpret things a lot more pragmatically. The offences being pardoned here have little or nothing to do with Jacobitism anyway after all, and it has to be borne in mind that this pardon applied everywhere, not just in Devon, and seems to have been liberally interpreted elsewhere too. This 1747 pardon was applied generally, in my view, not so much because Devon had been full of Jacobites who needed pardoning then, but more because there were a lot of outstanding indictments on the books and interpreting the pardon as liberally as possible was probably a pragmatic way of clearing them, as well as clearing the gaols, and freeing up the court’s time, attention and resources for more pressing matters than keeping an eye out for troublemakers who had so far evaded justice (for whatever reason) for minor and petty offences. Convictions in some of these cases, particularly the earlier ones from the 1720s, were probably a remote possibility by the late 1740s anyway; most of the persons involved had probably gone to their graves in the intervening decades. When you consider just how much business the courts had before them in other areas such as vagrancy and highways, the chance to clear the books in this area of the court’s business and start afresh may have been a welcome one.

So the process file full of outstanding material seems to have been deemed no longer relevant after 1747, and for whatever reason the clerks decided the best home for it was with the Sessions bundles. Did they try to place some of the indictments it contained back with their original material? Well, to be honest, I think they did. Because presentments and indictments had been a bit odd from 1743 onwards anyway, I’d started keeping a log of strange material that was appearing that seemed very out of place, and along with a number of the 1740s presentments and indictments, there has been, surprise surprise, 1720s material tacked on to the end of some of the batches of documentation. My thinking is that the clerks were trying to put some of these spent indictments back where they thought they should have been, perhaps made a bit of a hash of things and decided in the end to give up and leave the bundle be.

As with all things like this of course, research by others will no doubt help clarify things further. In the end, this all underlines why cataloguing is such an important task, because it’s the first step to making the material accessible to researchers, who will then be able to come to far more definite conclusions about it than I can with the limited time available to me. It’ll be interesting to see what gets turned up by future researchers, but, tentatively and at least in part, the ‘Mystery Bundle of 1747’ is a mystery no longer.

The Quirks of the Job, part II

Remember a month or so ago when I wrote a post stating that documentation from the 1740s, particularly the presentments and indictments, was getting a bit iffy? Presentments weren’t there when they should have been, material from decades earlier or later had been chucked in at some point in the past seemingly at random, and I speculated that somewhere there’d probably been a huge mix up with the documents and that perhaps some poor clerk had dropped a huge file of material on the floor?

Well it seems the clerks of three hundred years ago may have got just as puzzled as I did with it all and in the end they seem to have given up completely and left a mystery file with the Michaelmas 1747 Sessions bundle. Ladies and gentleman, I give you….THIS:

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This is what is rather hopefully termed a ‘process file’, found in the Michaelmas 1747 box. The rear of the file has a wrapper with a somewhat cyptic inscription: ‘process file, home to ye pardon, M[ichaelmas] 1747.’ Indictments are present in the file ranging in date from Michaelmas 1747 back to 1723 (possibly earlier, I’m yet to catalogue it). Although loosely sorted into chronological order, the emphasis there is on the word ‘loosely’. There are 160 documents in this stack of parchment alone (just to put that into perspective, an average 18th-century Devon Quarter Sessions bundle has around 180 documents altogether!) and each of them has clearly been removed at some point from its original bundle (because many of them are marked with a former numbering system that doesn’t correlate to the documents around them) and slung together in one great mass of material.

A number of the 1740s bundles have seemed a little bit lacking in presentments and indictments given the amount of business attested to be before the court by the recognisances, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a large amount of that material has ended up here. There are also some notable cases that dropped off the radar that I’d assumed had ended up being tried before the Assizes (the records for which are in the Western Circuit papers at Kew). We never found out what happened to the wreckers of the Dutch Ship, for example. Were they dealt with by the Quarter Sessions after all, and are their presentments and indictments in here?  

No doubt this file will answer a lot of questions but it’ll also pose many new ones, chief among them being, why did the indictments never get placed back with their original material? Clearly there was a purpose to pulling all of this material out, and it seems that in many cases referred to in this file, defedants appeared many years after the original indictment was made, and submitted to justice, indicating that perhaps this file was originally for ‘open’ cases that had yet to be concluded. However, defendants appearing some time after originally indicted, often many years later, as is happening very often in this file, isn’t something that’s unique to this file. In fact, this happens all the time with presentments and indictments in the main Sessions bundles, and usually the indictment remains in the bundle relating to the date when the offence and trial were finally concluded.

For some reason then these indictments were all treated differently, and for some reason, in 1747, this ended. Did the clerks switch over to a new system of filing indictments treated in this way? And why, if they ended the file in Michaelmas 1747, did they not return the documents to their original contexts? Was it perhaps too much of a job? Or, did they start and then give up? I’ve been finding 1720s material in some of the 1740s bundles, seemingly at random, and perhaps this is evidence of the clerks attempting to return some of this material to where they thought it belonged. Perhaps, in the end, the clerks decided it’d be best to leave the file along with the Sessions bundle which related to the latest material contained within it, and start a new file. It seems odd though that they didn’t decide to keep this process file separately to the Sessions bundles, since there was clearly, at some point, a logic to separating this material out from them.

All in all, the reasons as to why this file of material ended up in the Michaelmas 1747 Sessions bundle box are puzzling. The material contained in this file spans well over two decades of legal material, however, and returning all of the indictments to their original bundles would certainly have been a formidable task. For whatever reason the file was left in the Michaelmas 1747 box, waiting to be discovered, and now comes the challenge of cataloguing it.

Cataloguing this material is going to be a very painstaking business. All records will have to be cross-referenced as far as possible, and for each session for which out of sequence material survives in this bundle, notes will have to be made and placed within the boxes on the shelves in the strong room going back as far as the 1720s to ensure that future researchers are made aware that material pertinent to their research survives, of all places, in the Michaelmas 1747 box.

I’ve catalogued around 10,000 documents now and this discovery underlines another important point: no matter how much experience you gain with this material there’ll always be something new and unexpected to discover. And in the end, that’s what makes a job like this such good fun, really!

Ten Green Bottles….

If there’s one thing I’ve learned while doing this job it’s that the inhabitants of eighteenth century Devon (and eighteenth century anywhere, I expect!) liked a good drink, so it’ll be no surprise that alcohol features fairly prominently in the records in one guise or another. We’ve already seen, after all, that if you fling an otherwise perfectly serviceable ship full of wine towards the 1730s Devon coastline these friendly folks will extend a permanent axe-and-hatchet invite to the ship and crew and start the celebrations on the beach.

A search for the word ‘cider’ on the catalogue at present yields 39 hits, not bad for a generally mundane keyword. Some of these hits are to do with fairly straightforward, open and shut cases, like for example the presentment of John Ellis of West Allington, labourer, for breaking open the cider cellar of William Gilbert, gentleman, and taking half a hogshead of cider (QS/4/1745/MICHAELMAS/PR/33).

On other occasions though the crime committed or recorded is a little bit more complex, such as the record for the presentment against John and Susannah Browning and Edward Tolley John Lock James Hill and Lawrence Luxton of Drewsteignton and John Croot of South Tawton, who were accused of turning Joan Browning of Drewsteignton, widow, out of her home and assaulting her and keeping her out of the property (QS/4/1744/Easter/PR/29). Although the following section of the document, listing the goods they took out of the building, is recorded as though it were a burglary, it looks as though this was some form of bungled eviction or property dispute that hasn’t been resolved according to the letter of the law, and hence the events have been recorded on the indictment as full criminal offences. What’s interesting for our purposes however is the list of property taken from the premises, including “one half hogshead, five barrels, twenty gallons of ale, [and] five gallons of vinegar [and] five gallons of cider.” It looks to me as though Mrs Browning might’ve been running an inn of some kind, though the building isn’t recorded as such and it may have been one of the many such premises around at the time that seem pretty much to have been run out of somebody’s front room (more on that later).

For William Yelland of Sampford Courtenay, John Netherburne James Newcombe George Lamphye Robert Welland Thomas Estabrook Richard Medland Robert Earle and Edward Rowe, cider was apparently just an incidental detail. These fellows were accused of breaking down the cob walls of the dwelling of William Bellamy at Exbourne and assaulting his wife, destroying “the plancheon and stairs” of the dwelling and, for good measure, smashing twelve bottles of cider of the value of four shillings. QS/4/1745/MICHAELMAS/PR/32.

Then of course you’ve got the folks who keep their premises open during the hours of divine service. Sometimes in these kinds of cases it doesn’t seem as though inns are involved at all. In 1742 Abraham Addicott of Halberton, labourer, was presented for being a ‘prophaner of the Sabbath’ and for ‘on the pretence of giving cider to various of his majesty’s subjects, enticing Bartholemew Martin of Sampford Peverell, cordwainer and James Pring of Halberton carpenter and a great many others to come to his dwelling and tipple during the hours of Divine Service celebrated in the parish church of Halberton.’ Mr Addicoott appears to have been a serial offender in this regard, having been presented for the same offence in 1737. (QS/4/1737/Midsummer/PR/44).

Besides cider, eighteenth century Devonians also seem to have been partial to October beer, perhaps a taste acquired in the county through its pronounced maritime links with Germany and the Low Countries. So far there have been no references to gin in the records but given that this was an eighteenth century staple (for the higher orders, at least) it’s reasonable to assume the county would have been awash with it in places.

What isn’t recorded, sadly, is the number of crimes carried out in a state of inebriation by the defendants. I’m assuming that in many cases the various brawls and assaults may have been fuelled by drink but there’s no way to be completely sure since this information isn’t usually recorded in the documents. If I do find any particularly colourful drinking episodes recorded in the documents, I’ll let you know.

On that note, have a great weekend.