All good things….

Most people reading this blog will no doubt be familiar with the old adage that all good things come to an end. As summer approaches, the Quarter Sessions cataloguing project of which this blog is part and parcel is coming to a close, and your tireless qsarchivist is moving on to pastures new. So it’s a goodbye from me, and an opportunity to look back at the project and some of the things we’ve brought to light this year.

We’ve seen evidence of famines, plagues, wars and crises of all kinds for the inhabitants of Devon, examined the inner workings of eighteenth century justice and the Poor Law, borne witness to fire and flood, and puzzled over skulduggery in Aveton Giffard. There have been shipwrecks, mishaps, implausible excuses for failing to attend court, petitions from prisoners starving in the gaols, and some truly lamentable examples of sentencing excesses by the justices. The Quarter Sessions are akin to the society they reflect; colourful, expressive, lucid, and full of variety and contradiction in equal measure, and it’s been my pleasure to open the eighteenth century world they document up to examination by readers of this blog and those using the catalogue at Devon Heritage Services.

I’d like to thank readers of this blog for their contributions this year and for joining me on a fascinating journey into the past. If I were to bring all the strands of thought in this blog into a final thread as the project closes, it would be through returning to a theme I’ve spoken of through the year, a thought and motivation that has underpinned much of my enthusiasm for this project and which is one of my many motivations as a professional archivist. This theme is that of wishing to inspire in others a sympathy for and love of the past.

The documents we’ve been exploring this year convey real, not imaginary, events, and though the persons caught up in them are removed from us by a gulf of time, they were no less real, for all that, than the people around you today. Their hopes, dreams and ambitions, their passions, grievances, tragedies, trials and tribulations were as human and complex as any today, and played out across the backdrop of a world that was no less real or wonderful and frequently as cruel as our own can be today. These actors on a stage set against a vast and oft-forgotten backdrop of a former world, are our relatives, our forebears, separated from us in time but linked to us inextricably in language, custom, geography and our common humanity.

Just as I would hope that our descendants, living in an age with greater knowledge and the benefit of hindsight, will not assess our era too harshly from their point of vantage, I’ve always felt that we should be sparing in our judgments of those who went before us. They are, after all, our kith and kin, who shaped the world around us before our time. For a brief moment in time, we now occupy the places formerly held by them, and after us others will follow. What will those who follow make of our era? To care about and be inspired by the past, then, is to care about people, to be inspired by others and to be willing to learn from those who came before us.

I hope that this blog has helped to bring this past world to life, and has brought you all closer to the people who lived in it. If I have managed to achieve this in my writing, then I’ve succeeded in what I set out to do when I began writing many months ago.

Thanks once again for reading and taking part this year, and all the best!



Happy New Year!!

A happy new year to all readers of the blog, and plenty to report. The mission to get 1734-1742 ‘live’ so that the public can now search these records on the online catalogue was a success. The new year began with a few jobs that I’ve been waiting for a quiet spell to press on with, which are now mostly completed, and I’m now ploughing on through 1743 and 1744 at a fair old clip. There have already been some interesting documents emerging from the bundles, including a petition from the inhabitants of Shipwash for funds to rebuild their town after a harrowing fire, and more records detailing (in sometimes rather too much detail!) the kinds of medical treatments being received by the prisoners in the gaol. All in all, plenty to watch out for!  Happy new year once again folks and stick with the blog, there’s plenty more to come!

‘When with the ever-circling years….’

This week’s update is on something of a different tack to the others, more of a reflection on how things have gone so far, and what the future holds. I’m currently in the process of putting the finishing touches to the catalogue prior to fulfilling my own personal objective of putting everything catalogued so far (some 6,400 documents) online by Christmas. The catalogue is being spell checked by volunteers, the boxes are being individually checked against the catalogue to ensure that everything has been given references and that the labels on the calico wrappers around documents reflect the contents of the wrapper…..all those little jobs that are just as much a part of delivering an accessible catalogue as the main task of cataloguing the material itself is.

So where are we up to? In terms of material ready to be placed online, the project has reached 1742, so we have nearly a decade of eighteenth century material available for the public to consult. There have been some notable highlights in this documentation. The shipwreck of the ‘Anna and Helena,’ bulls being run through the streets of Newton Abbot, a ‘skimmington ride’ at Aveton Giffard, smallpox outbreaks, famines, and everything in between.

It’s also been a fun learning curve for me, as I’ve grappled with those lovely documents that defy easy categorisation. Documents like those in which John Polluxfen, while writing very generally about the highways, regales John Fortescue with stories about his latest journeys to Oxford, and gives the lo-down on who’s who, who’s where, who’s ill, and who’s not, and (almost always) claims to have fallen sick ‘just last Saturday’ making court attendance impossible. Is such a document an HI? Is it an NO? Or is it in fact a DI? And will Australia trounce us in the Ashes now that Ricky Ponting’s gone? (Perish the thought!).

We’re now coming to the end of 2012, and since August we’ve been lifting the veil on a lost world. Lost, that is, in many respects, but not in all. One of the things I’ve hoped to achieve with this blog is to show others that the past is not lost to us completely. Throughout Devon, in some places the roads still flood in the same places they flooded in 300 years ago. The world is still governed to some extent by the seasons’ round; farmers still bring in their harvests, the people of the county still struggle against the biting cold in winter. Many of the towns and parishes referred to in the documents still exist today. There are still labourers, farmers, shopkeepers and merchants in Exeter and the surrounding towns and parishes. While we now live in a world of global possibility that our forbears three hundred years ago could scarcely have imagined, it was in their time that many of the foundations of the world we live in today were laid. Surnames persist in parts of the county in which they were present in the 1730s and 1740s; the bridges and highways still need to be maintained, and law and order are still upheld, far more fairly and equitably than in the eighteenth century world we’ve been exploring together.

300 years ago, John Fortescue would have been gearing up for the impending Epiphany Sessions, to be held around 15th January. Documentation preparatory to the Sessions taking place would have been flooding in to his office or his home in Gandy Street, Exeter, from all corners of the County. Surveyors of the highways and bridges would have been carrying out their inspections. The prisoners in the gaols, or those bound out to return to court in a few weeks, would have been awaiting an uncertain future. Shopkeepers would have been selling their wares, the yeomen farmers keeping watch over their cattle, and those who could afford to might have been preparing for Christmas. John Polluxfen would have been writing a letter to excuse his attendance at court, perhaps, this time, actually ill.

This is the world this cataloguing project gives us a glimpse of, and there’s plenty more to come. Will there be generally unpleasant crimes? Most likely. Famines? Possibly. Shipwrecks? Perhaps. More importantly, there’ll be plenty of unexpected oddities, weird occurrences, and tantalising glimpses of this hauntingly familiar world. I hope you’ll continue to join me in the months ahead as we press on into the past.

A Merry Christmas and happy newy year to you all.

What were the Quarter Sessions?

Well, another week of cataloguing comes to a close and I’m at the point of creating the next blog post… what should I write about? I said I’d give you an insight into the world of a cataloguing archivist, but there’s far more to this project than just the cataloguing side. What are the Quarter Sessions, I hear you cry? What did they do? And why are they so important?

Well, to answer the first question, the Courts of Quarter Sessions were courts held to roughly coincide with the four quarters of the year, which were also tied to liturgical feasts of the Church. The four quarters were Epiphany, Easter, Midsummer, and Michaelmas. The courts were generally fairly itinerant in origin, which betrays their roots in the fourteenth century, though the concept of itinerant justice ultimately has its own roots earlier still, in the evolving legal and administrative reforms of the reigns of Henry I and Henry II in particular.

The nature of medieval kingship was intimately tied to the idea of ability to dispense justice, and to be seen to dispense justice; without this essential ability the king might be considered to be unable to maintain his ‘peace’ and an essential stay in the fabric of society was loosened. Kings who were unable to maintain the peace of the realm, or who were considered to withhold justice, such as King Stephen (reigned 1135-1141) and King John (1199-1216), might face considerable political upheaval and outright rebellion from their vassals.

Eventually, through a process of legal evolution, the idea of the itinerant justice, a royal officer appointed to hear and determine (oyer et terminer) the felonies committed in the realm was born, through the legal reforms of the General Eyre of Henry II, by which royal officers were dispatched to the counties to hear the crimes committed there, travelling around the country over time. These travelling royal officers, termed ‘justices in eyre’ were very different creatures in many important respects to the justices of the peace sitting in the 1730s, but they are nevertheless an important link in the chain which leads to the Quarter Sessions themselves.

By the fourteenth century then, quarterly courts were established, which often continued on the itinerant principle by settling in the main town of a given part of the county for which they were held at different points in the year. While this was the case for many counties, such as Glamorgan, for example, into the nineteenth century, in the 1730s records for Devon which I have catalogued, they courts seem to have been held generally at the castle in Exeter, though I have noticed some sessions in adjournment being held at places such as the Unicorn Inn, in Pilton, (now apparently a church hall, incidentally).

The Courts of Quarter Sessions, by the eighteenth century at least, had criminal jurisdiction over ‘misdemeanours’ (less serious offences such as burglary, assault, nuisances) and civil administration of the roads and bridges, settlement and removal of vagrants, and oversight of the Overseers of the Poor, through whom the Poor Law was administered. Quite a hefty remit, then! As my colleague Brian Carpenter put it the other day, the records document the fabric of society itself. There’s no better way of putting it, really.

So what does all this mean? Why are these records useful? What uses can they be put to by archive users? I’ll be focusing on those questions in the next update, so stay tuned, and have a great weekend!

Hello there and…

Hello there and welcome! I’m Robert Bennett, Project Archivist for Devon Quarter Sessions Records, and this is the official project blog for the ‘Right to Remain Silent’ Quarter Sessions cataloguing project. This project, generously funded by the Pilgrim Trust as part of the National Cataloguing Grants Scheme, aims to catalogue the Quarter Sessions records for Devon from 1734-1804.

As project archivist, I will be making regular updates about the progress of the project, items of interest and ways in which the public can get involved. Along the way I’ll be giving you something of a glimpse into the world of a cataloguing archivist, and explaining the history and world which underlay the records being catalogued. As you can imagine, this is an extremely exciting project to be involved with, and I hope you’ll join me on this archival adventure!