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.


Spare a thought….

….as you pass through the area of Exeter known as St Thomas, as this is where the debtor’s prison stood.

Now the site of Cowick Motors, the debtor’s prison once had a fearsome reputation, as the records of the Quarter Sessions show. During the period I’m cataloguing, imprisonment for debt was a common occurence, and bearing in mind that you had to pay your court fees and, generally pay for your upkeep while imprisoned, this created a situation whereby people imprisoned for debt could remain in the debtor’s prison for many years, and even die there.

The failure of logic behind this system is very apparent to modern eyes; by remaining imprisoned a person lacked the means to earn a living, or a profit, from which to extricate themselves from their indebtedness, yet it seems that the logical absurdity of the practice of locking up debtors took a long while to dawn on society at large. That a problem was at least recognised was apparent in the various periodic Acts for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors, through which means persons confined for debt (often termed ‘prisoners of the sheriff’s ward) could apply to have their petitions heard, and their creditors could apply to the clerk of the peace for an assignment of their estate to offset their losses. After having followed due procedure a debtor would then, in theory, be eligible to leave the place of confinement. It seems however that there were many Acts passed for this purpose, indicating that they only applied in certain circumstances, to people who had been confined at certain times, so it doesn’t seem as though everybody could apply at once for their (eventual) release. Even for those who did apply, it could still take a considerable period of time for the petition to be heard, for the creditors to make their applications, and for the unfortunate debtor to be released.

The plight of those confined to the sheriff’s ward is ably demonstrated in a document dated 25 May 1744, reference QS/4/1744/Midsummer/NO/4. This document is a petition made by a certain Mr Andrew Pime, formerly of Westleigh, imprisoned in St Thomas’ gaol at the suit of a Mr Charles Cutcliffe of Bideford. In the course of explaining his plight to the court he notes that he has been imprisoned there for over three years, and ends his missive: “pray sir be my frend [sic] in this case or els [sic] I shall never be able to get out of this miserable place.” 

In this day and age, where most people have an overdraft, it seems a very strange idea that being indebted to somebody could lead to a term of indefinite imprisonment, but this was sadly the way of things in the eighteenth century. That’s bad enough on its own, of course, but when you take into account the state of eighteenth century gaols, and the frequent outbreaks of epidemic disease in the unsavoury conditions that prevailed within these terrible buildings, imprisonment for debt could often turn into a death sentence in its own right. So next time you’re wandering about in Exeter and you happen to find yourself in St Thomas, spare a thought for poor Mr Pime and the countless others like him.

The world beneath our feet….

I’ve been working with eighteenth century records on a daily basis for six months now, and as would be the case with any experience in life, this experience has added another layer to the way in which I look at the world around me. Walking out to Topsham over the weekend my eye was drawn to the eighteenth century buildings first; walking through Exeter the eye becomes attuned to details in the buildings that perhaps others might not have noticed. Gandy Street, where we know that John Fortescue, Deputy Clerk of the Peace had an office, and to which a great deal of Sessions documentation would have been sent, still preserves a great deal of its historical charm, and of course there are still traces of the earlier, medieval layout of Exeter throughout the city too.

Modern archives, (take a modern record office, for example) can hold collections that can cover an absolutely enormous range of subjects. From the records of local government (an exhaustive topic in itself), to local maps and plans, the records of local businesses and industries, diocesan records, estate collections…..the list is almost endless. An archivist needs to have a good working knowledge of all of these things in order to help answer enquiries by the public. It follows, then, that an archivist needs to have an enquiring mind, and to keep asking questions.

Not every question can be answered, of course, and often documents throw more questions out than they answer. There are an enormous number of questions that strike me as I work with this collection which I know I’m never realistically going to be able to answer by myself, and which I’m hoping to speak about at a talk later this year. Hopefully, the catalogue will provide the means for others to research this collection effectively in the long-term, and so answer many of these questions in time; and if this proves to be the case, it’ll be very satisfying to know that the catalogue has served one of its intended purposes.

Archives, then, in a sense, serve both to answer questions, and present new ones. Archives aren’t always the start of the questions, of course. It never ceases to amaze me just how close to the surface of every day life our history, the world of our ancestors, and the beginning of the next set of questions can lie. Recently I’ve been reading W.G. Hoskins’ excellent book ‘Fieldwork in Local History,’ which emphasises this point very well. In the book he details how mapwork, fieldwork, and diligent research at the archive can uncover histories of a given parish or place in ways that might not at first seem obvious, even to the veteran researcher. Just to take an example, Hoskins notes how the construction ‘Barton’ in a place name in the South West often denotes that the area of land at one time formed part of the demesne, or home farm of the manor. Hedgerows running unbroken for long stretches across the landscape, in certain parts of the United Kingdom, often follow the lines of ancient parish boundaries, and Hoskins even gives details of how to date a hedgerow by the number of different species of plant surviving in it. It’s a brilliant book, and well worth a read, and I’ll be willing to bet good money that if you do, you’ll end up pondering over the local maps for hours!

But what it highlights to me is something that I’ve long felt; that we move through a world filled in a sense with ghosts of the past. Beneath our feet in the fields and on the moors, within our towns and settlements, lie the settlements and traces of our ancestors. Exeter, known by the Roman name Isca, is a long-settled place, and the area around Exeter had been inhabited for many thousands of years before the Romans arrived. By the period of time covered in the documents I’m cataloguing, people had been living and working in Devon for thousands of years, and questions about those inhabitants of Devon can be prompted as much by a walk down the street or a glance at the map than by a diligent search of an internet search engine.

Even with questions which originated outside the archive, the archive then becomes the hub, or engine of the question since the question leads ultimately back into the archive and its records. How old is that cottage on the way towards that village? It looks eighteenth century, but is it? That patch of land marked on the map as ‘Fortescue’; which branch of the Fortescue family did it belong to, and what was it used for? When does that bridge date to, and can its construction be traced? Is the path I’m walking more ancient than it appears at first, and what was its original purpose? Besides being fun in its own right, asking and answering questions like this is part, I think, of developing the skills of an archivist. If I’ve gone down a route of enquiry myself, after all, it’ll be easier to point others in the same direction.


The archivist as a signpost to future researchers. I like that idea.








The Great Fire of Sheepwash, April 1742

Harrowing details have emerged from the Quarter Sessions records about a devastating fire in the parish of Sheepwash  (also sometimes known in the eighteenth century as Shipwash). Although the causes of the fire are far from certain we do know specifics about the effect it had on the town’s inhabitants, thanks to a petition which has emerged from the bundle for Epiphany 1743.

The extent of devastation of the fire can perhaps be best gleaned from the fact that the petitioners state that it occurred on April 29 1742, yet their petition only came before the justices of the peace towards January of the following year. Even assessing the extent of the damage had clearly been a considerable task.

Attempting to adequately describe the conditions of the blaze the petitioners wrote that the fire ‘raged with such uncommon fury that the whole town excepting a few houses was in less than four hours entirely consumed with a great part of household furniture and merchandise of the inhabitants and a large quantity of malt and corn and some bullocks and other cattle, and to complete this most melancholy scene, two poor souls by endeavouring to save their goods lost their lives.” The petitioners state that having completed a survey of the damages on the orders of Lord Walpole and Mr Justice Yeo, in their estimation the town could not be repaired for anything less than the princely sum of 3453 15s 2d, with the goods lost amounting to 912 17s 4d, giving a grand total of 4366 12s 6d (around £376,800 in 2005 money).

So diminished in circumstances had the majority of the town’s inhabitants become that they “were reduced to the utmost want and misery having been forced to lodge in fields destitute of the common necessaries of life.” The inhabitants therefore requested a certificate from the justices of the peace in order to obtain a brief in the above amount from the Treasury to repair the damage to the town.

Fire, of course, was one of the hazards of eighteenth century life, and while it is still a hazard today of course, as with everything else we have developed systems of civil response to major blazes like the one documented here. Back in the eighteenth century, at a time when the majority of construction particularly for houses of poorer inhabitants would likely have been wooden, and when the majority of buildings had thatched roofs, fire could spread incredibly quickly. Just the other day I catalogued a petition from the maltsters of Credition asking that they might reclaim the duty already paid to the receivers of revenues on their malt due to a thousand bushels of it being destroyed by a fire on 14 August 1743, leaving many of them facing financial ruin.

Nevertheless it’s easy these days when, should the worst happen we have insurance to fall back on, to forget that a fire like the one in Sheepwash in 1742 was devastating in totality, an event that affected every single aspect of the lives of the survivors from that point forward. Happily, Sheepwash is still standing, to all intents and purposes a peaceful Devonshire town once again, but if you’re ever passing through, spare a thought for its eighteenth century inhabitants following their terrible fire.

The quirks of the job

A while ago I made a passing remark in a blog post about the way that working with a collection extensively brings you to appreciate it in sometimes very weird and wonderful ways. I often find myself wondering, for example, what John Fortescue’s life was like, and trying to picture the office in which he worked originally with so much of the documentation I’m now cataloguing. But there are a great many other things that strike you when you’re working with a collection like this daily that might not seem strange or out of the ordinary to someone taking a casual look at the documents in the search room, so I thought I’d write about a few examples, because they give us the chance to make interesting deductions about the records.

Take, for example, the way in which the documents are originally received. Usually, each bundle is rolled up inside its wrapper, with the presentments and recognisances nesting within, and, more often than not, a stack of documents outside the roll that varies in date and contains all manner of material (this is the material I’ve got volunteers sorting and organising by date, session and document type). This is the way almost all the rolls have been found, and after they’ve been conserved and catalogued, everything’s flattened out and we have the normal finished product.

The documents for Midsummer and Michaelmas 1743, however, have been somewhat different. Rather than appearing inside their rolls, the presentments and recognisances, (which always come in batches, tied together onto a spindle at the side of the document with string), have been individually rolled, and placed in the box.

Separately, from 1742, there’s been a little oddity with the presentments, too. Presentments usually have a number of dates on them; there’s one on the left hand side which indicates when the offence being tried took place; rendered as ‘Epiph 1741’ for example. Often, there’s also then a series of annotated dates on the bottom of the document, such as ‘Apr. 19 1742, defendant appears and pleads not guilty’ and then ‘October 12 1742, defendant withdraws plea, submits, and is fined.’ Bear in mind that presentments aren’t always annotated at the bottom, but in the hypothetical example here, we’re assuming it has been. This gets a bit involved, so bear with me.

There’s a logical sequence of events depicted in the dates on the document. The offence happens in Epiphany 1741 (which, accounting for pre-1755 dating rules, means circa January 1742, as we would understand it today). The hypothetical document therefore has a date saying ‘Epiph 1741’ on the left hand side. With me so far? The next available sessions to *try* an offence taking place in January 1742, when Epiphany sessions would *already* have been sitting, would have been Easter 1742. The offence is therefore first presented in Easter 1742, which might’ve sat in April, say, for the sake of argument. This is where the first annotation at the bottom of the document, about the defendant pleading not guilty, comes in. The defendant eventually, however, later in the year, withdraws his not guilty plea, and is therefore fined, at the Michaelmas session for the year 1742. This gives us the ‘Oct 1742, defedant withdraws plea…’ etc etc annotation. This final annotated date, giving the date a verdict or conclusion to the case was reached, normally corresponds with the date of the sessions bundle the presentment has been found in, ie all the presentments in the Michaelmas 1742 bundle that have been annotated like this will have a little note saying what happened at the Michaelmas 1742 session. Logically then, in other words, these dates noting when an offence was tried and punished, should correlate with the surrounding material.

Since 1742, however, there have been examples of them not doing.

Take for example QS/4/1743/Michaelmas/PR/25. Felix Phillips of Silverton is being presented for breaking and entering the house of Thomas Channon and committing an assault and battery on Thomas, and Susannah, Thomas’ wife. The offence date (on the left hand side) marks that this occurred in 1737. That in itself isn’t a problem; it’s fairly common for offences to be tried long after they took place, so that in itself isn’t odd on its own. What is odd is the annotation ‘Mids. 1740 def appears, submits and is fined.’ The offence, in other words, has already been tried and concluded several years previously. So why is the presentment for the case filed on the same spindle as a group of presentments from Michaelmas 1743? This is as we’ve found them, remember, and this is by no means an isolated case; there are a good number of similar documents emerging, with the dates of the conclusions to the cases usually several years out from the session they’ve ended up being filed with. So in other words, I know from the interior logic of the documents, that at some point several hundred years before we opened the boxes here in Exeter to catalogue them, they’ve ended up getting interspersed and bound together with other material.

Finally, when I first started out cataloguing this material, there was no specific reference to ‘Easter 1743’ on any of the boxes, leading me to wonder whether there’d been a session held for Easter at all. Logically though, I found that there must’ve been, because loose documentation for highway repairs was turning up, so a court of some kind must’ve sat, and there was no documentation suggesting anything unusual going on before Easter 1743, like a major smallpox epidemic which might’ve caused the justices to postpone the sessions. So where were all the presentments and indictments, the recognisances, and the like? In the end, they emerged interspersed with the Epiphany 1743 material, where they’ve been for 300 years before we opened the boxes.

So what can we deduce from all this? Well, although we’re unlikely to find a document from an errant clerk of the peace saying ‘good grief, I seem to have dropped about 300 presentments on the floor and I’m not sure where to file them again’ it seems obvious that at some point in the last 300 years since the records were made, there was some kind of accident with some of the material from 1742 onwards which led to documentation being disordered and interspersed with material for other years. The fact that the Midsummer and Michaelmas 1743 material was found with its component documents individually rolled up suggests that someone other than the usual clerks handled this material at some point in the past, though we can’t be sure who this might have been, or when this took place. Our conservators believe that from the kind of dirt and the distribution of dirt on the documents, the records must’ve been stored at some point in a room in which a coal fire was in use, a tantalising detail.

Bringing all of this together, much of this underpins the underlying purpose of cataloguing; to bring order to material that has lain in disorder perhaps for centuries, and the process of doing this throws up anomalies like these from time to time. Because I’m working with this material day to day, I’m seeing these small oddities in a different light to that that most researchers in future will see them in, and together these small quirks build up a bigger picture. This is part of the fun of the job.

I currently don’t know the extent of the disorder in the presentments, which will become clearer as I catalogue further, though I suspect that it’ll only affect material over a relatively small range of dates. I’ve been keeping a log of it since it first became apparent about a month ago, and it’ll be interesting to see whether further evidence emerges from the collection which might explain why it occurred in the first place, though I suspect we’ll probably never know for sure. But it’s certainly intriguing and all part of the fun of the job. If only John Fortescue were alive today, I could ask him about it in person….but that’s the way it goes, I guess. Have a great weekend folks!

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.