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 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.

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.

18th century trades…

Found in one of the Quarter Sessions bundles and looks to be the genuine 18th century article, made of linen and hand-stitched!

Above, well, (if it displays above!) is an eighteenth century linnen ribbon, found in the bundles and used to tie them together. Hand-made and stitched, it is a fine example of eightennth-century textile workmanship, and examples of material of this kind come out of the records every now and again, having remained in the bundles for three centuries, to all intents and purposes untouched by human hand for all that time.

Clearly, someone, somewhere, was making linen items that were being supplied to the court, but the court had other suppliers too. Perhaps the most prolific is Mr Score, a printer who supplied the updated statutes to the Sessions, printed tables of clerk’s fees and conducted other printing work for the justices of the peace. His trade was lucrative and the income regular; accounts material, where it survives in the bundles, almost always includes items concerning Mr Score’s bill. Things like this, as you catalogue, become little familiarities you look forward to encountering again, little reminders that behind the drama and often crushing social injustices that the Quarter Sessions highlight so vividly, life was continuing as normal for many, and the routines of life were continuing as they had done for centuries previously. Masons worked on the castles and brideswells, glaziers repaired damaged windows, carpenters outfitted the court chambers, and created beautifully-carved mahogany seats with sumptous crimson damask cushions for the justices to be seated on. The bills for these tradesmen’s work survive, often giving precise detail as to when the work was completed; I’m yet to discover whether the seats I’ve mentioned here survive in the castle, but if I find at some point that they do, I’ll let you know.

Beyond the trades supporting and supplying the Quarter Sessions, of course, the community was full of other tradesmen and artisans. Britain was not yet fully industrialised of course, but the first stirrings of industry were soon to make themselves felt. The Industrial Revolution, when it finally arrived in earnest, didn’t arrive in a vacuum. Britain, as with every other nation, was a land populated by craftsmen and tradesmen in addition to those working the land as their forbears had done for generations. The Quarter Sessions records give quite a good indication of just how many craftsmen and tradesmen there were operating in society, and the sheer range of occupations undertaken by them, since in the vast majority of recognisances and a good many presentments, the occupations of those named in the documents tend to be given. There were soap boilers, perriwig makers, clock makers, masons, glaziers, tailors, mariners,  brewers, innkeepers, cordwainers, sergeweavers, weavers, woolcombers, bricklayers, apothercaries, surgeons, barbers, hotpresters, shopkeepers, and the wonderfully titled ‘haberdasher of hats’ to name just a few.

As with many things I find when cataloguing these records, there’s an interesting project in there for any reasearcher bold enought to attempt it: wouldn’t it be interesting to collate all these various trades and professions, quantify them in terms of numbers for each trade over a given period, and build up a picture of their distribution throughout the County, using the records of the Quarter Sessions? Well, it’s a thought, anyway!

Shipwreck in Bigbury Bay!

For the first time in three hundred years, first hand accounts of a shipwreck in Bigbury Bay, Devon, have emerged into the light of day.

On Tuesday 21 March 1738 the Dutch hoy ‘Anna and Helena,’ captained by Adrian Wagnaer of Amsterdam, bound from Bordeaux to Flensburg in Denmark with a cargo of around 140 tons of wine, brandy, prunes, coffee and indigo, was blown off course by a violent storm, into Bigbury Bay, a renowned death trap for ships, about three miles from Kingsbridge, Devon, becoming stranded on Thurlestone Sands. Having received offers of assistance from several of the local neighbouring gentleman, among them William Ilbert esquire and John Roose [Rooxe], several local men were employed to begin preserving the cargo, ships anchors, sails and cables.

However, as is common with incidents of shipwreck in this period, a very large mob formed, stated by the captain to have been in the region of two or three thousand strong, several hundred of whom began breaking through the sides of the vessel with hatchets, axes and other edge tools, smashing holes in the deck, and destroying the stern post, to ensure that the vessel would be unable to be refloated. They then began to plunder the cargo, and when, amongst others, John Roose intervened, one John Vivian, a servant to a Robert Lakeman of Churstow, yeoman, struck his horse on the nose with the haft of his axe, nearly dismounting him, and threatened to murder him if he stepped further forward. In the meantime the mob got hold of the captain and several of them including John Lishions of South Milton, shoemaker and Thomas Lishions the younger of the same, labourer, his brother, with James Jarvis of the same, beat him so severely that even when he gave evidence a month later he was still suffering from his injuries and still carried the marks of his ordeal.

The mob, greatly emboldened by the success of John Vivian and an accomplice, Arthur Lachcraft [Luckcraft], a servant of one Andrew Lidstone of South Huish, gentleman, began plundering the vessel wholesale, such that the men of the customs for the port of Dartmouth and all others who had been employed to save the cargo could do nothing but preserve around 14 hogsheads of wine, and two of indigo. The plunderers even took one of the sails of the ship, allegedly dividing it up between themselves. Over the rest of the day and night and into the following afternoon the mob continued to plunder the vessel; on the afternoon of March 22nd a customs officer named Daniel Shath, attempting to apprehend a looter carrying a hogshead of brandy, was struck a severe blow on the forehead and received a grievous head wound as a result.

To some extent, there’s nothing particularly unusual in these events. Similar reactions to stranded or wrecked vessels on behalf of local inhabitants in coastal areas occurred throughout the country in this period, and for many there were a number of grey areas concerning what exactly constituted salvage, plunder, the taking of wrecked cargo from a wrecked vessel, or intervening directly, as is the case here, to directly prevent a stranded vessel which was hitherto intact from being re-floated and its cargo saved. It should be borne in mind that the vessel was loaded with what were in the eighteenth century very high value luxury goods, and, as was the case throughout the country, for a population frequently living in endemic poverty, in a society where theft of food for survival was commonplace, the arrival of what was effectively an eighteenth-century mobile warehouse full of luxury items was simply too much of a temptation to resist. Here, however, the similarities with most wrecking end, because this event turns out to have caused nothing short of a full-blown diplomatic incident with the States General (what we now call Netherlands).

On 26 March 1738 Philip Pentire [Pentyre] wrote a letter to a Mr Van Hop, then Envoy Extraordinary of the States General, giving an account of the wrecking of the vessel and the plundering of the cargo by the local inhabitants. Mr Van Hop, in an extraordinary move, apparently took the letter straight to the King, and wrote a strongly-worded letter to Lord Harrington demanding an explanation for the barbarous treatment of the ship’s crew, and demanding to know what steps had been taken to bring the culprits to justice and to ensure that future incidents of the kind did not happen again.

As you can imagine, the King was not, as far as can be discerned, at all pleased with this state of affairs, and there follows a flurry of administrative delegation as everyone from the King down to the justices of the peace pressed their subordinates to ensure justice was served. Lord Harrington enclosed a copy of Van Hop’s and Pentyre’s letters to Mr Cruwys, a justice of the peace in Devon, with instructions that the local justices of the peace were to make enquiries and bring the culprits to justice, and in the meantime to keep him appraised of the situation so that he could inform the King as to what progress was being made. Cruwys sent these instructions to Mr Fortescue, deputy clerk of the peace at Exeter.

Interestingly, my own research indicates that Harrington had also been in touch with the Treasury and customs regarding this wreck, as calendars of their letters from April 1738 demonstrate, but until now these seem to have been the only records available regarding the wreck. Now, for the first time in three hundred years, the full story of this ill-fated vessel and its wreck and plunder on the eighteenth-century Devon coast from first hand eyewitness accounts, has been brought together thanks to the records that survive from the Devon Quarter Sessions.