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:


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!


Cataloguing update: The Documents III: Apprenticeship material, Convictions, Rates, Notices and General Administration

Apprenticeship material (category ‘AP’) documents apprenticeship indentures created or discharged by the court in session. Usually (though not always) a poor child of a parish, being maintained through the parish poor rate, is placed by the churchwardens and overseers of the poor of the parish with a person in the community who takes them on as an apprentice and undertakes to teach them their trade. The potential flaws in such a system can probably be guessed at, and there are frequent cases brought before the courts by apprentices who claim that their masters have failed to feed or clothe them adequately, or have beaten them to excess, and instances of apprentices running away from their masters are not uncommon. In one notable case the apprenticeship of Joseph Hendy of Plympstock to Edmond Ley, a yeoman of the same parish, was discharged because Ley was not only violent and abusive towards Hendy, but he also ‘went about with pistol and sword, asking Hendy to supply him with powder and shot and threatening to kill him’ if he refused. (QS/4/1734/Epiphany/AP/8). Running away from one’s master, of course, was no small matter, and could have dire consequences. In 1738 Philip Edbury of Crediton was presented for harbouring and entertaining his daughter, Anne, who had run away from her master, James Reed junior. Reed had it proclaimed by the town crier that Anne had left his service without permission and that no-one was to entertain or harbour her. The reasons for Anne’s fleeing her master can only be guessed at but the efforts of her family to come to her assistance resulted in criminal proceedings.


Convictions (category ‘CO’) are not what they might appear at first glance. Usually only a small number of these documents are found in a bundle if at all, and they are not notices of conviction as we might more widely understand them today. Instead, they document convictions for profanity or the swearing of oaths, for which the convicted might be fined a certain amount to be contributed to the upkeep of the poor of the parish where the offence took place. More details of the offence, such as where and when it occurred, if it happened on a Sabbath or during the hours of divine service are given at times. These are interesting little documents, which together with presentments for disorderly alehouses which permitted tippling on a Sabbath, or presentments for working or carry on a trade on a Sabbath or during the hours of divine service, help to demonstrate a society that was still very much upholding the ordering of society by norms of expected religious observance.


Rates (category ‘RA’) One of the duties of the Quarter Sessions, as we have seen, was to conduct civil administration, and there were several rates which it was the duty of the jurors of the Quarter Sessions to establish during the sessions. These rates were the rates of the price of corn, rates for the price of land carriage, and rates of wages, which quite literally dictated how much an individual in a given trade was permitted to earn. For a historian or researcher of the economy these documents should be particularly interesting but they also have important social implications too, because they demonstrate the extent to which the economy and, by extension, the standard of living of persons within the various strata of society was governed and administered centrally. They are demonstrative of attempts to regulate the economy but also by extension to maintain a social order.


Notices and General Administration (Category ‘NO’). It’s something of an in-joke within the archive profession that archivists aren’t meant to create a ‘miscellaneous’ category….but within the Quarter Sessions bundles there are certainly plenty of documents that appear as ‘one-offs’ and don’t have a category of their own into which they can easily be placed. Where, for example, should one place a document detailing an order of the Privy Council to transport mariners to the Royal Navy’s dockyards on the south coast for impressments into the Navy? (QS/4/1734/Easter/NO/2). What about the printer’s bills for the books of statutes, and the calendar of clerk’s fees? This category serves to bring together all such kinds of general administrative documentation with which the court was presented. Within it, you’ll find the occasional heart-rending petition, such as that for the various prisoners languishing in Exeter’s County jail in 1738 who had been sentenced to transportation, some of them many sessions ago. Such prisoners were entitled to an allowance paid by the sheriff for their upkeep while awaiting transportation, yet for seven weeks the allowance had not been paid, leaving the prisoners on the brink of starvation. (QS/4/1738/Michaelmas/NO/4).


Likewise, in pursuance of an act for the release of insolvent debtors, an individual in the County jail imprisoned for debt applied to be relieved at the Michaelmas Sessions. In order to do this a formal notice had to be published, and as a result, a copy of the London Gazette for August 1738 with the appropriate notice survives in the Michaelmas 1738 bundle, which besides other things, documents a battle between the Russians and Turks in the Russo-Turkish war of 1736-9. At first glance you might mistake this document for a relatively modern newspaper, and once again, its survival in the bundles gives another interesting ‘one off’ that adds a real flavour to the overall material.


So, last few posts are a  general breakdown of most of what you’ll tend to find in the Quarter Sessions bundles. There are other classes of document such as ‘bastardy bonds’ settlement and removal orders, and gaol calendars to name but a few, which are being dealt with a little differently and I’ll come to those in a future update (I think I’ve probably given you enough to plough through for now!). But hopefully today’s set of updates will help to give anyone interested in consulting this material something of a flavour of what can be found and how it might help their research, as well as an indication of just how varied and interesting the world of the Courts of Quarter Sessions, by virtue of their wide remit, could be.


As you can probably tell from the above, working with this material is absolutely brilliant; you can never tell from one day to the next what strange and wonderful, quirky or downright odd details might emerge amongst all of the otherwise relatively routine of the court’s business. If there’s one thing for sure though it’s that there’s never a dull moment with the Quarter Sessions!

Cataloguing update: The Documents II: Highways, Discharge Papers and Informations and Examinations

Highways material (category ‘HI’) is probably the next most numerous class of documentation, and is composed generally of highway repair orders, orders for the repairs of bridges, and certificates that they’ve been repaired after inspection by one of the County’s surveyors. Notices that a parish has been presented because the highways are unusable frequently survive, as do all manner of supporting documentation. For anybody interested in the development of the road network within the County, the state of the County’s bridges or eighteenth century civil administration in general, these documents are a must-see. Within the documentation there are often estimates for the cost to repair or rebuild given bridges; an estimate for the construction of a new bridge in Topsham indicated a cost of £300, (£25,749 in 2005 money, according to TNA’s currency calculator!).


Discharges (Category ‘DI’) are documents detailing the discharge of persons from recognisances, or from duties or offices that had been assigned by the court. The eighteenth century justices system was one of private prosecutions pursued by private individuals. It may be that two aggrieved parties reached a settlement out of court, and the complainant would write to the justices to ask that the charges against the defendant be dropped and that he or she be released from his or her recognisance. Requests for discharge from offices are relatively uncommon though, for example, in Michaelmas 1734 Henry Butson requested discharge from his office of constable of the hundred of East Budleigh on the grounds of his deafness (QS/4/1734/Michaelmas/DI/3). Requests for discharge from jury service are rather more common and some of the excuses proffered can be quite interesting.


No doubt there were frequently valid reasons for absence though the veracity of the sudden appearance of health complaints might be difficult to prove….and for the Epiphany Sessions 1737/8 on 9 January 1738, Robert Colman requested that he be excused from attendance at the court because ‘the undersherrif hath issued out a warrant against me and designs to have me took to the Castle at the castle if I appear, for that reason I humbly desire to be excused this time and the next assizes I design to take off the indictment’. (QS/4/1738/Epiphany/DI/5) What the justices made of that one is anybody’s guess!


Informations and Examinations (category ‘EX’) are some of the most interesting documents in the sessions bundles. Informations are effectively the witness statements given by persons purpoting to have witnessed a crime or event with which the court is interested. Examinations are the results of questioning of the accused. Frequently these documents provide fascinating detail and they are well worth a ready; for reasons of speed and brevity of cataloguing I often tend to simply give the names of the persons giving the information and perhaps the alleged offence to which they are related, but for particularly out of the ordinary cases or events I will often give a more detailed description. One fascinating document I unearthed the other day was the examination of one James Matthews, (QS/4/1738/Epiphany/EX/3) in which he seems to have recounted his life story, including his birth in Dublin, his moving to Spittalfields in London for five years, his settling down and starting a family in Gloucester, his work on the Bristol-Ireland shipping routes and a journey to the West Indies aboard a vessel from Ireland. Finally he details the wrecking of his vessel and how he came to be landed from the wreck in Cornwall, and maintains that on 4 April 1737, near Caraline Bay Bar (where he was shipwrecked) he was struck blind by lightening. I’m yet to determine where ‘Caraline Bay Bar’ is, so if anyone out there has more information I’d love to hear from you, but the detailed first-hand account of this shipwreck, just one of the shipwrecks I’ve uncovered in the documentation, is fascinating. I have further documentation about another shipwreck emerging from the ‘EX’ class of documents for the bundle I’m currently working on at the moment, so stay tuned!

Cataloguing update: The Documents I: Recognisances, Presentments and Indictments

Good morning everyone! As promised, this week’s first update will be dealing with the subject of what documents tend to appear in the Quarter Sessions bundles, and how they can be used. I’ll also be mentioning some of the more unusual ‘one-offs’ that I’ve found so far as well!

I say first update for the week because I’ve been away on leave so I’ll be treating you to an extra update to make up for it; and it’ll be an update with a decidedly nautical theme so if ships and shipwrecks are your thing, stay tuned!

But first, on to the documents. There are a good many of main types of documents, and I’m going to detail some of these in separate posts for easier reference.

Recognisances (category ‘RE’)Probably the most numerous document of which the rolls are composed is the ‘recognisance’ (catalogued under my scheme as ‘RE’). These documents are effectively a bond for the appearance of an individual in court at the following sessions. They come in two main varieties, recognisances for people accused of crimes, and recognisances for witnesses. In general, an accused person (or sometimes several accused people) will be the first named person on the document, and they will be bound in a certain amount of money for their appearance. Usually, other people, often related or tradesmen in a similar or related profession, stand as sureties, usually bound in a lesser amount.

The amounts by which persons are bound vary, but they are frequently over ten or twenty pounds, (which was an impossible figure for most people to pay) thus ensuring most people would simply have no choice but to turn up to court at the next sessions. Sometimes, the primary person on the bond is not the accused, but a relative, often a spouse. Often, though not always, details of the offence are given; frequently an individual is bound to appear ‘to answer for such things as he stands indicted by Nathaniell Drake of Crediton concerning an assault and battery” for example.

Often individuals are ‘bound over’ to keep the peace towards a certain person, or ‘to be of good behaviour’ for a set period. These kinds of agreements were a useful method of keeping a lid on disputes between quarrelling individuals until tensions cooled, and if the dispute continued the individuals concerned could be held to account for failing to keep the peace that they had agreed to uphold.

The other kind of recognisance which tends to appear, usually bundled separately to the main bundle, is the group of recognisances for witnesses. These oblige persons to present their evidence against the accused, and otherwise tend to follow a similar format to the first kind of recognisance, though I have found that in general there are rarely sureties asked; frequently only one individual is named and made to put up security for their attendance in court at the next session.

So why are recognisances useful? Well, not only do they give names and often help point out the familial relations between individuals, but they also usually (though not always) give professions of the named individuals, and there are a huge variety of professions appearing already. Peruke makers, periwig makers, clockmakers, tailors, husbandmen, yeomen, sergeweavers, worsted combers, blacksmiths, butchers, white bakers, to name but a few….yesterday I even had a ‘haberdasher of hats’ appear in my records!

For a family historian, or a historian of labour, the 18th century economy, social historians to name but a few, these are extremely useful details. They help to give an impression of the variety of occupations that existed and whereabouts they were found, and they frequently demonstrate families either in the same or related occupations. They can help to pinpoint what exactly it was that your ancestor did professionally, and firm details of that kind of information is not always easy to come by in family history research.

Presentments and Indictments (category ‘PR’). The next extremely important document to consider is the ‘presentment’ so called because, as the document is worded, the jurors ‘present that [ Joe Bloggs ] did X at X place’ and give details of the allegation being investigated. Presentments are classed under my catalogue as ‘PR’ and this category also covers indictments. Presentments are the first stage of a formal accusation. In general, if the jurors decided that there was indeed a case to be answered, they would endorse the document as a ‘true bill’ in which case the presentment became a formal indictment. For whatever reason this rule is not always followed hard and fast; the presentments for which ‘no bill’ was found tend to be bound together, but within those that a true bill was found for, there are often documents that aren’t endorsed either way. Villiage and hundred constables could also present persons to the court, and constables presentments, or returns of constables of the hundreds which document that they have nothing to present, are also catalogued with the main sequence ofp resentments, as are Grand Jury and Petty Jury presentments.

In one of those cases where archival documents might fit comfortably into two categories (thus providing headaches for the archivist!) towns and parishes were frequnently presented for failing to repair their highways. These presentments are usually bound up with the ‘criminal’ presentments and have been catalogued accordingly, but the rest of the documentation about the highways, including the orders for the repair of a given road or bridge, and the notice sent by the court to the parish that they had been presented at the sessions, are catalogued under my broad ‘highways’ category, HI.

Presentments are fantastic documents, and one of my favourites. Not only do they give frequently intricate detail about an offence, such as ‘QS/4/1738/Michaelmas/PR/10’ which documents an assault on a justice, and exactly what words were said by the defendant whilst carrying out the assault, for example. They are also one of the classes of documents that betray the Quarter Sessions’ medieval roots. The standard formula of words for an accused person is that they ‘with force of arms and bows and arrows at X place did X’. The ‘force of arms and bows and arrows’ bit is, by the eighteenth century, a standard legal form of words that had been used since time out of mind and isn’t to be taken literally, but it derives ultimately from the time when disputes really were settled in that manner, by the great landowners, at least. As such they are in effect a meaningless pomposity at this stage which help to give an unintentionally ridiculous air at times to allegations; the denizens of eighteenth century Devon are portrayed as stealing cider or legs of lamb ‘with force of arms and bows and arrows.’

Presentments, then are the bread and butter of the Quarter Sessions bundles, and as you can imagine I always look forward to cataloguing them. There’s always an interesting case or two which are out of the ordinary; this week alone I’ve had several cases of assault and battery on a justice of the peace, theft of beehives, theft of ten gallons of cider, and a bull chase through the streets of Newton Abbot! In one particular document a burglary was presented, and all of the stolen goods listed ,which effectively detailed absolutely everything the unfortunate victims owned. For many kinds of research this sort of detail is essential, since it clearly documents the standard of living of a section of society, and the kinds of goods and luxuries they had access to. Through the presentments I’ve been able to glean details of eighteenth century pastimes, the types of goods on sale to people, I’ve viewed petty rivalries and fallings out between professionals (such as the assorted shoemakers who cut up Squire Smith’s display of shoes at the open fair in Crediton, see QS/4/1738/Epiphany/PR/48), and much more besides. They offer a fascinating view into the lives and pre-occupations of the eighteenth century, and they’re a joy to work with.

Cataloguing: General Approach

As I promised in my first blog post, this blog will be something of an insight into the world of a cataloguing archivist. The Quarter Sessions material being catalogued in this project comprises a vast bulk of judicial and administrative documentation, and I thought it would be interesting to demonstrate how I’m approaching the challenge of taking all this uncatalogued documentation and turning it into a catalogued, searchable resource for archive users.

The general approach I’ve taken with the material is to break down each roll into its constituent document types, and create file and then item-level descriptions for these document types. A search room user will be able to look at the Qurarter Sessions Bundles, navigate down a level to the year they’re interested in, then down another level to the session (Epiphany, Easter, Midsummer or Michaelmas) and then down a further level to the kind of document they’re after, such as the recognisances, or highways material. The level below that is the item level description, where the individual document is described.

So, why is it that I’ve chosen this particular approach? Well, there are several main reasons, some of which are more archival in nature and others which stem partly from a practicality point of view. For starters, one of the things I noticed in my first week in the job, when I took a look at the strongrooms and viewed the material I’d be cataloguing, is that for most years of Quarter Sessions bundle material, there’s an accompanying ‘loose documents’ box. These boxes have tended to contain (in the cases of those for the 1730s) documentation from throughout the decade, and for a given year, documentation for all the different sessions within that judicial year. It became clear in the first week then that cataloguing this material was also going to involve considerable sorting of documentation in order to impart, well, order to these documents.

Since I was going to be sorting these boxes of documentation out as I went anyway, it made sense as I was doing the sorting into year and session to carry on sorting into document type as well. While this sorting is often quite time-consuming (and it’s something I will be pitching for volunteers to assist with soon) it nevertheless has a large number of benefits later down the line. Currently, for those sessions bundles that are not catalogued, if a search room user needs to consult the sessions bundles, it’s necessary to issue them with a large amount of documentation to look through.

The advantage of the system I’ve begun to catalogue to is that now, instead of having to issue a bundle’s worth of documentation (which can often be composed of hundreds of documents), a search room user can be much more specific about what it is they wish to see. If, for example, their search has only brought up the discharge paper for Elizabeth Richards of Cullompton, widow, from the Michaelmas session 1735, the user needs only be issued with one document from a group of two. This has benefits for the user, in that they’re not faced with a large amount of documentation to work through, for the staff producing the material, and it’s also better from a conservation point of view, because instead of having to have every document in that bundle produced, as is unavoidable for the uncatalogued material, only one or two documents should actually need to be issued.

While, as I’ve noted above, the sorting of the documentation in order to prepare it for cataloguing in this way can be quite time-consuming, the nature of the way the documents have accumulated over the centuries here means that a considerable amount of sorting was already going to be on the cards anyway, so why not take the opportunity whilst doing so to arrange the material in a way that is as user-friendly and (document-friendly!) as possible? In this way the process of arrangement and cataloguing becomes part of the overall framework of preservation of the archival collections, rather than just an exercise in listing and describing what’s held.