The laughing justice


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

All the best folks and happy Easter!


Another Mystery Solved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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!

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 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!

‘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.