How do you solve a problem like Leonard Pocock?

This post is about circumstances. It’s about elusive circumstances, to be exact. So many times as I catalogue these records I stumble across crimes that leave more questions than answers, like the indictment I saw today in which an apparently rather annoyed chap decided to assault three passers by in the road and then chuck a great amount of bloody, filthy, stinking water over them and all the goods they were taking to market in Plymouth. Why? Good question, I haven’t the foggiest, I’m afraid, but I’d love to invent a time machine that would enable me to go back and find out the details, because frankly it’s quite an odd crime.

So you can imagine how I feel about the rather contentious figure of Leonard Pocock. Mr Pocock (the spelling of his name varies but Pocock is the most common form) was a yeoman who lived in Ottery St Mary, and who seems to have had more than his fair share of trouble with tresspassers. Mr Pococke’s troubles seem to have started around Midsummer 1732 when a John Hoskyns of Kentisbeare was indicted for breaking into a close of land belonging to him at Kentisbeare called Heywoods, and for stealing two horse seams’ worth of wood. Problems for the Pockocks continued. In Epiphany 1735 Leonard’s wife, Elizabeth, gave information before a justice that during her husband’s recent sickness several items, namely a packsaddle, some girths, bags and a bridle, had been taken from a stable on their farmstead, and that she suspected one Charles Churchill or his wife of being the culprit. She claimed to have found some of these items in Churchill’s home and that he had given a spurious account of having received them by borrowing them from others.

In Midsummer 1736 John Gardiner of Ottery St Mary was presented for breaking and entering the dwelling of Mr Pocock, and Elizabeth and Sarah Taylor of the same parish were also presented for stealing from his land. All seems fairly quiet until Easter 1741 where, amongst other things, Pocock’s land was raided for wood and timber by various people in the locality, and Ann Clement of Ottery St Mary, Sarah Harris of the same parish, widow and Elizabeth Taylor of Taunton St Mary Magdalen in Somerset, were indicted for assault and battery on Elizabeth Pocock, Leonard’s wife. At the same time the Pococks were indicted for assaulting Ann Clement, who was the wife of Mr Henry Clemennt of the City of London, ‘haberdasher of small wares.’ Things were clearly becoming a bit more heated.

By Midsummer of the same year Elizabeth Taylor, who had now moved to Taunton in Somerset, was indicted for stealing a peck of beans from Pocock’s land. At the same time, John French of Ottery St Mary cut down an ash tree growing on Pocock’s land, too. Ann Clement (whose husband, interestingly, is this time given as Henry Clement of London, linen draper) was again indicted for stealing from the Pocock’s dwelling, and for attacking Pocock’s wife, and Leonard was indicted for retaliating in kind. Here’s where it gets a bit weird though. The Pococks were also both indicted at Midsummer 1741 Sessions for “unlawfully breaking and entering, using counterfeit keys and unlawful and private ways, into the dwelling of Samuel Stoddon, and for taking several chairs of the value of five shillings.”

Finally, the following year, Leonard was indicted for “in consideration of the sum of three guineas paid to him, obliterating the name of John Annear from a warrant for the arrest of John Annear, James Tozer and Peter Palmer, former officers of the parish of Kentisbeare” which had been issued to Pococke due to the failure of Annear, Tozer and Palmer to attend a previous sessions to present the accounts of the parish as directed, and to give the parish book of Kentisbeare as evidence in the case. What happened in this case is uncertain, in that there was no verdict recorded concerning it. Short of it having been tried at the Assizes or the charges having been dropped in documentation which didn’t survive, it’s unclear what happened to the Pococks in this case. But it’s certainly an interesting note to disappear on. A freeholders book for 1746 has been transcribed by a volunteer and Mr Pocock doesn’t appear at any point in the list for Ottery St Mary, so it’s possible that, at least by 1746, he’d died. A George Peacock, alias Poake, perhaps a relation, is listed as living in Kentisbear, however, and a William Pocock was a freeholder in Clayhidon at this time.

So what are we to make of the discord in Ottery St Mary? The Pococks clearly managed to stir up some opprobrium against them and it looks to have degenerated into something of a feud between themselves and a few particular individuals and their associates. The true ins and outs of it all will probably never be known to us but one thing I think it’s useful to bear in mind when piecing together a puzzle like this is that we’re looking at a point in time when land previously held in common was rapidly falling into the ownership of individuals as the manorial system gradually declined through changes in agricultural practice, and changing social trends. Was it the case that people had been used to using the resources growing on the Pocock’s land in recent years, and did Leonard and Elizabeth mark themselves out for opprobrium through overly-vigorous prosecution of infringements of their property rights?

It seems almost as though people began to make a point of breaking into their dwelling and of making petty thefts from their lands, and I can well imagine the kind of siege mentality that might have developed as a result. The Pococks themselves don’t seem to have been above a spot of breaking and entering of course, though how much was this a response to years of provocation? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were many other incidents between the Pococks and their neighbours that never reached court. The falsification of a writ, however, puts Leonard in a particularly interesting light. Although we don’t know for certain what happened regarding the allegation, he seems on the face of it to have been considered capable of petty corruption; did he have a reputation in the area for actions like this, and was he hated on these grounds? We’ll probably never know but they’re interesting questions to pose all the same.

So, if any of you are reading this from the pleasant environs of Ottery St Mary bear in mind that, for a brief period in the eighteenth century, your locality was the scene of something of a crime wave, and a seemingly vicious feud with more twists and turns than the plot of an episode of Midsomer Muders!

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.

‘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.

Judicial overkill….

You may remember a few weeks ago I posted about a period of hardship in Devon resulting in a spate of thefts of food and fuel, in particular, and that I noted that the justices of the peace were somewhat….uncompromising in their approach to sentencing the various persons convicted. Well, just to put the sham of eighteenth century ‘justice’ into context rather neatly, here’s the case of Mary Howe of Heavitree, spinster. Mary Howe fell foul of the law by milking some cows in a field at Heavitree then belonging to George Tarr, a place then known as the Seven Acres. She ‘feloniously’ milked the cows, which also belonged to Mr Tarr, taking several quarts of milk, of the value of (wait for it!) five pence. Her fate? As with most of those convicted of petty thefts at that particular sessions, she was transported to the colonies. Yes, that’s right. For taking goods worth five pence.

Because I have an insatiable curiosity, (and, happily, because it’s also my job!) I thought I’d compare Mary Howe’s fate to those of the men and women charged with stealing milk at the Midsummer sessions a year later, in 1741. Of those found guilty, all were sentenced to be whipped and discharged. As I noted in my post the other week it did seem as though the justices had been trying to make a point with their sentencing at the Midsummer 1740 sessions; confronted with a crime wave, the knee-jerk reaction was to come down hard on those found guilty. But this total inconsistency in policy between identical crimes illustrates just how senseless eighteenth-century judicial policy was, in my opinion. Had Mary Howe committed her crime a year later, on the evidence it seems that she’d most likely have been treated like anybody else and been whipped and then discharged.

But she committed her offence at the height of an epidemic of thefts, as people struggled to survive a brutal winter. This was a winter so severe, incidentally, that there was frost until July, people camped in tents on the Thames, and birds froze to death in the air; in London throughout January and February, the temperature never rose above freezing, according to Met Office pre-instrumental meteorology records. (Thanks to my colleagues in the Met Office for providing that information, by the way!). For Mary Howe, an identical crime, a theft of goods of the value of five pence, meant transportation. Not only was this quite patently a ludicrous over-reaction, demonstrative of the very worst of eighteenth century judicial excesses, but it also made very little sense from the point of view of costs to the court, and ultimately to the people of Devon. Put it this way, the cost simply of having Mary Howe’s case heard by the court vastly exceeded the sum of five pence, let alone the cost of transporting her half way around the world, providing for her en-route and ensuring that she were able to complete her sentence. It seems an obscenely petty crime to merit such a draconian response.

The ‘Great Frost’ comes to Devon?

A double update for you this week, because, as often happens, another strand of interesting material emerged which I just had to share. As you can imagine, after cataloguing a collection for a few months you begin to become aware of things that are outside the normal run of things, such as a preponderance of highway material for a session, indicating that the road network was particularly suffering at that point in time, or documentation about out of the ordinary events, like the ‘skimmington ride’ I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

Well, for Midsummer Sessions 1740 there were no fewer than 85 presentments (these are the documents detailing allegations) and 113 recognisances (binding people to turn up to court to answer charges, or give evidence about crimes committed). While these are relatively large numbers, that’s not completely out of the ordinary, but the fact that the crimes are, in the majority, related to thefts of food, agricultural equipment and fuel, indicated that times had been hard in Devon the previous winter, and the Midsummer sessions was mopping up the resulting crime wave.

So, I did a bit of digging, and it turns out that 1740 was a terrible year in Ireland, a year whose winter and sping were known as the ‘Great Frost,’ where families burned through winter fuel reserves in matters of days to try to survive, where harvests were meagre, and people perished of famine. Although the hardships of 1740 have been overshadowed by the terrors of the Potato Famine a century later, the Irish Famine of 1740-41 was so terrible that contemporaries called it the ‘Bliain an Áir’ or ‘Year of Slaughter.’

Most scholarship I’ve found so far focuses almost without exception on the situation in Ireland, but even within this scholarship there is an acknowledgement that the weather system causing the hardship in Ireland prevailed over most of Europe; indeed, weather readings from mainland Britain indicate that the weather was just as bad on this side of the Irish Sea, too.

What caused the unseasonal weather is not currently known with any certainty, though similar years or periods of hardship and unseasonable winters affecting the entire Continent often have links to volcanic eruptions in other parts of the world lowering global temperatures through the accumulation of ash and soot in the Earth’s atmosphere, as happened after the Krakatoa eruption in the nineteenth century (the noise of which interestingly, produced what is reckoned to be the loudest sound ever heard in human history). The 1783 eruption of Laki, in Iceland, caused famine across Europe thanks to the volume of ash ejected blocking sunlight, and the flouride within the ash which poisoned crops and livestock. In this light, the eruptions of Mount Asahi and Mount Tarumai in Japan in 1739 and the subsequent unusually cold weather in Europe may indeed be related.

But what of the people of Devon? Well, depressingly it seems the justices of the peace, confronted with this crime wave, reacted by transporting just about everyone convicted of crimes of theft. Eighteenth century society, though often branded ‘enlightened’ had yet to make the link between the reality that when people were facing starvation they became more likely to turn to  crime to survive the period of hardship. It was not the nature of the eighteenth century world to attempt to understand the underlying reasons for waves of crime of this nature; instead such episodes were seen as threats to the social order which had to be removed, in this case to the colonies.

As is often the case with cataloguing this material, I feel gald that I don’t live in the eighteenth century world. We have the tools to understand these kinds of social situations more deeply, and the capacity to respond to them with greater humanity than our forebears did. Nevertheless, we must always remember that it is not whether we call ourselves ‘enlightened,’ as our eighteenth century forebears did, that actually makes us so, but whether we act in similar situations today with an enlightened attitude towards the genuine human misery these situations can cause.

As an optimist, I like to think that we do. And on that philosophical note, I’ll wish you all a great weekend!

Don’t underestimate Totnes!

As many of you may have seen recently, the Devon market town of Totnes has made headlines recently for bringing the multinational coffee chain Costa Coffee to rethink its decision to open a branch in Totnes’ famously independent high street. This penchant for standing up for the unique identity of Totnes has historical precedent, too, as a document from the Quarter Sessions records demonstrates.

At the Midsummer sessions 1739, Christopher Predam, then mayor of Totnes, wrote a strongly-worded letter to John Fortescue, clerk of the peace, asserting Totnes’ right to try various men involved in an alleged incident of bull-baiting in the town, citing their case as being the proper jurisdiction of Totnes’ borough courts by right of the town’s charter:

‘the justices of the county at large being by an express clause in our charter prohibited from any wise intermedling with matters that arise within the borough or parish of Totnes, as this riotous bull-beating it seems did, and is so lain on the indictment, which therefore I apprehend will (if proceeded upon) be an infringement of the liberties of the borough: and as the Office I bear therein, obliges me to use my best endeavours to prevent all such, I now write you this to acquaint you therewith, and desire that you will withdraw those processes and proceed no further therein.’

Just in case anybody doubted his intentions Predam thought it necessary to add a postscript:

‘I propose, God willing, to show our charter to the next Judges of Assizes and to have their directions on it for I am perfectly desirous that all justice should run in its proper channell, but will not tamely submit to any innovations.’

I wonder what Predam would have made of the citizens of Totnes’ efforts to preserve their high street’s independence? I think he’d have approved!

The Strange and the wonderful, part II

As promised last week my update this week is to do with some of the more unusual things I’ve discovered while cataloguing this collection. One of the great things about the Quarter Sessions records are that extremely colourful snapshots of eighteenth century life can be gleaned from many of the events described.


This was a world in which scientific understanding was yet to pierce the veil of mystery that surrounded many of the more unusual or extraordinary occurrences that might befall a person, and something of that mystery clings to an unusual examination of a defendant, James Matthews from Epiphany 1738. In this examination Matthews, an Irishman originally from Dublin, pretty much gives his life story to the justices of the peace who are questioning him, and documents the various voyages he has undertaken, both on the Bristol Channel-Ireland run and much further afield, including the West Indies. His final voyage saw him shipwrecked at a place given in the document as ‘Caraline Bay Bar’ and Matthews, one of only 11 survivors of a crew of 34, was rescued and taken ashore at a place given as ‘Whitsun Bay’ near Penzance, Cornwall. Whether this is the bay now known as Whitsand Bay is unclear. A shipwreck, as you might have gathered, always tends to pique my interest, but Matthews went further, claiming that at some point in time close to the shipwreck, on 4 April 1737, he was struck blind by lightening, and claimed still to be blind many months later when giving his deposition.

It’s one of the great joys of working with this material to absorb the intricate details of the eighteenth century world conveyed in the documents. Presentments and recognisances detailing offences to do with the theft and chasing of bulls occur in the documents almost yearly and generally seem to detail that bull running took place particularly in Newton Abbot in the summer months. It seems often that a group of local tradesmen from the town would band together and ‘borrow’ a bull belonging to a local yeoman or landowner, and chase it with dogs through the streets of the town. This was all highly illegal of course, but besides the aggrieved owner of the bull in question (and, presumably, the bull!) the townsfolk seem to have enjoyed themselves and as far as can be discerned actively joined in the proceedings.

The eighteenth century world, just like our own, was one of capital and business, and the range of occupations undertaken by persons whose names occur in the documents is often quite surprising. In 1737 there seems to have been a major falling out between the shoemakers of Crediton and one Squire Smith. The details of what the dispute was about aren’t clear, but what is clear is that at the open fair in Crediton that year, several shoemakers stole shoes from Squire Smith’s stall, and cut them to pieces. Squire Smith, as can be imagined, was not best pleased, and had the offending shoemakers presented at the Epiphany sessions, 1738.

Eighteenth century Devon, like all parts of the UK in this period, suffered periodic outbreaks of epidemic disease. So it is that at the Michaelmas Sessions 1736 a Mr John Staple wrote to John Fortescue, deputy clerk of the peace, to ask that he be excused from the sessions due to the recent smallpox outbreak. At the same sessions a doctor presented a bill for treatment of the prisoners in the county gaol, indicating that the prisoners were probably suffering as badly, if not worse, as the rest of the population outside.

Prison conditions in eighteenth century Britain were, frankly, appalling, without epidemic disease to contend with. Just how appalling they were however can be gleaned from a petition sent to the justices of the peace from the prisoners in the county gaol, Michaelmas 1738. The prisoners in question were all convicts awaiting transport to the New World for having committed various thefts, and I know from previous cataloguing that several had been in the prison for a considerable period at this point. The prisoners state that the sheriff, who usually paid them an allowance for their subsistence while awaiting transport, had not done so for seven weeks, as a result of which they were quite literally starving to death.

It was not until much later, in the nineteenth century, that movements for prison reform really started to gather momentum, and it was largely in response to events such as these and the continual threat of epidemic diseases faced by the prisoners in cramped, unsanitary gaols which gave rise to calls for reform. Getting convicted in the eighteenth century world might, to modern eyes, seem bad enough on its own, but even being convicted of a non-capital offence was no guarantee that you’d live long enough to be released, or even to stand trial.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about some of the more off-beat and unusual Quarter Sessions records this week, and have a brilliant weekend!