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.

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Spare a thought….

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

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

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

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

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

The world beneath our feet….

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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