‘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.


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!