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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘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.