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!

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The Mystery Bundle of Midsummer 1747

My last post was concerned with a mystery bundle of indictments tentatively termed a ‘process file’ which came complete with a mystery inscription and very little other indication of what it was and why it was in the Midsummer/Michaelmas 1747 box.

I’ve been doing research on this material to answer some questions about it in order to catalogue it, and I thought you’d like to know what I’ve uncovered so far. In Midsummer 1747, George II issued a free and general pardon and Act of Grace to forgive all treasonable offences and felonies committed against him during the Jacobite Rising of 1745 (where, briefly, it had looked as though his crown might’ve been in jeopardy as the pretender to the Scottish throne, Bonnie Prince Charlie stormed as far south as Worcester). You might expect, with some justification, that a pardon such as this would have had little, really, to do with the sorts of offences the Quarter Sessions dealt with, but apparently it was applied and interpreted very generally and very liberally indeed. Evidence from outside Devon, in the County of Middlesex, corroborates this, and shows this Act being plead to forgive an assault and battery case, for example.

This file seems to be composed of what had been, prior to the Act of 1747, ‘live’ outstanding indictments dating back as far as 1723. After the Act, which was applied from July 1747 (Midsummer Sessions) these indictments became spent. That this was the case is attested by two intriguing sets of records held under series QS/9 and QS/9A. These indices to process files, which reference one another and point to process notes about cases before the court, refer in some cases to the ‘Great Bundle’ and in one or two cases note on the front cover that “after the Act of Grace a new book was made for all offences committed after that time.” While I’ve not yet been able to use the indices to successfully search this particular mystery bundle, I’ve seen copious notes made to cases I’ve seen in previous cataloguing, and once I’ve catalogued this process file the ways in which the indices can be used to refer to the ‘mystery’ bundle will probably become a bit clearer.

So it’s been an interesting few days of delving in the archives and the mystery bundle is a mystery no longer! My own view then is that, rather than interpreting this bundle as being evidence that Devon was a seething hotbed of sedition in 1745, we should interpret things a lot more pragmatically. The offences being pardoned here have little or nothing to do with Jacobitism anyway after all, and it has to be borne in mind that this pardon applied everywhere, not just in Devon, and seems to have been liberally interpreted elsewhere too. This 1747 pardon was applied generally, in my view, not so much because Devon had been full of Jacobites who needed pardoning then, but more because there were a lot of outstanding indictments on the books and interpreting the pardon as liberally as possible was probably a pragmatic way of clearing them, as well as clearing the gaols, and freeing up the court’s time, attention and resources for more pressing matters than keeping an eye out for troublemakers who had so far evaded justice (for whatever reason) for minor and petty offences. Convictions in some of these cases, particularly the earlier ones from the 1720s, were probably a remote possibility by the late 1740s anyway; most of the persons involved had probably gone to their graves in the intervening decades. When you consider just how much business the courts had before them in other areas such as vagrancy and highways, the chance to clear the books in this area of the court’s business and start afresh may have been a welcome one.

So the process file full of outstanding material seems to have been deemed no longer relevant after 1747, and for whatever reason the clerks decided the best home for it was with the Sessions bundles. Did they try to place some of the indictments it contained back with their original material? Well, to be honest, I think they did. Because presentments and indictments had been a bit odd from 1743 onwards anyway, I’d started keeping a log of strange material that was appearing that seemed very out of place, and along with a number of the 1740s presentments and indictments, there has been, surprise surprise, 1720s material tacked on to the end of some of the batches of documentation. My thinking is that the clerks were trying to put some of these spent indictments back where they thought they should have been, perhaps made a bit of a hash of things and decided in the end to give up and leave the bundle be.

As with all things like this of course, research by others will no doubt help clarify things further. In the end, this all underlines why cataloguing is such an important task, because it’s the first step to making the material accessible to researchers, who will then be able to come to far more definite conclusions about it than I can with the limited time available to me. It’ll be interesting to see what gets turned up by future researchers, but, tentatively and at least in part, the ‘Mystery Bundle of 1747’ is a mystery no longer.

Ten Green Bottles….

If there’s one thing I’ve learned while doing this job it’s that the inhabitants of eighteenth century Devon (and eighteenth century anywhere, I expect!) liked a good drink, so it’ll be no surprise that alcohol features fairly prominently in the records in one guise or another. We’ve already seen, after all, that if you fling an otherwise perfectly serviceable ship full of wine towards the 1730s Devon coastline these friendly folks will extend a permanent axe-and-hatchet invite to the ship and crew and start the celebrations on the beach.

A search for the word ‘cider’ on the catalogue at present yields 39 hits, not bad for a generally mundane keyword. Some of these hits are to do with fairly straightforward, open and shut cases, like for example the presentment of John Ellis of West Allington, labourer, for breaking open the cider cellar of William Gilbert, gentleman, and taking half a hogshead of cider (QS/4/1745/MICHAELMAS/PR/33).

On other occasions though the crime committed or recorded is a little bit more complex, such as the record for the presentment against John and Susannah Browning and Edward Tolley John Lock James Hill and Lawrence Luxton of Drewsteignton and John Croot of South Tawton, who were accused of turning Joan Browning of Drewsteignton, widow, out of her home and assaulting her and keeping her out of the property (QS/4/1744/Easter/PR/29). Although the following section of the document, listing the goods they took out of the building, is recorded as though it were a burglary, it looks as though this was some form of bungled eviction or property dispute that hasn’t been resolved according to the letter of the law, and hence the events have been recorded on the indictment as full criminal offences. What’s interesting for our purposes however is the list of property taken from the premises, including “one half hogshead, five barrels, twenty gallons of ale, [and] five gallons of vinegar [and] five gallons of cider.” It looks to me as though Mrs Browning might’ve been running an inn of some kind, though the building isn’t recorded as such and it may have been one of the many such premises around at the time that seem pretty much to have been run out of somebody’s front room (more on that later).

For William Yelland of Sampford Courtenay, John Netherburne James Newcombe George Lamphye Robert Welland Thomas Estabrook Richard Medland Robert Earle and Edward Rowe, cider was apparently just an incidental detail. These fellows were accused of breaking down the cob walls of the dwelling of William Bellamy at Exbourne and assaulting his wife, destroying “the plancheon and stairs” of the dwelling and, for good measure, smashing twelve bottles of cider of the value of four shillings. QS/4/1745/MICHAELMAS/PR/32.

Then of course you’ve got the folks who keep their premises open during the hours of divine service. Sometimes in these kinds of cases it doesn’t seem as though inns are involved at all. In 1742 Abraham Addicott of Halberton, labourer, was presented for being a ‘prophaner of the Sabbath’ and for ‘on the pretence of giving cider to various of his majesty’s subjects, enticing Bartholemew Martin of Sampford Peverell, cordwainer and James Pring of Halberton carpenter and a great many others to come to his dwelling and tipple during the hours of Divine Service celebrated in the parish church of Halberton.’ Mr Addicoott appears to have been a serial offender in this regard, having been presented for the same offence in 1737. (QS/4/1737/Midsummer/PR/44).

Besides cider, eighteenth century Devonians also seem to have been partial to October beer, perhaps a taste acquired in the county through its pronounced maritime links with Germany and the Low Countries. So far there have been no references to gin in the records but given that this was an eighteenth century staple (for the higher orders, at least) it’s reasonable to assume the county would have been awash with it in places.

What isn’t recorded, sadly, is the number of crimes carried out in a state of inebriation by the defendants. I’m assuming that in many cases the various brawls and assaults may have been fuelled by drink but there’s no way to be completely sure since this information isn’t usually recorded in the documents. If I do find any particularly colourful drinking episodes recorded in the documents, I’ll let you know.

On that note, have a great weekend.

‘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!