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.

Shipwreck in Bigbury Bay!

For the first time in three hundred years, first hand accounts of a shipwreck in Bigbury Bay, Devon, have emerged into the light of day.

On Tuesday 21 March 1738 the Dutch hoy ‘Anna and Helena,’ captained by Adrian Wagnaer of Amsterdam, bound from Bordeaux to Flensburg in Denmark with a cargo of around 140 tons of wine, brandy, prunes, coffee and indigo, was blown off course by a violent storm, into Bigbury Bay, a renowned death trap for ships, about three miles from Kingsbridge, Devon, becoming stranded on Thurlestone Sands. Having received offers of assistance from several of the local neighbouring gentleman, among them William Ilbert esquire and John Roose [Rooxe], several local men were employed to begin preserving the cargo, ships anchors, sails and cables.

However, as is common with incidents of shipwreck in this period, a very large mob formed, stated by the captain to have been in the region of two or three thousand strong, several hundred of whom began breaking through the sides of the vessel with hatchets, axes and other edge tools, smashing holes in the deck, and destroying the stern post, to ensure that the vessel would be unable to be refloated. They then began to plunder the cargo, and when, amongst others, John Roose intervened, one John Vivian, a servant to a Robert Lakeman of Churstow, yeoman, struck his horse on the nose with the haft of his axe, nearly dismounting him, and threatened to murder him if he stepped further forward. In the meantime the mob got hold of the captain and several of them including John Lishions of South Milton, shoemaker and Thomas Lishions the younger of the same, labourer, his brother, with James Jarvis of the same, beat him so severely that even when he gave evidence a month later he was still suffering from his injuries and still carried the marks of his ordeal.

The mob, greatly emboldened by the success of John Vivian and an accomplice, Arthur Lachcraft [Luckcraft], a servant of one Andrew Lidstone of South Huish, gentleman, began plundering the vessel wholesale, such that the men of the customs for the port of Dartmouth and all others who had been employed to save the cargo could do nothing but preserve around 14 hogsheads of wine, and two of indigo. The plunderers even took one of the sails of the ship, allegedly dividing it up between themselves. Over the rest of the day and night and into the following afternoon the mob continued to plunder the vessel; on the afternoon of March 22nd a customs officer named Daniel Shath, attempting to apprehend a looter carrying a hogshead of brandy, was struck a severe blow on the forehead and received a grievous head wound as a result.

To some extent, there’s nothing particularly unusual in these events. Similar reactions to stranded or wrecked vessels on behalf of local inhabitants in coastal areas occurred throughout the country in this period, and for many there were a number of grey areas concerning what exactly constituted salvage, plunder, the taking of wrecked cargo from a wrecked vessel, or intervening directly, as is the case here, to directly prevent a stranded vessel which was hitherto intact from being re-floated and its cargo saved. It should be borne in mind that the vessel was loaded with what were in the eighteenth century very high value luxury goods, and, as was the case throughout the country, for a population frequently living in endemic poverty, in a society where theft of food for survival was commonplace, the arrival of what was effectively an eighteenth-century mobile warehouse full of luxury items was simply too much of a temptation to resist. Here, however, the similarities with most wrecking end, because this event turns out to have caused nothing short of a full-blown diplomatic incident with the States General (what we now call Netherlands).

On 26 March 1738 Philip Pentire [Pentyre] wrote a letter to a Mr Van Hop, then Envoy Extraordinary of the States General, giving an account of the wrecking of the vessel and the plundering of the cargo by the local inhabitants. Mr Van Hop, in an extraordinary move, apparently took the letter straight to the King, and wrote a strongly-worded letter to Lord Harrington demanding an explanation for the barbarous treatment of the ship’s crew, and demanding to know what steps had been taken to bring the culprits to justice and to ensure that future incidents of the kind did not happen again.

As you can imagine, the King was not, as far as can be discerned, at all pleased with this state of affairs, and there follows a flurry of administrative delegation as everyone from the King down to the justices of the peace pressed their subordinates to ensure justice was served. Lord Harrington enclosed a copy of Van Hop’s and Pentyre’s letters to Mr Cruwys, a justice of the peace in Devon, with instructions that the local justices of the peace were to make enquiries and bring the culprits to justice, and in the meantime to keep him appraised of the situation so that he could inform the King as to what progress was being made. Cruwys sent these instructions to Mr Fortescue, deputy clerk of the peace at Exeter.

Interestingly, my own research indicates that Harrington had also been in touch with the Treasury and customs regarding this wreck, as calendars of their letters from April 1738 demonstrate, but until now these seem to have been the only records available regarding the wreck. Now, for the first time in three hundred years, the full story of this ill-fated vessel and its wreck and plunder on the eighteenth-century Devon coast from first hand eyewitness accounts, has been brought together thanks to the records that survive from the Devon Quarter Sessions.