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.

Cataloguing update: The Documents I: Recognisances, Presentments and Indictments

Good morning everyone! As promised, this week’s first update will be dealing with the subject of what documents tend to appear in the Quarter Sessions bundles, and how they can be used. I’ll also be mentioning some of the more unusual ‘one-offs’ that I’ve found so far as well!

I say first update for the week because I’ve been away on leave so I’ll be treating you to an extra update to make up for it; and it’ll be an update with a decidedly nautical theme so if ships and shipwrecks are your thing, stay tuned!

But first, on to the documents. There are a good many of main types of documents, and I’m going to detail some of these in separate posts for easier reference.

Recognisances (category ‘RE’)Probably the most numerous document of which the rolls are composed is the ‘recognisance’ (catalogued under my scheme as ‘RE’). These documents are effectively a bond for the appearance of an individual in court at the following sessions. They come in two main varieties, recognisances for people accused of crimes, and recognisances for witnesses. In general, an accused person (or sometimes several accused people) will be the first named person on the document, and they will be bound in a certain amount of money for their appearance. Usually, other people, often related or tradesmen in a similar or related profession, stand as sureties, usually bound in a lesser amount.

The amounts by which persons are bound vary, but they are frequently over ten or twenty pounds, (which was an impossible figure for most people to pay) thus ensuring most people would simply have no choice but to turn up to court at the next sessions. Sometimes, the primary person on the bond is not the accused, but a relative, often a spouse. Often, though not always, details of the offence are given; frequently an individual is bound to appear ‘to answer for such things as he stands indicted by Nathaniell Drake of Crediton concerning an assault and battery” for example.

Often individuals are ‘bound over’ to keep the peace towards a certain person, or ‘to be of good behaviour’ for a set period. These kinds of agreements were a useful method of keeping a lid on disputes between quarrelling individuals until tensions cooled, and if the dispute continued the individuals concerned could be held to account for failing to keep the peace that they had agreed to uphold.

The other kind of recognisance which tends to appear, usually bundled separately to the main bundle, is the group of recognisances for witnesses. These oblige persons to present their evidence against the accused, and otherwise tend to follow a similar format to the first kind of recognisance, though I have found that in general there are rarely sureties asked; frequently only one individual is named and made to put up security for their attendance in court at the next session.

So why are recognisances useful? Well, not only do they give names and often help point out the familial relations between individuals, but they also usually (though not always) give professions of the named individuals, and there are a huge variety of professions appearing already. Peruke makers, periwig makers, clockmakers, tailors, husbandmen, yeomen, sergeweavers, worsted combers, blacksmiths, butchers, white bakers, to name but a few….yesterday I even had a ‘haberdasher of hats’ appear in my records!

For a family historian, or a historian of labour, the 18th century economy, social historians to name but a few, these are extremely useful details. They help to give an impression of the variety of occupations that existed and whereabouts they were found, and they frequently demonstrate families either in the same or related occupations. They can help to pinpoint what exactly it was that your ancestor did professionally, and firm details of that kind of information is not always easy to come by in family history research.

Presentments and Indictments (category ‘PR’). The next extremely important document to consider is the ‘presentment’ so called because, as the document is worded, the jurors ‘present that [ Joe Bloggs ] did X at X place’ and give details of the allegation being investigated. Presentments are classed under my catalogue as ‘PR’ and this category also covers indictments. Presentments are the first stage of a formal accusation. In general, if the jurors decided that there was indeed a case to be answered, they would endorse the document as a ‘true bill’ in which case the presentment became a formal indictment. For whatever reason this rule is not always followed hard and fast; the presentments for which ‘no bill’ was found tend to be bound together, but within those that a true bill was found for, there are often documents that aren’t endorsed either way. Villiage and hundred constables could also present persons to the court, and constables presentments, or returns of constables of the hundreds which document that they have nothing to present, are also catalogued with the main sequence ofp resentments, as are Grand Jury and Petty Jury presentments.

In one of those cases where archival documents might fit comfortably into two categories (thus providing headaches for the archivist!) towns and parishes were frequnently presented for failing to repair their highways. These presentments are usually bound up with the ‘criminal’ presentments and have been catalogued accordingly, but the rest of the documentation about the highways, including the orders for the repair of a given road or bridge, and the notice sent by the court to the parish that they had been presented at the sessions, are catalogued under my broad ‘highways’ category, HI.

Presentments are fantastic documents, and one of my favourites. Not only do they give frequently intricate detail about an offence, such as ‘QS/4/1738/Michaelmas/PR/10’ which documents an assault on a justice, and exactly what words were said by the defendant whilst carrying out the assault, for example. They are also one of the classes of documents that betray the Quarter Sessions’ medieval roots. The standard formula of words for an accused person is that they ‘with force of arms and bows and arrows at X place did X’. The ‘force of arms and bows and arrows’ bit is, by the eighteenth century, a standard legal form of words that had been used since time out of mind and isn’t to be taken literally, but it derives ultimately from the time when disputes really were settled in that manner, by the great landowners, at least. As such they are in effect a meaningless pomposity at this stage which help to give an unintentionally ridiculous air at times to allegations; the denizens of eighteenth century Devon are portrayed as stealing cider or legs of lamb ‘with force of arms and bows and arrows.’

Presentments, then are the bread and butter of the Quarter Sessions bundles, and as you can imagine I always look forward to cataloguing them. There’s always an interesting case or two which are out of the ordinary; this week alone I’ve had several cases of assault and battery on a justice of the peace, theft of beehives, theft of ten gallons of cider, and a bull chase through the streets of Newton Abbot! In one particular document a burglary was presented, and all of the stolen goods listed ,which effectively detailed absolutely everything the unfortunate victims owned. For many kinds of research this sort of detail is essential, since it clearly documents the standard of living of a section of society, and the kinds of goods and luxuries they had access to. Through the presentments I’ve been able to glean details of eighteenth century pastimes, the types of goods on sale to people, I’ve viewed petty rivalries and fallings out between professionals (such as the assorted shoemakers who cut up Squire Smith’s display of shoes at the open fair in Crediton, see QS/4/1738/Epiphany/PR/48), and much more besides. They offer a fascinating view into the lives and pre-occupations of the eighteenth century, and they’re a joy to work with.

Hello there and…

Hello there and welcome! I’m Robert Bennett, Project Archivist for Devon Quarter Sessions Records, and this is the official project blog for the ‘Right to Remain Silent’ Quarter Sessions cataloguing project. This project, generously funded by the Pilgrim Trust as part of the National Cataloguing Grants Scheme, aims to catalogue the Quarter Sessions records for Devon from 1734-1804.

As project archivist, I will be making regular updates about the progress of the project, items of interest and ways in which the public can get involved. Along the way I’ll be giving you something of a glimpse into the world of a cataloguing archivist, and explaining the history and world which underlay the records being catalogued. As you can imagine, this is an extremely exciting project to be involved with, and I hope you’ll join me on this archival adventure!