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.









What were the Quarter Sessions?

Well, another week of cataloguing comes to a close and I’m at the point of creating the next blog post… what should I write about? I said I’d give you an insight into the world of a cataloguing archivist, but there’s far more to this project than just the cataloguing side. What are the Quarter Sessions, I hear you cry? What did they do? And why are they so important?

Well, to answer the first question, the Courts of Quarter Sessions were courts held to roughly coincide with the four quarters of the year, which were also tied to liturgical feasts of the Church. The four quarters were Epiphany, Easter, Midsummer, and Michaelmas. The courts were generally fairly itinerant in origin, which betrays their roots in the fourteenth century, though the concept of itinerant justice ultimately has its own roots earlier still, in the evolving legal and administrative reforms of the reigns of Henry I and Henry II in particular.

The nature of medieval kingship was intimately tied to the idea of ability to dispense justice, and to be seen to dispense justice; without this essential ability the king might be considered to be unable to maintain his ‘peace’ and an essential stay in the fabric of society was loosened. Kings who were unable to maintain the peace of the realm, or who were considered to withhold justice, such as King Stephen (reigned 1135-1141) and King John (1199-1216), might face considerable political upheaval and outright rebellion from their vassals.

Eventually, through a process of legal evolution, the idea of the itinerant justice, a royal officer appointed to hear and determine (oyer et terminer) the felonies committed in the realm was born, through the legal reforms of the General Eyre of Henry II, by which royal officers were dispatched to the counties to hear the crimes committed there, travelling around the country over time. These travelling royal officers, termed ‘justices in eyre’ were very different creatures in many important respects to the justices of the peace sitting in the 1730s, but they are nevertheless an important link in the chain which leads to the Quarter Sessions themselves.

By the fourteenth century then, quarterly courts were established, which often continued on the itinerant principle by settling in the main town of a given part of the county for which they were held at different points in the year. While this was the case for many counties, such as Glamorgan, for example, into the nineteenth century, in the 1730s records for Devon which I have catalogued, they courts seem to have been held generally at the castle in Exeter, though I have noticed some sessions in adjournment being held at places such as the Unicorn Inn, in Pilton, (now apparently a church hall, incidentally).

The Courts of Quarter Sessions, by the eighteenth century at least, had criminal jurisdiction over ‘misdemeanours’ (less serious offences such as burglary, assault, nuisances) and civil administration of the roads and bridges, settlement and removal of vagrants, and oversight of the Overseers of the Poor, through whom the Poor Law was administered. Quite a hefty remit, then! As my colleague Brian Carpenter put it the other day, the records document the fabric of society itself. There’s no better way of putting it, really.

So what does all this mean? Why are these records useful? What uses can they be put to by archive users? I’ll be focusing on those questions in the next update, so stay tuned, and have a great weekend!