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!