Eighteenth Century Record Keeping…..

QS/1 is the series of Sessions Order Books, an official record of much of the business of the Quarter Sessions. QS/1/20 is the book for the years 1759-1776 and is packed full of interesting bits and pieces of information. Tucked away on the bottom of page 343, written for Easter Sessions 1768, is an innocuous comment that could easily be skimmed over, but which caught the attention of one of our volunteers:

“Ordered that the arms and old military stores now in the chamber of the chapel be removed from there to a more convenient place and that the gunpowder now in the chamber adjoining to the Record Room in the castle be forthwith removed from thence and that there be never anymore put there for the future”.

While I’m glad that some clear-headed folks decided to start implementing some sensible record keeping procedures in 1768, (because, thankfully, we still have the Quarter Sessions records to enjoy) I have to ask who on earth thought putting gunpowder next to the records room was a good idea in the first place! We’ll never know of course, but from a twenty-first century perspective it illustrates a few interesting points about attitudes to records.

At some point, after all, people either weren’t too bothered that these records might get lost in a calamity, or at least didn’t place storing them safely as too high a priority, and yet later on attitudes changed and the records were regarded as meriting much safer storage. There were probably plenty of possibilities for these records to become destroyed or damaged in their history, yet they survive, really, because ultimately they’ve been deemed to have some value. The value placed on these records has been variable at times as this example neatly illustrates, but they have at least been kept, despite everything that’s happened around them down the centuries. There’s an interesting point to be made here, too. It’s an irony known among archive and conservation professionals that often rare books and manuscripts have been given, historically what was then effectively regarded as being scrap paper for the end papers of the binding. Occasionally such documents as these are now regarded as being of enormous historic value in their own right, simply because of their comparative rarity, yet to our ancestors, they were scrap, and expendable. In other words, both the records deemed worthy of keeping and those deemed scrap have turned out to have a value to society in the end.

There’s all sorts of side debates we could fall into here about the records of our own time, and what exactly constitutes a historic document or a document likely to become regarded as having a historic or heritage value, and to a large extent there are often no easy answers for some material. The judgements we make today might be ones our descendants regard as invalid, of course, and it may come to pass that in centuries to come archivists and archive users place a vast historic value on records that we today currently don’t. That’s the way of the world, I suppose, but one thing we can be glad about is that although our society will doubtless not preserve everything our descendants would wish it had done, at least those records we do decide to keep should be kept, in theory, a lot more safely than the Sessions bundles were up until 1768!

Another Mystery Solved

It’s funny in life how one piece of research can suddenly spark off another and within the space of a week another major discovery about the Devon Quarter Sessions bundles has been made. Since the beginning of this cataloguing project, it’s been painfully apparent that a huge amount of the documentation relating to the Sessions bundles has been incredibly disordered, and arranging this material logically has taken a great deal of time and effort, and the assistance of a team of dedicated volunteers. Many of the boxes containing Sessions bundles are, before cataloguing, originally labelled thusly: “1742 Easter+Midsummer and loose.” The ‘and loose’ part of that label is the pertinent bit here. What it means in practice is that the box will usually contain several stacks of documentation more or less thrown together at random, often encompassing material spanning many different years and many different sessions. Witness statements for cases that were before the court several years ago survive alongside constables’ presentments for a completely different Session, for example….occasionally there are whole boxes of this material more or less thrown together at random.

What hasn’t been clear until now, however, is why this material is so disordered. In previous posts I’ve made various comments suggesting that at some point in this material’s custodial history the documents had clearly become disordered, but I’ve not really entertained much hope of discovering why during this year, suspecting that the reasons for the disorder might be lost in the mists of time, or might only re-emerge after considerably more research had been done.

Happily, however, a chance discovery while researching something entirely different has gone a long way to solving the mystery. In 1800, Parliament commissioned a Select Committee to make an enquiry into the state of the nation’s public records, (which itself created a report with the catchy title : “Reports from the Select Committee Appointed to Inquire into the State of the Public Records of the Kingdom, Etc”), and in an appendix to that report, the Clerks of the Peace of the various Counties of England and Wales gave brief answers to various questions posed about the records in their care. Devon’s Clerk of the Peace at the time was a chap called Richard Eales, junior, and he made some tantalising comments on pp266-267 of the Report regarding the manner in which the records had been kept up to 1800.

Previously to 1773 the Quarter Sessions material had been kept in the records room at the old castle in Exeter, but in 1773 the old castle was taken down, and the records that were held in the record room were ‘thrown together and I have from time to time since I became acquainted with the office (twenty four years) spent with the late clerk of the peace many months in arranging them in some order, and for one hundred and fifty years back the records are now pretty well arranged and deposited in large presses made for the purpose in the record room.”

It would seem then that this innocuous statement is the key to the mystery of the stacks of loose documents that survive with each of the Sessions rolls, and which are composed of such disorganised material. The material had been thrown together in complete confusion around 1773 and what we find in the boxes prior to cataloguing is the clerk’s best guess at restoring some order, done, it has to be said from the point of view of the archivist who inherited the situation, with varying degrees of success!

Eales was clearly a pragmatic sort and some of his other comments, particularly with regard to indexing the collection, are quite informative:
“I am of the opinion, that if the rolls were completely arranged and indexed, it would save great trouble to the clerk of the peace, as they could be sooner turned to and inspected, but I know of no other utility that could arise from it: the Trouble and Expenses attending from such an arrangement would be immense, and I could not undertake to do it, with an additional clerk, in less than twelve months.”

I have to admit to chuckling when I read the above. I wonder what he’d make of this twenty-first century cataloguing project, using electronic computers, cataloguing software, the Internet, IRIS machines for making faded ink as clear as day to the eye again, and all the modern research tools of our era? Food for thought, anyway!

What I like most about the above though is that it gives a satisfying sense of filling in some of the missing pieces about these records. Part of the point of this project is to help us to better understand the records being catalogued, and that includes the history of how the collection itself was kept by past generations. Now we have a very important piece of the puzzle, and can speak with more confidence about how the records came to be the way they are today, with all the challenges and charms they bring to present-day archivists and researchers.