All good things….

Most people reading this blog will no doubt be familiar with the old adage that all good things come to an end. As summer approaches, the Quarter Sessions cataloguing project of which this blog is part and parcel is coming to a close, and your tireless qsarchivist is moving on to pastures new. So it’s a goodbye from me, and an opportunity to look back at the project and some of the things we’ve brought to light this year.

We’ve seen evidence of famines, plagues, wars and crises of all kinds for the inhabitants of Devon, examined the inner workings of eighteenth century justice and the Poor Law, borne witness to fire and flood, and puzzled over skulduggery in Aveton Giffard. There have been shipwrecks, mishaps, implausible excuses for failing to attend court, petitions from prisoners starving in the gaols, and some truly lamentable examples of sentencing excesses by the justices. The Quarter Sessions are akin to the society they reflect; colourful, expressive, lucid, and full of variety and contradiction in equal measure, and it’s been my pleasure to open the eighteenth century world they document up to examination by readers of this blog and those using the catalogue at Devon Heritage Services.

I’d like to thank readers of this blog for their contributions this year and for joining me on a fascinating journey into the past. If I were to bring all the strands of thought in this blog into a final thread as the project closes, it would be through returning to a theme I’ve spoken of through the year, a thought and motivation that has underpinned much of my enthusiasm for this project and which is one of my many motivations as a professional archivist. This theme is that of wishing to inspire in others a sympathy for and love of the past.

The documents we’ve been exploring this year convey real, not imaginary, events, and though the persons caught up in them are removed from us by a gulf of time, they were no less real, for all that, than the people around you today. Their hopes, dreams and ambitions, their passions, grievances, tragedies, trials and tribulations were as human and complex as any today, and played out across the backdrop of a world that was no less real or wonderful and frequently as cruel as our own can be today. These actors on a stage set against a vast and oft-forgotten backdrop of a former world, are our relatives, our forebears, separated from us in time but linked to us inextricably in language, custom, geography and our common humanity.

Just as I would hope that our descendants, living in an age with greater knowledge and the benefit of hindsight, will not assess our era too harshly from their point of vantage, I’ve always felt that we should be sparing in our judgments of those who went before us. They are, after all, our kith and kin, who shaped the world around us before our time. For a brief moment in time, we now occupy the places formerly held by them, and after us others will follow. What will those who follow make of our era? To care about and be inspired by the past, then, is to care about people, to be inspired by others and to be willing to learn from those who came before us.

I hope that this blog has helped to bring this past world to life, and has brought you all closer to the people who lived in it. If I have managed to achieve this in my writing, then I’ve succeeded in what I set out to do when I began writing many months ago.

Thanks once again for reading and taking part this year, and all the best!



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.

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.








The Great Fire of Sheepwash, April 1742

Harrowing details have emerged from the Quarter Sessions records about a devastating fire in the parish of Sheepwash  (also sometimes known in the eighteenth century as Shipwash). Although the causes of the fire are far from certain we do know specifics about the effect it had on the town’s inhabitants, thanks to a petition which has emerged from the bundle for Epiphany 1743.

The extent of devastation of the fire can perhaps be best gleaned from the fact that the petitioners state that it occurred on April 29 1742, yet their petition only came before the justices of the peace towards January of the following year. Even assessing the extent of the damage had clearly been a considerable task.

Attempting to adequately describe the conditions of the blaze the petitioners wrote that the fire ‘raged with such uncommon fury that the whole town excepting a few houses was in less than four hours entirely consumed with a great part of household furniture and merchandise of the inhabitants and a large quantity of malt and corn and some bullocks and other cattle, and to complete this most melancholy scene, two poor souls by endeavouring to save their goods lost their lives.” The petitioners state that having completed a survey of the damages on the orders of Lord Walpole and Mr Justice Yeo, in their estimation the town could not be repaired for anything less than the princely sum of 3453 15s 2d, with the goods lost amounting to 912 17s 4d, giving a grand total of 4366 12s 6d (around £376,800 in 2005 money).

So diminished in circumstances had the majority of the town’s inhabitants become that they “were reduced to the utmost want and misery having been forced to lodge in fields destitute of the common necessaries of life.” The inhabitants therefore requested a certificate from the justices of the peace in order to obtain a brief in the above amount from the Treasury to repair the damage to the town.

Fire, of course, was one of the hazards of eighteenth century life, and while it is still a hazard today of course, as with everything else we have developed systems of civil response to major blazes like the one documented here. Back in the eighteenth century, at a time when the majority of construction particularly for houses of poorer inhabitants would likely have been wooden, and when the majority of buildings had thatched roofs, fire could spread incredibly quickly. Just the other day I catalogued a petition from the maltsters of Credition asking that they might reclaim the duty already paid to the receivers of revenues on their malt due to a thousand bushels of it being destroyed by a fire on 14 August 1743, leaving many of them facing financial ruin.

Nevertheless it’s easy these days when, should the worst happen we have insurance to fall back on, to forget that a fire like the one in Sheepwash in 1742 was devastating in totality, an event that affected every single aspect of the lives of the survivors from that point forward. Happily, Sheepwash is still standing, to all intents and purposes a peaceful Devonshire town once again, but if you’re ever passing through, spare a thought for its eighteenth century inhabitants following their terrible fire.

Zen and the Art of Cataloguing

I promised you when I started writing this blog that it’d be a bit of an insight into the world of the cataloguing archivist, besides everything else, and as I have a little bit of time this morning I thought I’d run through what I’m up to today and talk about some of the other tasks involved with a project like this, so that you can get a bit of an idea of what a typical day might involve.

I always like to plan ahead in life and my cataloguing project is no different.   The volunteers have sorted out quite a volume of paperwork from the ‘loose documents’ bundles that accompany the main sessions bundles, having organised them by document type ready for cataloguing. Having scoped the amount to be done on Friday last week, I set myself the task of getting through a good chunk of this material on Monday and Tuesday this week, so that there’s lots of space available in the relevant sort boxes for volunteers to begin sorting again on Wednesday.

On a day like today when I’m focusing purely on doing this, the numbers of documents I get through are generally a little bit lower than usual, as there’s more organising of the catalogue to be done, in creating all the different file and item level entries. Generally speaking I’ll already have ploughed through the presentments, recognisances and wrappers for the sessions beforehand, so in reality I’m sort of ‘filling in’ the remainder of the records for that session in retrospect. I prefer working this way as it means I’ll know, roughly, who is before the court and for what reasons, which gives me a good working overview of that session while I’m cataloguing the material.

I’ll frequently be doing material from several different sessions, sometimes in different years, as I go. Today for example, I’ve sorted out a number of dsicharges and highways documents from Epiphany session 1740, and I’m moving on to some Easter 1741 examinations. There’s some Midsummer 1741 documents to come after that, and a little bit of 1742 documentation I’d like to get done too, if I have the time.

Although the volunteer-sorted documentation is my focus today, there are other things I like to get done on a day like today. A day like today gives me a great chance to do some research on matters arising from documents I’ve recently catalogued, for example. Besides interesting things cropping up in the catalogued material, often volunteers will do research using the sessions books and bring up interesting material referenced there, which I’ll then follow up when I have quiet moments, and make public on the blog, especially if we can find supporting documentation from the sessions bundles.

There’s also the matter of dealing with some of the more complicated deeds enrolled before the court, which might require a bit of a quiet moment to catalogue in more detail. One particular deed I catalogued last week had had it’s entire right hand edge chopped away at some point in its past, and as is often the case, most of the salient details seemed to have been written on that edge, which meant I had to be especially careful in working with the material to make sure I’d recorded it as accurately as possible.

Besides all of the above, of course, I like to press on with producing supporting material to the catalogue when I get a spare moment. I’m working on a number of user guides to help explain the remit of the Quarter Sessions and the general scope of the material, and to explain how the material might best be used by researchers. After all, cataloguing is not just about recording the material you have, but also about making it available and useable to the public. As I write these guides I keep a weather eye on the possibility of including aspects of what I’m writing about in talks, classes and presentations in the future.

The role of a cataloguing archivist is a bit different, then, to the role of an archivist working primarily in the searchroom, but I hope, with the above, to explain a little bit about what the role really involves on a day to day basis. There are other things I could talk about too and will do in future updates, but I felt that some of you might like to know a bit more about what it’s like to do a job like this. As you can probably tell from my updates I really enjoy the scope of this kind of work; no two days are ever the same, and I think most archivists I know, whether they’re cataloguing, working in the search room, doing outreach, or running research enqiries, will tell you that the variety of the job is one of the main attractions to working in the profession.

But besides that, in what other profession do you get to learn so much on a daily basis and get such a connection to the world of the past? I hope from the above, and from the rest of this blog, I can show you why this job is so enjoyable, and if anyone reading this is interested in becoming an archivist, or is in training, or is looking to volunteer one day, I can heartily recommend it. You won’t regret getting involved.

The Apprentice (circa 1740)

Far from being lightsabre wielding would-be masters of the Force or business-savvy would-be masters of the universe looking for the patronage of a billionaire businessman, apprentices in the eighteenth century had a rather more humdrum time of it in general.

The system of apprenticeships, as with much of the Poor Law, was born (if we’re making a charitable interpretation of its motivations) out of good intentions, but as with many of the systems the Poor Law evolved, it was often somewhat lacking in its execution, and this is what my post today will be looking into.

As you may be aware, the ‘old’ Poor Law basically worked on a parochial system, whereby the parishioners of a parish were assessed and made to pay a so-called ‘Poor Rate’ to assist the poor of the parish, who might be destitute, sick or infirm, or in need of poor relief for any number of reasons. The kind of disputes and inequalities of provision this system threw up can be guessed at and need not concern us directly in this post, but it’s useful to know the general background to understand why the system of apprenticeships came into being. Having sustained or provided for an orphan child born into the parish workhouse, or having sustained pauper families through the poor rate, the parish was keen to enable the child to provide for themselves by learning a trade to use later in life, and, less altruistically, so that they were no longer a burden to the parish rate either from that point forward or in the future.

As a result, such children were bound out as apprentices to local individuals who either volunteered to take an apprentice or had one to some extent imposed on them. Their masters and mistresses were to provide for their apprentices in terms of food and lodging, and also clothing. In return, apprentices were to serve their masters and mistresses faithfully for a period of time, usually a term of years. At the end of this term the apprentice would be discharged, and able to legally practice a trade (practicing a trade without having served a recognised apprenticeship could, after all, land you in trouble with the Quarter Sessions, though the cases of this I’ve seen indicate that it was a difficult crime to prove).

So there’s the basic theory, what of the reality?

Well, as you might have guessed, cases of masters and mistresses not caring for their apprentices and failing to provide for them come up fairly regularly in the records. So too do cases of ‘excessive’ beating of apprentices, with one particularly nasty case coming to my attention the other day when I catalogued a recognisance dated 22 August 1740, in which Mr William Philips of Whitestone, husbandman, was bound to appear at the next sessions to answer charges of assaulting and beating his apprentice, Sarah Pring, and for striking her violently on the face with a pike, in two places. (QS/4/1740/Michaelmas/RE/3).

It’s perhaps no surprise then that cases of apprentices leaving their masters and mistresses are fairly common occurrences too, and often when charged for absenting themselves by their master, you’ll find a counter charge brought by the apprentice, of mistreatment or a failure of provision. Almost without exception in the records I’ve catalogued so far, female apprentices were bound out to men and again almost without exception they were bound out to learn the ‘trade’ of ‘housewifery’ or ‘good housewifery.’ Almost without exception, and unsurprisingly given the uncompromising nature of 18th century justice, apprentices are found guilty of absenting themselves from their masters or mistresses, while convictions for failing to provide for apprentices or administering excessive beatings are rare, though if a case was particularly bad the churchwardens and overseers of the poor of the parish, who originally bound the apprentice, might discharge the apprenticeship and re-bind the apprentice to someone else.

The sad truth is that in many cases an apprentice was probably regarded as an unwelcome burden, and an extra mouth to feed. In times of hardship cases of apprentices not being provided for tend to be more common. Nor were masters or mistresses necessarily people of particularly good moral standing. At least one apprentice, Joseph Hendy of Plymstock, was forced by his master Edmond Ley, yeoman to provide him (on pain of being killed), with powder and shot, for which the churchwardens and overseers of the poor rebound the hapless apprentice to another master.

It comes as no surprise that family members, perhaps fearing the kind of exploitation the records hint at, might object to their children being bound out as an apprentice (though the poor relief could be witheld from them if they tried to prevent their child being bound out). In 1739 George Gay the elder of Pilton was presented for refusing to hand his son over to the overseers of the poor of the parish so that he might be bound out. (QS/4/1739/Michaelmas/PR/9). Frequently, when apprentices did leave their master or mistress’ service, it was of course to their families they returned. But harbouring an apprentice who had absented themselves without permission from their master’s service was regarded as an offence, akin to harbouring a fugitive. The master was well within their rights to inform the town crier that their apprentice had absconded, and that nobody was to harbour or entertain them. This happened when Anne Edbury absconded from her master James Reed junior, going to her father, Philip Edbury of Crediton, who was subsequently prosecuted for having harboured and entertained her. (QS/4/1738/Michaelmas/PR/30) The circumstances surrounding her decision to leave are not recorded (nor are they in any cases I’ve seen).

The apprenticeship system, as we can see, left a lot to be desired, though it’s important to kae a balanced view. In some cases it must surely have provided people with the means to earn their living after their service was completed, and the traces of the apprenticeship system recorded in the Quarter Sessions are often going to have a negative air to them given that we are dealing in the end with court records. It’s important not to portray the entire system as hopelessly corrupt; to do so would be to get trapped within the sources, after all.

Nevertheless, the experience was undoubtedly mixed, and like many things in the eighteenth century, being a poor child of a parish bound out as an apprentice was yet another life lottery. Some would undoubtedly have prospered as a result, but I can’t help feeling that for many who faced neglect, abandonment and exploitation by their masters and mistresses, this would undoubtedly have seemed an appalling and perhaps even tyrannical system, leaving them branded as criminals if they attempted to escape or take their chances to improve their lot.

On the positive side the apprenticeship system highlights one way that 18th century society attempted to tackle the problems of poverty in its midst. Yet on the negative side the flaws in the system sometimes provided a means whereby the poor could be exploited. Once again though I’m left to conclude that I’m glad I don’t live in eighteenth century Britain!

Don’t underestimate Totnes!

As many of you may have seen recently, the Devon market town of Totnes has made headlines recently for bringing the multinational coffee chain Costa Coffee to rethink its decision to open a branch in Totnes’ famously independent high street. This penchant for standing up for the unique identity of Totnes has historical precedent, too, as a document from the Quarter Sessions records demonstrates.

At the Midsummer sessions 1739, Christopher Predam, then mayor of Totnes, wrote a strongly-worded letter to John Fortescue, clerk of the peace, asserting Totnes’ right to try various men involved in an alleged incident of bull-baiting in the town, citing their case as being the proper jurisdiction of Totnes’ borough courts by right of the town’s charter:

‘the justices of the county at large being by an express clause in our charter prohibited from any wise intermedling with matters that arise within the borough or parish of Totnes, as this riotous bull-beating it seems did, and is so lain on the indictment, which therefore I apprehend will (if proceeded upon) be an infringement of the liberties of the borough: and as the Office I bear therein, obliges me to use my best endeavours to prevent all such, I now write you this to acquaint you therewith, and desire that you will withdraw those processes and proceed no further therein.’

Just in case anybody doubted his intentions Predam thought it necessary to add a postscript:

‘I propose, God willing, to show our charter to the next Judges of Assizes and to have their directions on it for I am perfectly desirous that all justice should run in its proper channell, but will not tamely submit to any innovations.’

I wonder what Predam would have made of the citizens of Totnes’ efforts to preserve their high street’s independence? I think he’d have approved!