‘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.

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Shipwreck in Bigbury Bay!

For the first time in three hundred years, first hand accounts of a shipwreck in Bigbury Bay, Devon, have emerged into the light of day.

On Tuesday 21 March 1738 the Dutch hoy ‘Anna and Helena,’ captained by Adrian Wagnaer of Amsterdam, bound from Bordeaux to Flensburg in Denmark with a cargo of around 140 tons of wine, brandy, prunes, coffee and indigo, was blown off course by a violent storm, into Bigbury Bay, a renowned death trap for ships, about three miles from Kingsbridge, Devon, becoming stranded on Thurlestone Sands. Having received offers of assistance from several of the local neighbouring gentleman, among them William Ilbert esquire and John Roose [Rooxe], several local men were employed to begin preserving the cargo, ships anchors, sails and cables.

However, as is common with incidents of shipwreck in this period, a very large mob formed, stated by the captain to have been in the region of two or three thousand strong, several hundred of whom began breaking through the sides of the vessel with hatchets, axes and other edge tools, smashing holes in the deck, and destroying the stern post, to ensure that the vessel would be unable to be refloated. They then began to plunder the cargo, and when, amongst others, John Roose intervened, one John Vivian, a servant to a Robert Lakeman of Churstow, yeoman, struck his horse on the nose with the haft of his axe, nearly dismounting him, and threatened to murder him if he stepped further forward. In the meantime the mob got hold of the captain and several of them including John Lishions of South Milton, shoemaker and Thomas Lishions the younger of the same, labourer, his brother, with James Jarvis of the same, beat him so severely that even when he gave evidence a month later he was still suffering from his injuries and still carried the marks of his ordeal.

The mob, greatly emboldened by the success of John Vivian and an accomplice, Arthur Lachcraft [Luckcraft], a servant of one Andrew Lidstone of South Huish, gentleman, began plundering the vessel wholesale, such that the men of the customs for the port of Dartmouth and all others who had been employed to save the cargo could do nothing but preserve around 14 hogsheads of wine, and two of indigo. The plunderers even took one of the sails of the ship, allegedly dividing it up between themselves. Over the rest of the day and night and into the following afternoon the mob continued to plunder the vessel; on the afternoon of March 22nd a customs officer named Daniel Shath, attempting to apprehend a looter carrying a hogshead of brandy, was struck a severe blow on the forehead and received a grievous head wound as a result.

To some extent, there’s nothing particularly unusual in these events. Similar reactions to stranded or wrecked vessels on behalf of local inhabitants in coastal areas occurred throughout the country in this period, and for many there were a number of grey areas concerning what exactly constituted salvage, plunder, the taking of wrecked cargo from a wrecked vessel, or intervening directly, as is the case here, to directly prevent a stranded vessel which was hitherto intact from being re-floated and its cargo saved. It should be borne in mind that the vessel was loaded with what were in the eighteenth century very high value luxury goods, and, as was the case throughout the country, for a population frequently living in endemic poverty, in a society where theft of food for survival was commonplace, the arrival of what was effectively an eighteenth-century mobile warehouse full of luxury items was simply too much of a temptation to resist. Here, however, the similarities with most wrecking end, because this event turns out to have caused nothing short of a full-blown diplomatic incident with the States General (what we now call Netherlands).

On 26 March 1738 Philip Pentire [Pentyre] wrote a letter to a Mr Van Hop, then Envoy Extraordinary of the States General, giving an account of the wrecking of the vessel and the plundering of the cargo by the local inhabitants. Mr Van Hop, in an extraordinary move, apparently took the letter straight to the King, and wrote a strongly-worded letter to Lord Harrington demanding an explanation for the barbarous treatment of the ship’s crew, and demanding to know what steps had been taken to bring the culprits to justice and to ensure that future incidents of the kind did not happen again.

As you can imagine, the King was not, as far as can be discerned, at all pleased with this state of affairs, and there follows a flurry of administrative delegation as everyone from the King down to the justices of the peace pressed their subordinates to ensure justice was served. Lord Harrington enclosed a copy of Van Hop’s and Pentyre’s letters to Mr Cruwys, a justice of the peace in Devon, with instructions that the local justices of the peace were to make enquiries and bring the culprits to justice, and in the meantime to keep him appraised of the situation so that he could inform the King as to what progress was being made. Cruwys sent these instructions to Mr Fortescue, deputy clerk of the peace at Exeter.

Interestingly, my own research indicates that Harrington had also been in touch with the Treasury and customs regarding this wreck, as calendars of their letters from April 1738 demonstrate, but until now these seem to have been the only records available regarding the wreck. Now, for the first time in three hundred years, the full story of this ill-fated vessel and its wreck and plunder on the eighteenth-century Devon coast from first hand eyewitness accounts, has been brought together thanks to the records that survive from the Devon Quarter Sessions.