Spare a thought….

….as you pass through the area of Exeter known as St Thomas, as this is where the debtor’s prison stood.

Now the site of Cowick Motors, the debtor’s prison once had a fearsome reputation, as the records of the Quarter Sessions show. During the period I’m cataloguing, imprisonment for debt was a common occurence, and bearing in mind that you had to pay your court fees and, generally pay for your upkeep while imprisoned, this created a situation whereby people imprisoned for debt could remain in the debtor’s prison for many years, and even die there.

The failure of logic behind this system is very apparent to modern eyes; by remaining imprisoned a person lacked the means to earn a living, or a profit, from which to extricate themselves from their indebtedness, yet it seems that the logical absurdity of the practice of locking up debtors took a long while to dawn on society at large. That a problem was at least recognised was apparent in the various periodic Acts for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors, through which means persons confined for debt (often termed ‘prisoners of the sheriff’s ward) could apply to have their petitions heard, and their creditors could apply to the clerk of the peace for an assignment of their estate to offset their losses. After having followed due procedure a debtor would then, in theory, be eligible to leave the place of confinement. It seems however that there were many Acts passed for this purpose, indicating that they only applied in certain circumstances, to people who had been confined at certain times, so it doesn’t seem as though everybody could apply at once for their (eventual) release. Even for those who did apply, it could still take a considerable period of time for the petition to be heard, for the creditors to make their applications, and for the unfortunate debtor to be released.

The plight of those confined to the sheriff’s ward is ably demonstrated in a document dated 25 May 1744, reference QS/4/1744/Midsummer/NO/4. This document is a petition made by a certain Mr Andrew Pime, formerly of Westleigh, imprisoned in St Thomas’ gaol at the suit of a Mr Charles Cutcliffe of Bideford. In the course of explaining his plight to the court he notes that he has been imprisoned there for over three years, and ends his missive: “pray sir be my frend [sic] in this case or els [sic] I shall never be able to get out of this miserable place.” 

In this day and age, where most people have an overdraft, it seems a very strange idea that being indebted to somebody could lead to a term of indefinite imprisonment, but this was sadly the way of things in the eighteenth century. That’s bad enough on its own, of course, but when you take into account the state of eighteenth century gaols, and the frequent outbreaks of epidemic disease in the unsavoury conditions that prevailed within these terrible buildings, imprisonment for debt could often turn into a death sentence in its own right. So next time you’re wandering about in Exeter and you happen to find yourself in St Thomas, spare a thought for poor Mr Pime and the countless others like him.


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!

The ‘Great Frost’ comes to Devon?

A double update for you this week, because, as often happens, another strand of interesting material emerged which I just had to share. As you can imagine, after cataloguing a collection for a few months you begin to become aware of things that are outside the normal run of things, such as a preponderance of highway material for a session, indicating that the road network was particularly suffering at that point in time, or documentation about out of the ordinary events, like the ‘skimmington ride’ I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

Well, for Midsummer Sessions 1740 there were no fewer than 85 presentments (these are the documents detailing allegations) and 113 recognisances (binding people to turn up to court to answer charges, or give evidence about crimes committed). While these are relatively large numbers, that’s not completely out of the ordinary, but the fact that the crimes are, in the majority, related to thefts of food, agricultural equipment and fuel, indicated that times had been hard in Devon the previous winter, and the Midsummer sessions was mopping up the resulting crime wave.

So, I did a bit of digging, and it turns out that 1740 was a terrible year in Ireland, a year whose winter and sping were known as the ‘Great Frost,’ where families burned through winter fuel reserves in matters of days to try to survive, where harvests were meagre, and people perished of famine. Although the hardships of 1740 have been overshadowed by the terrors of the Potato Famine a century later, the Irish Famine of 1740-41 was so terrible that contemporaries called it the ‘Bliain an Áir’ or ‘Year of Slaughter.’

Most scholarship I’ve found so far focuses almost without exception on the situation in Ireland, but even within this scholarship there is an acknowledgement that the weather system causing the hardship in Ireland prevailed over most of Europe; indeed, weather readings from mainland Britain indicate that the weather was just as bad on this side of the Irish Sea, too.

What caused the unseasonal weather is not currently known with any certainty, though similar years or periods of hardship and unseasonable winters affecting the entire Continent often have links to volcanic eruptions in other parts of the world lowering global temperatures through the accumulation of ash and soot in the Earth’s atmosphere, as happened after the Krakatoa eruption in the nineteenth century (the noise of which interestingly, produced what is reckoned to be the loudest sound ever heard in human history). The 1783 eruption of Laki, in Iceland, caused famine across Europe thanks to the volume of ash ejected blocking sunlight, and the flouride within the ash which poisoned crops and livestock. In this light, the eruptions of Mount Asahi and Mount Tarumai in Japan in 1739 and the subsequent unusually cold weather in Europe may indeed be related.

But what of the people of Devon? Well, depressingly it seems the justices of the peace, confronted with this crime wave, reacted by transporting just about everyone convicted of crimes of theft. Eighteenth century society, though often branded ‘enlightened’ had yet to make the link between the reality that when people were facing starvation they became more likely to turn to  crime to survive the period of hardship. It was not the nature of the eighteenth century world to attempt to understand the underlying reasons for waves of crime of this nature; instead such episodes were seen as threats to the social order which had to be removed, in this case to the colonies.

As is often the case with cataloguing this material, I feel gald that I don’t live in the eighteenth century world. We have the tools to understand these kinds of social situations more deeply, and the capacity to respond to them with greater humanity than our forebears did. Nevertheless, we must always remember that it is not whether we call ourselves ‘enlightened,’ as our eighteenth century forebears did, that actually makes us so, but whether we act in similar situations today with an enlightened attitude towards the genuine human misery these situations can cause.

As an optimist, I like to think that we do. And on that philosophical note, I’ll wish you all a great weekend!

18th century trades…

Found in one of the Quarter Sessions bundles and looks to be the genuine 18th century article, made of linen and hand-stitched!

Above, well, (if it displays above!) is an eighteenth century linnen ribbon, found in the bundles and used to tie them together. Hand-made and stitched, it is a fine example of eightennth-century textile workmanship, and examples of material of this kind come out of the records every now and again, having remained in the bundles for three centuries, to all intents and purposes untouched by human hand for all that time.

Clearly, someone, somewhere, was making linen items that were being supplied to the court, but the court had other suppliers too. Perhaps the most prolific is Mr Score, a printer who supplied the updated statutes to the Sessions, printed tables of clerk’s fees and conducted other printing work for the justices of the peace. His trade was lucrative and the income regular; accounts material, where it survives in the bundles, almost always includes items concerning Mr Score’s bill. Things like this, as you catalogue, become little familiarities you look forward to encountering again, little reminders that behind the drama and often crushing social injustices that the Quarter Sessions highlight so vividly, life was continuing as normal for many, and the routines of life were continuing as they had done for centuries previously. Masons worked on the castles and brideswells, glaziers repaired damaged windows, carpenters outfitted the court chambers, and created beautifully-carved mahogany seats with sumptous crimson damask cushions for the justices to be seated on. The bills for these tradesmen’s work survive, often giving precise detail as to when the work was completed; I’m yet to discover whether the seats I’ve mentioned here survive in the castle, but if I find at some point that they do, I’ll let you know.

Beyond the trades supporting and supplying the Quarter Sessions, of course, the community was full of other tradesmen and artisans. Britain was not yet fully industrialised of course, but the first stirrings of industry were soon to make themselves felt. The Industrial Revolution, when it finally arrived in earnest, didn’t arrive in a vacuum. Britain, as with every other nation, was a land populated by craftsmen and tradesmen in addition to those working the land as their forbears had done for generations. The Quarter Sessions records give quite a good indication of just how many craftsmen and tradesmen there were operating in society, and the sheer range of occupations undertaken by them, since in the vast majority of recognisances and a good many presentments, the occupations of those named in the documents tend to be given. There were soap boilers, perriwig makers, clock makers, masons, glaziers, tailors, mariners,  brewers, innkeepers, cordwainers, sergeweavers, weavers, woolcombers, bricklayers, apothercaries, surgeons, barbers, hotpresters, shopkeepers, and the wonderfully titled ‘haberdasher of hats’ to name just a few.

As with many things I find when cataloguing these records, there’s an interesting project in there for any reasearcher bold enought to attempt it: wouldn’t it be interesting to collate all these various trades and professions, quantify them in terms of numbers for each trade over a given period, and build up a picture of their distribution throughout the County, using the records of the Quarter Sessions? Well, it’s a thought, anyway!