In this third of our blogs featuring “informations and examinations”, we‘ll focus on the unheard voices of women. Even women who were born into rich families were not always given an education, so their voices remain largely unheard.
In 1735 Elizabeth Ayleworth tells how she was sexually assaulted after a man ‘endeavoured to put his hand under her petticoat’. Afterwards, he kicked her in the street and she was bedridden for three days. Even today, women who find the courage to speak out risk having their reputation called into question, so Elizabeth may have been a woman with some level of respect and social standing who felt her version of events would be believed.
In 1751 we hear from Jane Harrison of Woodchester, singlewoman, who accuses two men of poisoning her drink with Spanish Fly. This is a beetle which produces a toxic chemical called cantharidin, believed to be a sexual stimulant but is actually highly toxic. The two men accuse each other, then back track and one of them says they tried to reduce the amount. Their punishments are not given in the statement.
It’s easy to believe that women were regarded as totally unimportant, the property of their fathers or husbands. However the Quarter Sessions records include many cases where women come forward and publicly name and shame the men who abused them. This is one of the places where we can say that women were listened to.
In 1736 Anne Fox of Tytherington comes forward and accuses her husband of domestic abuse: ‘she is afraid he will kill her unless some means may be found to prevent him doing her further harm’. The court had previously fined him for this but it’s unclear whether the deterrent worked. We don’t know how Anne Fox ended up. Was she safe? Did she leave? We are left wanting to know the end of her story.
Many cases of bastardy appear because the parish wanted to determine who was financially responsible for the child. In 1745 Sarah Baker of Cirencester Stow, single woman, states ‘that William Banet had carnal knowledge of her body in the cloister at Gloucester’ and her child ‘when born is likely to be a bastard chargeable to the parish’. Her statement also specifies that she is saying this ‘voluntarily without compulsion’. This suggests there must have been women who were forced to come forward, even if they didn’t want to.
Attitudes towards women and issues affecting women shift back and forth, but some of the cases above will certainly resonate today.
In the second blog about Unheard Voices in the Quarter Sessions records we will look closer at how these people identified themselves or, more realistically, how the courts identified them.
Sometimes the trade given is vagrant or vagabond, someone who is wandering and begging for food or work. In other words, they have no fixed employment and this makes them outcasts.
In 1766 James Aires, listed as ‘homeless orphan’ tells the court he was told by his mother he was ‘born in a pigsty’. With no other family, since her death he wandered looking for food and shelter, stopping in farmhouses and working petty chores for his keep. Although he asked the parish for help before, he was turned away and told to work for the farmers. The statement ends by saying he is twelve years old.
Industry seems to be what binds together communities and offer economic survival. In fact, in almost every Sessions, people are defined by their work, or lack of. We’ve come across husbandman, victualler, labourer, coal miner, nailmaker and many more. This is very valuable historical information, much like the census which tells us about how people lived and what they relied upon.
Although the cases are local, there are also references to what was happening in the wider world at the time. In 1766 Anne Hedges tells us her story, and is simply described as ‘widow’. She says her husband was born in the parish Ross in Herefordshire, but she was born in New York. After marrying her soldier husband she travelled around with him, performing nursing duties during what she called ‘the late war’ (meaning the Seven Years War). She then says she was wounded at ‘Martinico’ (modern day Martinique). This was attacked and occupied by the British in 1762, which fits her timeline. Afterwards she came to Britain on the ‘Solebay Hospital Ship’ and landed in Leith. She has a happy ending, as the parish agrees to take her in and care for her. She would have been unusual in her new local community, as people, especially women rarely travelled far outside their own county.
This is the first of five blogs featuring the records of the court of Quarter Sessions and the “unheard voices” they allow us to hear.
Today we are almost deafened by voices, thanks to the internet and of course, social media! But it hasn’t always been like this. Before the mid 19th century, most people didn’t own property, had no vote, and didn’t go to school. This means their lives could leave little or no trace within the written records and so their voices remain silent.
The records of the court of Quarter Sessions are an exception to this. Quarter Sessions were meetings of local magistrates, knows as Justices of the Peace, who met four times a year, hence the name. The court dealt with a great variety of complaints and crimes, from stealing a hat to dangerous rioting. In 2019 we launched a volunteer project called Maligned, Marginalised and Misunderstood to look in detail at a particular series of these court records, the “information and examinations” between 1728 and 1770. We wanted to bring out the voices of ordinary people, especially those at the margins of society.
Many of the cases tell us about the local trades, neighbourly disputes, and abandoned children of the parish. We often have no idea about people’s motives, their background or how the case affected their day to day lives. And the Sessions don’t necessarily tell us what the punishment or resolution was. But we can start to see patterns of behaviour, what details people focused on and therefore what was important to them and their community.
Every ‘Session’ gives us the name of the accused or accuser, where they live, what they do, and what the case is about. In 1740 John Jones the younger of Coleford in Newland, a cooper is accused of violent behaviour. According to the person who wrote it, ‘the family have a very bad character in the neighbourhood’. They don’t just state what happened, they offer an opinion. This can be just as valuable to us, as facts alone don’t tell us about attitudes or customs of the day, or what one particular community was like to live in.