Here at the History Centre, we’re no stranger to Morris Dancers. We’ve had dancers on the staff, while each May Bank Holiday Chippenham hosts its popular Folk Festival. It’s great fun watching the street theatrics, but there was once a darker side to Morris Dancing that led to the following stories being recorded by the Wiltshire Magistrates (and now appear in Records of Wiltshire).
What happened at Woodborough in May 1652 caused official concern, but how was it that Morris Dancing threatened the pillars of the state?
Capers against the Commonwealth On the evening of Sunday, May 16th 1652, Edward Smyth and Edward Hawking left their homes in Woodborough and went to All Cannings, where they met and conspired with about a dozen people. That same Sunday, Robert Golfe went from Woodborough into Marlborough “to get a drummer”, while Thomas Beasant went to Ram Alley in Easton and “there invited and procured a fiddler”.
The following day, their plans were revealed when a crowd gathered from the surrounding countryside; according to the records, “three hundred persons, or thereabouts … gathered together in a Riotous, Routous, Warlike and very disorderly manner’.” If anyone thought about stopping them, they were armed “with muskets, pistols, bills, swords drawn and other unlawful weapons”.
The musicians led the crowd from Woodborough to Pewsey where they “very disorderly, danced the Morris Dance”, and committed other misdemeanours, including “drinking and tippling in the inn and Alehouse”. While the prevalence of weapons may, happily, be less, it’s reassuring to see that the drinking still continues in and around Morris circles to this day (and sometimes, people still disapprove).
Public nuisance, party, or Sedition? In 1652, England was a republic, following the execution of Charles I. The Commonwealth kept a close eye on signs of dissent, looking for evidence of Royalist insurgency: traditional sports and pastimes were suspect. Ales, Morris and other customs had been the target of religious reformers since before the Civil War. The opposition from these authorities meant that Morris and other customs now symbolised the old order prior to the Civil War, when license and liberty were, supposedly, more freely allowed; as such, Morris dancing and the open drinking of ale was as much an open challenge to the authorities as the bearing of arms. Although the weapons offered a challenge to the authorities, the Morris spoke of tradition, culture, custom and a perceived stability before the upheavals of the 1640s. The new rulers of England were right to view the emotional power of such demonstrations with suspicion.
While the Morris at Pewsey may not be as famous as folksinger Pete Seeger, who was blacklisted by McCarthy in Cold War America, or Victor Jara, the Chilean musician executed during the 1973 coup, the Wiltshire boys used their folk art and their rootedness in the traditions of their place to show dissent toward the Authorities. Were the ringleaders seeking to incite rebellion, or just standing up for traditional fun? No doubt motives were mixed and shifting, including a mass of local and national grievances, as well as people being there for the fun, the beer and the free entertainment. What also seems remarkably modern was the casting of The Commonwealth as an alien, faceless Authority that stopped fun and meddled in the lives of “ordinary folk” (“Bonkers Conkers” anyone?).
However, as our next story shows, the dancers in Pewsey were evoking an idealised past in an “imagined village” …1
Richard I was not particularly interested in England, only spending a few months out of his 10 year reign in England, but he was interested in his crusades which needed to be financed. A new way of collecting tax was needed as the current system of “holding the pleas of the crown” in which the King’s itinerant Judges toured the country and held courts in villages to settle disputes and levy fines was inefficient at actually raising revenue for the crown. The problem was it took so long for the Judges to complete their circuit that the sheriffs were able to pocket the fines and not pass them onto the king.
In 1194 new reforms were set up, which included new county officers called the Coroner (or Crowner as they were originally called – Coronam is Latin for crown). They were tasked with “keeping the pleas of the crown” which meant they had to document cases before the justice court rolled into town. Their role was simple, to generate as much income for the King as possible. Sudden deaths were of particular interest to the new Coroner, because if the death was proved to be suicide (“self murder”) then the goods of the deceased would be forfeited to the crown. Buried treasure (treasure trove), goods washed up on shore and shipwrecks all belonged to the king. It was now the job of the Coroner to record these events and to make sure that any revenue due to the King went in to the royal coffers.
By 1194 the Saxons were still in a habit of killing Normans, if a dead person was found, the village in which it was found would be heavily fined, as it was presumed to be Norman unless it could be proved otherwise by a plea of Englishry. The fine was known as “Murdrum”, from which the word murder derives. Coroner’s inquests dealt with these cases and the revenue from the fines imposed went to the King.
Every County elected three Coroners with many boroughs having their own coroner. A clerk was employed to carry the pen, ink and “Coroner’s Rolls” and would have walked behind the horses. The clerk was later dropped in favour of a fourth Coroner. As “Keeper of the Crown Pleas” it was the Coroners job to record the pleas on parchment called the “Coroner’s Rolls” and present to the King’s judges when they rolled into town. These rolls mostly survive and are held at The National Archives. They record, amongst other things, details of sudden and unnatural deaths, giving information surrounding the circumstances of deaths.
A pre Norman practice that appears in the Coroner’s Rolls was the fine of a deodand, “Deo dandum” or “given to God”. The idea was that the object which caused the death of sinful and had to be given to the church to be expurgated. The Normans saw this as a nice little earner for the crown, as the Coroner would value the object and the crown plea judges would decide if the deodand was to be forfeited to the crown or given to the victim’s family as compensation for their loss.
All sudden deaths were investigated by the coroner, whether murder, manslaughter, accidental, natural or suicide. It was the coroner’s job to record as much information about the death as possible, witnesses, time, date, where and of course the primary interest was property and chattels were written down ready for the Justices court. There were strict rules for when a body was discovered and heavy fines imposed if they were not followed. The finder of a body had to raise the alarm and was liable to be fined for inaction. Many bodies might be ignored or hidden, or even moved to another village or tithing in an attempt to avoid responsibility.
“As sure as fate I will burn down all your house and your farm things, and no one shall keep me from it…” This horrific threat was made in March 1845 by a 30 year old woman from Codford St Peter, with the unusual name of Praxell Alford Hinwood. She addressed these words to the prosecutor at the Wiltshire Assizes, where she was on trial for the felony of writing a threatening letter. The upshot of the trial was a sentence to transportation to Tasmania, or Van Diemen’s Land, for ten years. So how did Praxell come to this unhappy fate, and what happened to her next?
Praxell was born on 29 May 1815 and christened on 15 August 1815 at Codford St Mary church. She was one of the daughters of William, a labourer and afterwards a blacksmith, of Codford St Peter, and his wife Sarah. She had six siblings and her eldest brother was also a blacksmith. Her unusual name is possibly a corruption of ‘Praxis’, a Classical name meaning “Action”, which is highly appropriate in the light of her life thereafter! At some point in her childhood she learnt to read and write – possibly locally at a day school in Codford St Peter, or at a Sunday School. (There were Sunday schools associated with the Codford Congregational Chapel which opened in 1811, which would have taught reading and writing as well as scripture.)
In the 1841 census we find her living in the Warminster Union workhouse together with her illegitimate one year old son, Francis John Hinwood. Warminster Union workhouse was built in 1836 on a site in Sambourne, south of the town, as a place where up to 300 paupers from local parishes could be placed to carry out hard work such as breaking stones. This was designed under the ‘Poor Law Amendment Act’ of 1834 to be a deterrent from becoming a burden to their parish in terms of claiming assistance known as poor relief. Segregation of the sexes resulting in splitting up of families meant that many people hated and feared the workhouse in equal measure. For agricultural labourers in particular, who were used to being in work on a seasonal basis and using ‘outdoor relief’ from the parish to help them during the winter when work was sparse, the idea of the workhouse seemed unfair, irrational and the source of much anger. Praxell clearly shared this anger, as her later actions reveal.
Rebellion was in the air more widely at this time - in 1843 the Rebecca Riots were in full flow in rural Wales, and there were Chartist uprisings elsewhere. In June 1843 Praxell wrote a letter to the Master of Warminster workhouse, Benjamin Merchant, as follows: ‘Bloody Merchant, I have sent you a few lines to inform you that sooner or later shall be your blood or ours for there are more than two window breakers on the look out for you, so you must look out for we are determined to do it and you shall not walk out in Warminster streets but a very few more times for you may depend on it shall be your blood or ours, and we don’t care for none of you[r] damn’d police nor you neither for it is time the Devil had you and he shall, for you are not fit to live on the earth nor you shall not damn’d purse-gut bloody bugger, and that is your name, and that is what you are, so mind what is said as a thief in the night sudden destruction shall come upon you” Signed: two symbols of rakes.
I find the use of “we...” interesting here – was Praxell the ringleader of a group of discontented inmates or was she acting alone?
The sentence was six month’s imprisonment for Praxell at Fisherton Gaol although the Quarter Sessions archives show she spent the time in Devizes Prison.
Imprisonment did not crush Praxell’s spirits, and she was up to her old tricks again in Feb 1844 when she broke some workhouse windows, although she was discharged for this crime. The Guardians’ minute book for 6 May 1844 (H15/110/7) simply states that they had received a letter from the Women’s Penitentiary at Bath refusing to admit Praxell, with no comment on what she’s done to deserve admission. Then in October 1844 in the Quarter Sessions Calendar of Prisoners (A1/125/70) we find her back in Devizes Prison for two months, for “misconduct in a workhouse.” I had a look in the Guardians’ minute book for this period but I couldn’t find anything explicit – the entry for 2 Dec 1844 states that owing to the “continued insubordination of the inmates at the workhouse” a special meeting was to be held. At that meeting the fact that “so many women having scaled the walls of the workhouse with the Union clothes” had taken place was raised, but no names were given, frustratingly. The answer from the Guardians was to put spikes on top of the walls!
One of the pleasures of working in a History Centre or County Record Office is that you are always discovering new material. There are many occasions when a customer has requested something and I think ‘that looks interesting, I must have a look some when.’ The list is growing ever longer and I will probably never get round to looking at everything that interests me. A few months ago one of our regular customers spent several days looking at the Great Rolls. These documents have always been a mystery to me as I have never known exactly what’s in them and how easy they are to use.
The Rolls are part of the Quarter Sessions records. Prior to the Local Government Act 1888 and the creation of County Councils, the Quarter Sessions presided over by JPs were responsible for the administration of justice. As well as dealing with criminal cases, examples of their responsibilities were the administration of poor law, apprenticeship indentures, ale house licences, plans of canals and railways, coroners’ accounts, the County Militia, Meeting House certificates, registers of gamekeepers, the supervision of prisons, the drawing up of jury lists, regulations regarding highway maintenance, the licencing of lunatic asylums and recording the names of parish constables. All of which is a wealth of information for both the family and local historian.
Here in Wiltshire we are fortunate enough to have an active Family History Society which has transcribed and indexed many of the criminal and poor law registers. One of our archivists has transcribed the ale house records. But what about the many hidden gems that we don’t know about? As well as the rolls themselves, which in Wiltshire date back to 1603, there are also rough minute books, entry books and order books. The rough minute book was effectively the clerk’s notebook. The order book records the full minutes of the court. The entry book includes names of the jury, presentments (a formal presentation of information to the court) and the names of people who were bound to appear at the court. I have chosen the year 1750 as an example.
The term ‘rolls’ describes the documents perfectly, as the parchment and paper documents used in the court were spiked, threaded on string and rolled for storage. There are four bundles for each year, one for each of the sessions. They are still known by the four English court terms during the calendar year, Easter, Trinity, Michaelmas and Hilary. Each bundle consists of smaller rolls each covering one subject, one of which is returns of jurors.
As well as giving names, which will be of interest to family historians, the return also gives a glimpse into the workings of local government. The next layer of government below the Quarter Sessions was the hundred court. (Wiltshire was divided into 40 hundreds; a hundred was a group of parishes that functioned as one administrative unit). This dealt with petty crimes committed in one of the parishes within the hundred. At the top of the document are the names of the constables of the hundred. They were senior law enforcement officers (prior to the establishment of professional police forces). Next are the gentlemen summoned to serve on the grand jury at the Quarter Sessions. Finally, all the men who served on the hundred jury, with their parish, are listed. Sometimes the list will include the juror’s occupation.
‘Wiltshire Murders’ by Nicola Sly (AAA.343) in our local studies collection describes an unpleasant case of the murder of Judith Pearce. It tells of Edward Buckland, a gypsy who had been begging and odd-jobbing around the area of Seagry for many years. Judith Pearce had been known to give him the odd crust, but one evening, refused his request to come into her cottage to warm himself by the fire. Later that evening the thatched roof of Judith’s cottage caught fire. The fire was extinguished without too much damage, but it was widely believed to have been deliberately started by Buckland, who swiftly left the area.
Later in the year, Judith and her grand-daughter Elizabeth were woken by the sounds of someone trying to enter the cottage. They barred the kitchen door, but the intruder attempted to break through with a hatchet. Judith and Elizabeth succeeded in breaking through the lathe wall of the cottage into the garden, but were pursued by the assailant. Elizabeth managed to escape and ran to relatives for help. Sadly by the time they returned Judith Pearce was dead. Nothing from the house was stolen, suggesting it was likely to be a personal grudge.
Edward Buckland, having recently returned to the area, was apprehended close to the scene the following morning, tried at the Lent Assizes in Salisbury, 1821 where he was found guilty and sentenced to death.
‘I am damned if I killed the old woman’
Records of Assize trials are held at the National Archives in Kew, and Buckland does not appear in the calendar of prisoner. However, the fact of his trial is recorded in the criminal register, viewable on Ancestry, along with the guilty verdict.
The Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette March 22nd 1821 provides a detailed account of the trial and account of the murder.
Some readers will be aware of the new series on BBC Radio 4 called Disability: A New History. It is a ten-part series where “Across the country, historians are discovering the voices of disabled people from the past.” You can hear recordings of the series, which are posted for only limited time, and view an image gallery on the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/
This opens up a hidden history. As the programme’s presenter Peter White said, it is as if people with disabilities didn’t exist in the past or what they did was worth recording, yet for thousands of years disabled people have been getting on with their lives.