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.
Prime Minister William Pitt the younger was under pressure to raise taxation to help pay for the Napoleonic Wars with France, which proved to be very expensive, costing the country £831 million, £49 billion in today’s money. The government had to come up with ever more ingenious ways to pay for the wars, which included taxes on bricks, clocks, watches, hats, medicine, playing cards, soap, newspapers, gloves, perfume, hired horses and hair powder before resorting to Income Tax from 1799.
The Hair Powder Tax was introduced in 1795 by "Independent Whig" William Pitt. The Whig party (no connection to the wearing of wigs) was a political party from 1680’s to the 1850’s and a rival to the Tory party.
Anyone who wished to use hair powder had to obtain an annual certificate from their local Justice of the Peace and to pay a stamp duty of one guinea (£1.05) per annum, which in today’s money is £127! The use of wigs was in the decline by this stage in favour of more natural hairstyles and this only hastened its demise. In 1812 46,664 people paid the tax, but by 1855 only 997 paid. By the time the tax was repealed in June 1869 it only yielded £1,000 per annum.
There were certain exceptions to paying the tax: - The Royal Family and their servants - Clergymen with an income of under £100 a year - Non-commissioned officers, privates in the army, artillery, militia, mariners, engineers, fencibles (were a type of home guard set up to defend the United Kingdom and the colonies during the second half of the 18th century and first half of the 19th centuries), subalterns (a British military term for a junior officer), officers in the navy below commander, yeomanry and volunteers. - The master of a household could buy a certificate for a servant which would be valid for their successors within that year. - A father with more than one unmarried daughters could buy two certificates which would be valid for all his daughters. - One payment could be made for a group of servants in one household.
A list of who had paid was sent to the Quarter Session court, with a copy fixed to the door of the parish church. These now form part of the Quarter Session records held by us, with the reference number WSA A1/395. Fines were imposed for those who did not pay the tax.
The wearing of periwigs – wig for short, became very fashionable during the 17th and 18th Century. But as with a lot fashion, one has to contend with some hardship: nits, plague, robbers and tax!
In the autumn of 1706, James Montague of Lackham sent his workmen to cut down some trees on Bewley Common, an area of land that abutted both Lackham and Lacock Manors. This commonplace country activity elicited a furious reaction from his neighbour, Sir John Talbot, the Lord of Lacock. Talbot disputed Montague's right to fell the timber and retaliated by ordering his men to cut down all the remaining trees and remove the timber for his own use. Both parties insisted that they alone had the rights to the timber in accordance with established practice and ancient agreements, and the dispute rapidly escalated over the ensuing months.
In confronting Talbot, Montague had taken on a formidable opponent. Sir John Talbot was in his 77th year, had been a long-term and very active member of Parliament, championing many causes and generally featuring at the forefront of political life for most of the second half of the turbulent 17th century. He was a committed Royalist, Protestant and Soldier and had commanded a number of regiments at various times. He survived the Glorious Revolution, despite having two arrest warrants issued against him after 1689, and was never implicated in Jacobite unrest. In short, he was a fighter, survivor, and a man experienced in the ways of the world. By contrast, Montague, aged 33, had had limited military experience and had served only three years as a rather inactive MP. He had trained as a lawyer and was a local Justice of the Peace.
It appears that as the dispute grew, Montague had resorted to the law to resolve the respective rights of the Manors of Lacock and Lackham to Bewley Common, to recover damages for the timber he claimed to have been stolen from him, and to bring those involved in 'his' timber's removal to justice. Court hearing were held in late 1706 but proved inconclusive and a further hearing was scheduled for January 1707. In the intervening period, apart from a verbal altercation in Lacock church, Montague and Talbot addressed the problem in a series of increasingly acerbic letters, despite both declaring to not like conducting "paper disputes".