The Maligned, Marginalised and Misunderstood volunteer project
It all started when a researcher drew to our attention an intriguing group of documents amongst the 18th century depositions- a dull sounding series of records in the large and complicated Quarter Sessions archive. Depositions document the earliest stage of a potential court case, a process by which anyone- rich or poor- could bring a complaint to be heard by a Justice of the Peace, and consist of almost verbatim accounts by the accused and witnesses. The records in question told a strange tale of a violent argument amongst a group of women in Thornbury laced with accusations of assault and hints that witchcraft had caused one of their number to become ill.
This chance discovery threw a new spotlight on this series of records. The depositions were bound into annual volumes which were catalogued in the barest detail, giving no hint of the rich domestic detail they contained and no way of identifying the many people who populated their pages. The fact the depositions spanned the 18th century heightened their significance as this was an era with relatively few sources for exploring the lives of ordinary people- no compulsory schooling, no census, no universal franchise.
We decided the best way to open up these records to research was to recruit and train volunteers to produce a detailed catalogue description for each deposition. (An experienced volunteer had recently begun working through them, but with many hundreds still to do, we wanted to scale up the task). We knew that the 18th century handwriting and unusual vocabulary would be a challenge for some, but hoped that people would still want to get involved. The project’s title “Maligned, Marginalised and Misunderstood” was intended to convey the expectation that, given the nature of the records, many of the people they document would be from the margins of society.
The project was launched during the 2019 History Festival, giving us the benefit of the Festival’s marketing and promotion, and was sponsored by the Friends of Gloucestershire Archives. The launch event was run as an afternoon “drop in”. Examples of the depositions - including the infamous “witchcraft” case- were on display, along with contextual information about the Quarter Sessions archive and a background Powerpoint presentation, grandly entitled ‘Cultural References”, to anchor the documents within their historical period.
Although labour intensive, the “drop in” format worked well as it gave people maximum opportunity to attend and allowed plenty of time to chat and answer questions. About 25 people came along during the afternoon and almost all signed up to the project. A few short weeks later, after a session of palaeography training, and armed with a cataloguing template, instructions and a list of useful resources, our volunteers were good to go.
Fast forward 6 months and the project is nearing completion. All but 3 volumes have now been completely listed, with the remaining ones underway. FoGA have provided an expert “checker” who is looking at all the volunteers’ work before it is imported into our online catalogue. Feedback from the volunteers has been extremely positive and archive staff have been surprised and impressed at how well they have coped with the handwriting, especially as most had no previous experience to draw on. In fact, several volunteers enjoyed themselves so much that they completed more than one volume.
Thanks to the hard work and dedication of the “MMM volunteers”, as they are affectionally known, researchers can now access a fascinating wealth of name rich material which can shed light on a wide range of social issues. The many thefts -and extensive vocabulary- relating to cloth and clothing show the importance of the wool trade at this time, while some cases have unexpected contemporary resonances. In 1751, clothworker Thomas Heaven, was accused of poisoning Jane Harrison of Woodchester, a singlewoman, by putting “Spanish Fly” (a toxic aphrodisiac derived from beetles) into her glass of ale. In 2017, a similar, if more upmarket, case hit the headlines when “Spanish Gold Fly” was slipped into a strawberry cocktail in the exclusive surroundings of the Kensington Roof Gardens.
With several hundred newly created catalogue entries to choose from, we’ll share more MMM snippets in future e-newsletters.
The examination of Thomas Webb of Thornbury- one of several documents in the ‘witchcraft” case - finding reference Q/SD/1/1735 (part)