Friday, 29 June 2018

Manorial Documents Project: Suspicion and Bonfires in Historic Nether Knutsford!

Lots of our collections include records of the manor courts dating from the 1300s right up to the early 1900s. They provide the earliest history we have of local administration with details of court proceedings, names, local rules and land transactions often in long runs of consecutive years. In addition to this, manorial records can also include maps and surveys, providing material for geographical research. The aim of this one year project is to establish a definitive list of Cheshire's manorial records, and share the stories they can tell us along the way.

The 1643-1827 court book for Nether Knutsford is at first glance, unassuming. It has a hard, brown cover with some faint decoration on the border and the hand written title ‘Nether Knutsford’. As with many manorial records, it isn’t until you start to read the book that you discover the wealth of information held within. Spanning a date range of 184 years, the book contains court proceedings, including rules and jury lists, as well as lists of donations to the poor. This particular volume is unusual as it also contains at the back a hand written index.

The index is only two pages long and not extensive, but it is a rare find in a book like this. I was a little sceptical at first, but did check the entries and they are correct! The index notes some orders relating to named individuals, orders relating to swine and for ringing the market bell among others – a useful find for anyone researching these areas. In my previous blog entry, I noted that many of the orders found in court books and rolls for Cheshire relate to the maintenance of watercourses and livestock. In this court book, however, they are quite varied. To give some examples, in the entry made on 21st October 1791 notice is given that:

'…if any vagrant or other suspicious person who is not able to give a good account of himself shall be found in this town he will be immediately taken up and prosecuted according to the law.’

It is unclear what warrants being seen as a ‘suspicious person’ at this time, but needless to say, it was not tolerated in Nether Knutsford! This same entry also includes the order:

‘…we further order and direct that the constables do for the future suppress all burnfires usually made on each fifth of November because it is considered as dangerous to the buildings and property of the inhabitants…’

‘Burnfire’ being another word for bonfire, it sounds like the celebrations would be subdued for that years’ bonfire night. This is the only year that I have found mention of supressing bonfires so it can be assumed that it was either just for this year or perhaps an alternative was found in future years – this unfortunately can’t be solved by reading this volume but it is interesting to consider. Travelling back a hundred years to an entry made in October 1690, the orders are more in line with maintenance and livestock:

‘…all persons whatsoever that keep hogs sows or pigs, shall keep them forty yards from the corn markett upon the market day upon the penalty of one shilling...’

A volume of this length is also interesting to observe the changes in handwriting and format over a period of time. Looking at the following two images, the first is an entry from the 1670s, and the second image shows an entry from 1823.

They clearly show a change from an earlier handwriting, known as ‘secretary hand’ to the later form of ‘italic’ handwriting. The entries also become longer and have fewer paragraphs. The orders and rules become more repetitive, so the same rules are repeated in each year in the later entries, showing a slightly clearer and perhaps more stable set of rules. This blog only highlights a small portion of the wealth of information which can be gathered by reading manorial court books. Even without a specific topic of research in mind, a general read through this book provides a detailed view of the changing administration in Nether Knutsford between the dates of 1643-1827. If you're interested in taking a look at this volume, you just need to visit the searchroom at Cheshire Record Office and ask for document reference DET/3244/14. In addition to this volume, we also hold court books and rolls for many of the Cheshire manors, each full of their own interesting rules and customs and each worth considering when researching the history of your home town. Keep an eye on this blog for further stories about Cheshire’s manorial documents.

The list of Cheshire Manorial documents will be made available on the Manorial Documents Register at the end of this year, to find out more about the national project, please follow this link.