Tuesday 30 August 2022

The Bawdy Court at Chester

We are fortunate in the range and volume of records of the Diocese of Chester church court which we hold, dating back to the early sixteenth century. Meanwhile Chester Cathedral has the only complete surviving consistory court room in England so we can picture how and where cases were heard. One of our researchers, Pat Cox, has begun to publish images and transcriptions on a new website so with new easy access to the court documents, the stories really come to life. Thanks to Pat for this introduction to the records that fascinate her and her remarkable project.

This type of court was formally known as the consistory court but was popularly known as the ‘bawdy court’ because of the scandalous goings-on revealed by some of the men and women who appeared there. The influence of the church touched almost every aspect of sixteenth-century life and a wide range of matters came within the jurisdiction of its courts, including supervision of personal morals along with more formal matters.

I first started to look at these records some years ago, while researching for a degree, and I found them very difficult to understand because, apart from the difficulties of deciphering the handwriting, much is written in Latin, and heavily abbreviated formulaic Latin at that. I once asked an eminent scholar whether there was any quick way to get to grips with interpreting the documents, and he assured me that there wasn’t – he was quite right! A lot of transcriptions and translations of similar documents have been published, but very few of these are accompanied by a copy of the original document, so this is what this new website is all about. I would like to record my thanks to the staff of the Cheshire Record Office for the kindness and patience which they have extended to me over the past few years.

It will take quite some time to upload all the cause papers and related information and so it is an ongoing project, but I do hope that you will find the website interesting and useful as the information in these records tells us so much about the attitudes and daily life of 500 years ago, so head over to and take a look at what our ancestors got up to!

Tuesday 23 August 2022

A Farmer's Life: The Diary of James Higginson aged 57½ (part 2)

Read Part 1 of A Farmer's Life: The Diary of James Higginson aged 57½ here.

The diary covering 1817-19 gives us an insight into a particular 15 months in James Higginson’s life but what else do we know?  We can tell from his writing that he was educated.  His diary entries show that he employed several men, his financial dealings indicate he was reasonably well off (he loaned money to friends and received dividends), he was able to take time away from the farm to visit his brother who lived some distance away, and we know he liked to socialise, but we hold other sources that add more information.

At the time this diary was started, James and Mary would have been 57 and 42 years old and had been married for 17 years.  They had three sons, Charles, 16, who worked on the farm, Edward 11, and James, 7.  We know this because their marriage, their burials, and their children’s baptisms are in the parish registers for St Bartholomew, Barrow.

When James died in 1835 at the age of 75, he left everything to Mary.  We have his will which he signed just a few days before he died.  By then, the man who had written so neatly in the small notebook was too unwell to sign his name and could only make his mark.

We know that Mary continued at the farm until her death in 1861 as the Tithe Apportionment of 1839 lists her as Occupier.  Searching our Tithe Map site using her name will show you the extent of the land the Higginson’s farmed.

We also know that by 1851 her sons Charles and James no longer lived in the family home.  Census returns for 1851 and 1861 show that her middle son Edward still lived with her and helped run the farm.  In 1851 the household consists of: Mary, Farmer of 86 acres, Edward, Farmer’s son, plus a Dairymaid, Housemaid, Waggoner and Cowman.  The next census in 1861 was the year Mary died.  She was 86 years old and presumably needed more help running the household as her niece Alice Woodier is included as Housekeeper.  There was also a Dairymaid, Housemaid, Carter, Cow Boy (aged 14) and Stable Boy (aged 12).

The newspapers of the time help to flesh out events that James only mentions in passing such as the deaths of Princess Charlotte and Queen Charlotte, mentioned previously, giving us a taste of life in the early 19th century.

One particularly gruesome event was recorded briefly on Saturday 9th May 1818.  It came between a sentence about his cows and a note on the price of butter: ‘My wife & her Son James at Chester seeing the Two men to suffer’.  Hold on - what?  The Chester Courant of 12th May 1818 carries a report of the execution by hanging of 2 men, Abraham Rosthern and Isaac Moors.  Rosthern had stolen items from his employer, namely 7 pictures, 1 looking glass, 5 silver teaspoons, 1 pair of silver sugar tongs, a drinking horn, a quantity of jaconet muslin, gold thread and several other articles.  Moors had broken into a house and stolen various articles of linen and drapery.

The Courant reported that a great crowd came to watch the executions, estimating that 6000 people attended.  In amongst them were Mary Higginson and her youngest son James.  The parish records have James being born and baptised in August 1809, so in May 1818 he would only have been 8 years old!  Whether he was brought along as a form of entertainment or to terrify him into living an honest life, we’ll never know.


All of these items and more are available to view at Cheshire Record Office in Chester.

Thursday 4 August 2022

A Farmer's Life: The Diary of James Higginson aged 57½ (part 1)

In 1817 you could buy a small notebook from Mr Poole of Chester for 1s/6d.  James Higginson bought one and wrote in it every day, except Sunday, from Monday 13th October 1817 until Saturday 16th January 1819.  There were most likely other notebooks before and after this one, but this little diary is all that’s left 200 years later.

James farmed land in the village of Barrow, a few miles outside Chester, and he used the notebook as a daily record of the work of the farm; the weather; weekly trips to buy and sell goods at market; snippets of local and family news; and occasional mentions of national events.  From his writings we know that it was a mixed farm with pigs, dairy cattle that produced milk for the cheese and butter his wife Mary sold at market, and some chickens.  James grew wheat and potatoes, turnips (probably for the cattle) and planted peas in his garden.

Even though writing space was limited, James didn’t just record the daily grind.  There is often a note in the margin or maybe a line given over to local events, leisure time, or words of wisdom for his future self, such as this from 3rd March 1818 when he got drunk with friends and lost a wager: ‘James go no more to Ale houses – mind’.  But like most people who have a few too many and regret it the next day, he didn’t heed his own advice!  He very honestly notes every now and then spending the evening (or the day) at the alehouse, and advice in November to ‘Drink no more wiskey’ is followed a week later with ‘got Drunk a gain. No Better nie Before.’

There were notes of things he bought – flower seeds, waistcoats and britches for himself or his sons, 2 handkerchiefs for 4 shillings and sixpence, an ‘umberbelow’ (umbrella), and a watch for his eldest son Charles.  On one occasion someone came to the house to make Mary ‘a pare of Stayes’ - who knows what Mary thought about such information being recorded for posterity!

In early December 1817 he wrote a derogatory comment on the marriage of an older acquaintance: ‘Old Mr Rite of Norley Marry’d this Week wich I thought too old for much Execution’.  In September 1818 he was very pleased to have sold his pigs for a good price, then wrote a note to remind himself ‘Never sell all your pigs a Gain – but kill one’ because he then had to buy another pig at market to feed his family!

James notes various deaths amongst his acquaintance including a Christmas day burial, and in February 1818 he sadly lost both his brother, John, and sister, Betty, within 3 weeks of each other.  Two deaths of national importance also make it into his diary, those of Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince of Wales, and Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III.  Princess Charlotte died after giving birth to a stillborn son and the mourning was national and profound with shops closing for 2 weeks and drapers running out of black cloth.  When she was buried on 19th November 1817 James wrote: ‘Princess Charlottey Interede at Winsor a very Deplorable day’.  A year later the death and burial of the Queen was also recorded: ‘our gracious Queen departed’ but though a notable and sad occasion, it seems to have affected him less.

He closes the notebook with record of wages paid to his farm workers and servants; a list of meat bought; bills paid to maintain his farm carts; money received from dividends and cash paid out; and a list of cows calved with some of their names – Plum, Dunham, Primrose, Little Weaver, Tydey, Nutt, Lilley, Bett, Weston and Cherry.  With every last page filled, our peek into the life of James Higginson ends and it’s time for a new notebook.

Coming soon - in part 2 of A Farmer's Life: Diary of James Higginson Aged 57½, we learn more about James, his wife Mary and some significant events of the time. 

All of these items and more are available to view at Cheshire Record Office in Chester.