One of the most satisfying things about being an archivist is the opportunity it gives you to bring to light new documents which people will have the opportunity to look at in the future. It is doubly satisfying, therefore, to find documents which were once thought to be lost and can now be seen again.
Just recently, I received a specific request to locate a particular series of late 17th century documents for Elvaston manor on behalf of a researcher, Mr Jean-Baptiste Piggin, who had tried unsuccessfully in the past to locate them. He had found the reference to the documents in “Three Centuries of Derbyshire Annals”, Volume 2 (published 1890) by Reverend J.C.Cox. Cox states (page 275) that they were stored in the “record room” maintained by the Clerk of the Peace in St Mary’s Gate, Derby. This meant that they were held along with the records of the Derbyshire County Quarter Sessions, which were later moved to the County Offices in Matlock in the late 1950 and then eventually transferred to the Derbyshire Record Office in Matlock in the late 1980s.
It was assumed that the Elvaston manor items had been lost. There was no indication in the assorted lists and finding aids drawn up over the years for the Quarter Sessions that they still existed, and there is, indeed, no reason for them to have necessarily been retained, as they had absolutely no connection with Quarter Sessions. There are, however, quite a number of boxes of Quarter Sessions still unlisted, so I decided it would be worth checking in each one. And so it proved, even though, as is the way of these things, they were in the last box I looked at! The documents (numbering 60 items) have now been removed from the Quarter Session records and allocated a new collection reference number, D7687.
Mr Piggin has produced an excellent blog on this episode, which can be seen at http://macrotypography.blogspot.de/2014/02/lost-leet-records-rediscovered.html.
The equally excellent page on his website about Elvaston court leet can also be seen at http://www.piggin.org/leet.htm. He has transcribed everything that Cox published on the subject on pages 275-280.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the documents themselves is the way it shows the Elvaston jurors being able to fine the lord of the manor, John Stanhope, and members of his family for their minor misdemeanours. Lords were not above the law, so to speak, even in their own manors and had to abide by the “custom” or the by-laws of the manor the same as everyone else .
The top presentment by the jury members serving for Ambaston on 13 April 1692 fines Mr. John Stanhope 10 shillings for not scouring his watercourse. Notice that his fine is much higher than those for the other listed people for the same sort of offence. You can’t help feeling it’s pay-back time for the lord and master!
The manor court jury was expected to investigate incidents of potential misdemeanours and then present their findings to the court. These investigations would have taken place before the court actually sat, making the manor jury a very different beast from any present-day jury. There was also an implicit assumption of guilt for those named by the jury in their presentments: the matter had already been investigated, and if the person hadn’t committed an offence, he wouldn’t have been presented! You do find cases where people have appealed, in effect, against the “false words” of the jury, but these are very much the exception.