Report On the Records of the City of Exeter. Originally published by His Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1916.
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In Tudor days the City of Exeter was fortunate in having as custodian of its records a learned and travelled man who, besides taking an active part in the events of his own time, had a keen perception of the value of original documentary evidence as a guide to an accurate knowledge of the historic past. John Vowell alias Hooker, (fn. 1) as he usually calls himself, was born at Exeter about the year 1526, and on Sept. 21, 1555, (fn. 2) was appointed the first chamberlain of his native city. On May 20, 1568 (Book 51, f. 355b) he went to Ireland at the request of Sir Peter Carew "for the recovery of certain land appertant to the inheritance" of his patron, and while there he sat in the Irish Parliament of that year as a representative of Athenry. In the following year (fn. 3) he received official permission to print the Statutes and Acts of Parliaments of Ireland, but as this was to be "at his own charges," it is not surprising that the proposal seems to have come to nothing. After a three years' stay he returned to England and sat as one of the two burgesses who represented the City of Exeter in the Parliament that met at Westminster on April 2nd, 1571, (fn. 4) and his diary of attendance at that Parliament, together with his claim for wages, is still preserved among the City archives (see Book 60h). After this he was employed in a re-issue of Holinshed's Chronicle, to which he contributed the section on Ireland (fn. 5) and the account of the "commotion" at Exeter in 1549, (fn. 6) during which he had himself been present. In addition to his office as Chamberlain, he held at various times the offices of Coroner of the City, Bailiff of the Manor of Exiland, Collector of the Small Custom, and Judge of the Admiralty in the County of Devon (fn. 7), in all of which capacities we have abundant evidence of his activity still preserved in the City records.
In 1561 Queen Elizabeth granted a Charter for the establishment of a Court of Orphans, the members of which were charged as trustees with the administration of the estates of deceased citizens. As Chamberlain Hooker was the president of this Court, and details in connexion with its proceedings occur frequently among the records, while under the social stress occasioned by the dissolution of the religious houses he interested himself keenly in the pressing questions of providing work for the poor and free schooling for their children, both of which topics also are fully illustrated in the collection.
In 1575 he published "Orders enacted for Orphans &c." (see Book 51, f. 133b), preceded by an Epistle Dedicatory addressed to "the Mayor and Senators," in which he spoke of himself as "beeing many times privy of your dooings and present in your councyls" (p. 5b), adding that: "it is lamentable to see what troupes and clusters of children boyes and elder persons lye loytering and floistering in every corner of the citie" and that "great shewes have been made and attempts pretended for erecting of the Hospitall and for employing of such idle children in some honest artes, but of these great blothes cometh small frutes" (p. 9); that "these swarm in clusters in every corner of your citie and for want of good education and nurturing doo growe to be thornes and thistles," and that "it is your juste and bounden dutie to provide for the education, instruction and whatsoever is necessary for suche," and "as you have been and yet are careful and studious to doo what in you lieth for the erection of an hospitall, a thing in respect of the poore destitute and helpless children necessary and expedient to be done, so am I in good hope of your like affection, zeale and good will for and in the erecting and establishing of a free gramer school within this citie, a thing no more needful then most necessary for the general education of children of all sorts and degrees in learning" (p. 22), and "although your beginnings be hard and have many sisemies [sic] which doe what they may to hinder the same, yet you know that of hard beginnings come good endings and good attempts have good success" (p. 22b.)
Hooker died at Exeter in 1601, and the last entry in the Act Book of that year (Act Book V, f. 276) records that on Sept. 15, 1601, the chamber "have elected in the steade of John Hooker, Chamberlyn, decessed, William Tickell to be Chamberlyn of the said Cittie."
As chamberlain, Hooker had official charge of the City Records, but before his appointment we have some earlier evidence as to their custody. Thus in Book 56, f. 56b (temp. Ed. IV), in the oath of the Common Attorney, occur these words: "Also all suche evydences, charters, escrypts, and munyments as heirafter shall come to yowr hands ye schall se them safely and secretly kept and to redelyver them agayn;" and in Book 52, f. 505b, Dec. 11, 1510, under the heading "Recordes and Recorder" is the following note: "Everye Mayor at the ende of his yere and before the newe Mayor do take his othe shall cause the Recordes of the yere past to be brought yn to the Counsell Chamber and there to remayne in the place apoynted for the safekeepinge of the sayde Recordes."
Towards the end of his life, when he found himself "unweldye and imperfecte," and when, as he says: "My sight waxeth Dymme, my hyringe very thycke, my speche imperfecte and my memory very feeble," John Hooker summed up his work in connexion with the Exeter Records in a letter (fn. 8) which he wrote to the Mayor, Senators and Commonalty, in which the following interesting passage occurs:
"I was Ioyned to suche persons of that house (i.e. the Chamber of Exeter) as were appointed to veiwe, peruse and examyne all the Recordes, writinges and evidences which were then out of order and by mann's Remembraunce not before Donne by any. And what was then Donne was layed up in the places of your thresury as was meete. But afterwards by Meanes and Casualties and by reason of my absentes in other affayres all was Confused and out of order. And then I was once againe fayne to Reforme and reviewe the same, but yet it was not so well Donne as I wyshed and ought to be. Nowe therefore once more and the thirde tyme I have perused and Reveiwed the same in the best order I cann and caused places to be appointed and presses to be made with kayes and lockes and with a booke wherein I have Registred every writinge and Rolls of all such evidences as then Remayned all which nowe I have Caused to be locked up in salfitie without farther spoyle and the keyes to Remayne in your owne Custodye."
These keys, presses and boxes have all now disappeared and I cannot with any confidence identify the "book" to which Hooker here refers; (fn. 9) but a few months before his death, viz., on Jan. 26, 1601, he handed in to the Chamber a document which fortunately is still preserved. (fn. 10)
This he called: "A viewe and survey of all the Recordes, Evidences, Charters and Writinges whatsoever appertaininge to the Chambre and Citie of Excester," in which he refers to the documents as placed in 43 boxes, which appear to have been kept in presses which he refers to as the "great press," the "new press" and the "Presse behynde the dore;" and though none of them have actually survived, I have found a few occasional references to them here and there.
In 1656 the early deeds belonging to Wynard's Charity were kept "in a box for that purpose ordained with other writings and records of the City," where they "had been kept for many years before." Gidley, p. 14; Act Book X, f. 78.
In Act Book X, f. 78, Oct. 14, 1656, deeds relating to Irish lands were "putt into the boxe;" on Jan. 5, 1669, some of the City Charters when returned from London were "putt in one of ye boxes in ye Councell Chamber," Act Book XI, f. 83; and when Dr. Oliver was examining the collection in 1821 he made the following entries in his calendar:
Hooker's example bore excellent fruit, and in the hands of Samuel Izacke, who was Town Clerk from 1624 to 1647, the documents become much more abundant, and most of them are carefully docketed in the Town Clerk's own hand.
On Oct. 25, 1653, his son Richard Izacke (fn. 11) was appointed Chamberlain. He indexed the first ten volumes of the Chamber's Act Books, and continued the docketing of the detached documents, and his first-hand acquaintance with the whole of the collection is evidenced by the frequent occurrence of his handwriting on the margins and faces of the originals, though his endorsements are not always quite accurate. In 1677 he published his "Remarkable Antiquities of the City of Exeter," in compiling which he is now generally credited with "unacknowledged pilfering" from Hooker's materials, (fn. 12) but in the copy of his Memorials of the City of Exeter" still existing in MS. among the Records (Book 53), he refers to "the indefatigable labours of my princifide predecessor in this place and office, the learned Mr. John Hooker, whose workes bespeake him famous within our gates."
On April 22, 1755, (fn. 13) the Town Clerk (Benjamin Heath) and Surveyor were directed to put in order the Books, Deeds and Evidences in the Council Chamber and get the said Books properly titled. Mr. Heath's account for this business is still extant, (fn. 14) and in the course of it he says: "I sorted out and put in order the Charters, Records, Deeds and Evidences in the Council Chamber &c. These, which were all confused and mixed together, are separated and placed in distinct compartiments. Records of the Mayor's Court &c. were examined, sorted and distributed under their several heads into the boxes according to their respective titles. The doing this at two different periods took me up above 3 months."
In Nov., 1820, Dr. George Oliver, (fn. 15) the historian of Exeter, assisted by Mr. Pitman Jones and Mr. Campion, was employed by the Chamber to draw up a Calendar of many of the documents, which were then referred to as being in Drawers E.F.D. &c., and the result of their labours may still be consulted in four small volumes (Books 60i-m) in the Muniment Room of the Guildhall. For his services he received a "kind present" from the Mayor and Chamber, the receipt of which he acknowledged on July 12, 1823 (L. 608), "on my return from Tor Abbey yesterday." This search yielded abundant material for his "Monasticon Dioecesis Exoniensis," published in 1846, where many of the documents are referred to, several being printed in extenso, though unfortunately with no more detailed reference than: "Ex Archivis Civitatis Exoniœ."
When the Archæological Association visited Exeter in 1862 a few of the records were examined by Mr. Thomas Wright, who described the collection (p. 317) as forming "a very valuable part of the materials of our national history."
In the following year Mr. Stuart A. Moore was commissioned by the City Council to report upon the collection as a whole, and in the course of his investigation he discovered "an enormous bulk of records," hitherto unexamined. After some years his labours resulted in the completion of a detailed Calendar in three volumes, one of which contains an excellent index. These three volumes are now available for students in the Muniment Room of the Guildhall, and will always remain of inestimable value to researchers on the spot. The Calendar is still in large part in MS. only, but so much has it been appreciated by antiquarians and others in the County of Devon that in 1890 a beginning was made with an attempt to print it verbatim in Vol. III of a local publication known as "Notes and Gleanings," and continued month by month till that periodical ceased to appear in 1893.
In this Report I have endeavoured to deal briefly with the more important documents referred to in Vol. I of the Calendar and the Section headed "Books" in Vol. II, co-ordinating and regrouping them according to their subject-matter in order the better to present a bird's eye view of their contents, while retaining the numbers and headings of the Calendar for purposes of reference and employing the following abbreviations: viz., Bk.—Books; Ch.—Charters ; Com.—Commissions &c. ; D.—Deeds; Inv.—Inventories, and L.—Letters.
- (a) R. Izacke, Remarkable Antiquities of the City of Exeter, London, 1757.
- (b) Report of the Commissioners concerning Charities, published at Exeter in 1825 and reproduced verbatim in Endowed Charities—County Borough of Exeter, Feb. 23, 1909.
- (c) G. Oliver, Monasticon Diœcesis Exoniensis, Exeter, 1864.
- (d) G. Oliver, History of the City of Exeter, with Appendix by E. Smirke. Exeter, 1861.
- (e) T. Wright, The Municipal Archives of Exeter. In Journal of the Archæological Association, vol. xviii, 1862.
- (f) W. Cotton, An Elizabethan Guild of the City of Exeter. Exeter, 1873.
- (g) W. Cotton, Gleanings from the Municipal and Cathedral Records relative to the History of the City of Exeter. Exeter, 1877.
- (h) J. Shillinford's Letters. Camden Society, 1871.
- (i) E. A. Freeman, Exeter—In Historic Towns. London, 1887.
- (j) C. W. Boase, Register of Exeter College. Oxford, 1894.
- (k) C. Worthy, History of the Suburbs of Exeter. Exeter, 1896.
- (l) H. Lloyd Parry, The Exeter Civic Seals. Exeter, 1909.
- (m) H. Lloyd Parry, The Founding of Exeter School. Exeter, 1913.
The room in which the muniments are now kept consists of the upper storey of "the house in the back court behynd the Guyldhall," the building of which was ordered on July 12, 1556, for "the imprysoning of such as shall be commended to the warde" (Act Book I, f. 9), four cells of which were completed in the following year. See Act Book I, f. 153b (? date 1557).
In the Report of the Local Records Committee (App. III, p. 35), published in 1902, the answer returned by the Exeter Corporation described this accommodation as "not sufficient for so large a collection of records," adding that "the Council are contemplating the erection of better premises. The roof of the present building is not fire-proof, but the building is dry and the room well-lighted and the walls are fire-proof." The question, however, of the safety of the muniments had been under consideration since 1893, when a Report was presented to the Council to the effect that "the real danger to be apprehended was from fire arising in the two adjoining premises, and that damage to the documents by water in the extinguishing of a fire was even more to be guarded against than damage by the fire itself," accompanied by a recommendation that the more valuable of the documents should be kept in iron safes. A recommendation to this effect was at first adopted by the Council, but was finally rescinded in June, 1896, and for 10 years the question appears to have remained in abeyance. In June, 1906, however, a Sub-Committee reported that "the building is lacking in all the main requirements of a Muniment Room," that "the danger from fire is a serious one," that the documents are "all stored in wooden cupboards," with ill-fitting doors, and that "in the event of a fire which might easily be communicated from one of the adjoining buildings it is difficult to conceive that any portion of the building or any substantial portion of the documents could be saved." Six more years have elapsed since that report was presented, and the descriptions and apprehensions recorded in it are literally applicable to-day. The City is justly proud of its records, the intentions of the Council are good and are periodically recorded, but periods of alarm are succeeded by periods of security.
Just prior to my visit in 1910 the City had been stirred by the occurrence of a most destructive fire in broad daylight, and the charred remains of the disaster formed a striking object lesson to the crowds who daily passed the spot. Two months later the Council passed a resolution which would have provided a proper home for its records on a safer site, but nothing appears to have yet been done, and I feel bound here to record my conviction that this great collection, as at present housed, is in serious danger of destruction.
Moreover, apart from the danger of possible fire, the present room is dark, crowded and generally unsuitable for students, though owing to the enthusiasm of the Town Clerk as the custodian of the records, a far wider interest is being aroused in the contents of the documents, and far greater opportunities than ever before are now afforded to students who desire to consult them.
For myself I have the very greatest pleasure in recording here my warmest thanks to the City Council for the facilities afforded me during my personal visit, and subsequently through the Town Clerk, Mr. H. Lloyd Parry, and other members of his department, amongst whom I should like specially to acknowledge the great assistance that I received from Mr. W. A. Gay, whose intimate acquaintance with the records was most readily placed at my disposal during my very pleasant and profitable visit.