The Social Composition of the Freeholders Books

The range of individuals included on the freeholders lists is demonstrated by the descriptions of social status ascribed to them in the books. The earliest of the transcribed volumes, those for 1711 and 1721, generally identify those considered to be gentlemen or esquires but give little information for other social groups. Descriptions of occupation and status appear more frequently from 1733 onwards, occurring in 59.5% of cases in 1733, 45% in 1741 and 43.7% in 1771. Status is still more likely to be given for members of the gentry, with some constables choosing to describe the first few individuals on their returns as "gentleman" or "esquire", before simply stating the names of all others. For example, the returns for Coleridge Hundred for 1741 note the status of 45 of the 148 men named. The lists for the parishes of South Poole, Sherford, Harberton, Dittisham, Halwell and Charleton only ascribe status to those considered to be members of the gentry, implying that yeomen or tradesmen were not regarded as worth identifying. Therefore, the figures shown in Table 3 (below) are likely to be weighted in favour of the gentry.

Occupation group171117211733174117511762177117831799
Artisans and tradesmen0.00.012.415.217.217.724.521.30.0
Maritime occupations0.
Sample size3204022,2181,6081,0049841,4811,218193
Table 3: Occupation distribution of Freeholders Books, 1711-1799 (percentages)

The occupational and status descriptions provided are a useful indicator of the class of men included in the freeholders books.49 This material can be supplemented with evidence of the wealth of some of those named contained in a few original constables' returns. A number of these for East Budleigh hundred in 1733 provide information about the value of estates held by those included on the lists. By far the wealthiest was Richard Duke, with estates worth £1500, followed by John Wollcott of Sidbury and Reymondo Putt of Gittisham with £350 and £300 respectively. Three other men from Sidbury and one from Otterton also held property worth £100 or more. Fifteen men held estates valued between £51 and £99, 69 had £21-£50 and 29 were valued at £20 or less including one Samuel Fead, a mariner of East Budleigh, with estates worth just £5.50 The nature of the land tenure in these cases is generally not stated, but the fact that nearly half had estates valued at £29 or less helps to explain the high level of turnover in the composition of the lists. A comparison of the estate valuations against the status descriptions among this sample illustrates the differences between gentlemen and yeomen as social groups. The average yearly values of estates held by the 16 gentry was £182, compared to £33 for the 46 yeomen. However, there is considerable overlap between the two groups in terms of wealth. The two wealthiest yeomen, Nicholas Wheaton and John Pearse of Sidbury, held estates valued at £160 and £100 respectively, higher than all but the four most substantial gentlemen. Five of the gentry had property worth less than £29 per annum, placing them below all but 22 of the yeomen in terms of wealth.

Table 3 shows the status of eligible jurors recorded in the freeholders books that have been transcribed. Some of the changes over time suggested by these figures are the result of variations in the proportion for whom status descriptions are provided. For example, the apparent increase in the percentage of eligible jurors drawn from the artisan and tradesman category between 1762 and 1771 can almost entirely be accounted for by the fact that the 1762 book contains no status information for Crediton and Stoke Damerell.51 Overall, the evidence demonstrates that the books included in the transcripts are composed mainly of members of the gentry and yeoman class, with the two groups consistently comprising between 70 and 85% of the total. The term labourer appears just three times throughout the volumes, twice in 1771 and once in 1783. All three individuals described in this way resided in Stoke Damerell, including Nicholas Toms a "Labourer in the Yard" in 1783. As might be expected, the serge industry figures prominently among the most common groups within the artisan/tradesman category (Table 4), with the term 'sergemaker' occurring most frequently in every volume after 1733 except that for 1751. The most unusual occupation listed in any of the transcribed volumes is that of Richard Hughs of Stoke Damerel, who is described in 1783 as having been a 'comedian'.52

Occupation  1733    1741    1751    1762    1771    1783  
Sergeweaver/weaver2060 595
Tailor562 012
Victualler3 012129
Table 4: 20 most commonly occurring trades within artisan/tradesman group

Some medical practitioners were exempt from serving on juries, namely freemen of the company of surgeons in London and apothecaries who had served seven years apprenticeship.53 Nonetheless, many medics were included on the freeholder lists and it is not clear which, if any, were exempt from serving. In total the term 'apothecary' appears 55 times in the transcribed books, surgeon on 66 occasions and 'surgeon and apothecary' four times. Once repetitions have been taken into account, the number of individual medical practitioners included in the transcribed volumes is 83. Owing to the breakdown in the system of medical licencing from 1719, 70 of this number cannot be identified in the records of medical licences granted by the diocese of Exeter before 1783.54 Therefore, the books provide a useful additional source for historians of medicine in eighteenth century Devon. Despite their exemption from serving, attorneys at law also appear on most of the post-1730 lists, with 45 named in 1733, 28 in 1741, 23 in 1751, 12 in 1762, 17 in 1771 and 18 in 1783.

Continue to next section|Return to previous

  1. As always when dealing with eighteenth century occupations the imprecise nature of terms such as 'gentleman', 'yeoman' or 'weaver' should be taken into account: Hay, 'Class Composition', 330. [back]
  2. DHC, QS5, returns for East Budleigh Hundred, 1733. [back]
  3. The total number of artisans and tradesmen recorded for Crediton and Stoke Damerell in 1771 is 102, or 7.2% of the total of known occupations. Therefore, the absence of information for the two parishes in 1762 provides a false impression of the composition of the book for that year. [back]
  4. 'Comedian' here means an actor in comedies or stage player. [back]
  5. Burn, Justice of the Peace, 2, 466-67. [back]
  6. Ian Mortimer, 'Index of Medical Licentiates, Applicants, Referees and Examiners in the Diocese of Exeter 1568-1783', Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 136 (2004), 99-134. [back]