Analysis of North Tawton Oath-takers, 1723

By Jean Shields

Status and Occupation

Among a number of useful sources of wealth and status found were two church seating plans for 1720 (incomplete) and 1733, (DHC, 2914A Seating Plan 1720 B and 2914A add/PW2 respectively), on which a large number of the inhabitants were named. It was usual for the seats nearest the pulpit to be allocated to the principal landowners, while middle ranking farmers and tradesmen sat behind these. There is evidence from a pew dispute in North Tawton in 1791, that employees could sit in their master's pews, otherwise the poor probably sat on benches at the back. To some extent the list of pews and their occupants bears this out. In most cases the name of the person is followed by "for" and the name of the property, or plot of land, much of which is identifiable today, giving a clue to the occupation and social status of the owner/occupier. The Lord of the Manor's name Coulson Fellowes Esquire, crops up several times although he did not live in the parish. In the case of pewholders who had land, some were designated yeomen in other documents but as was common at the time, many tradesmen also held land, and almost all these would have had a field or two to keep a horse or horses, without which they would have been unable to ply their trade, taking goods to market for instance. It is therefore not always possible to know whether people with land earned their living partly or wholly from their holding.

With regard to the woollen industry, the spinning and weaving was either carried out in individual homes, often part-time, or on a master weaver's premises. The Devon & Cornwall Record Society's Devon Cloth Industry in the 18th Century (New Series, Vol. 23) which details the insurance of properties in the county, shows that from 1747 - 1764 there were in North Tawton four master sergemakers (serge was a hardwearing woollen material developed in 1670), who had property insured with the Sun Fire Office for varying sums between £100 and £700, huge sums in those times, when £1 was roughly the equivalent of £85 today. All these men (or their fathers) signed the oath roll. Between them they must have employed a lot of weavers (men usually did this, while the women and children engaged in spinning in their own homes), but with four exceptions none have been identified as taking the oath. They probably could not afford to take the day off to do so, or in the case of paid labourers, perhaps their employers refused them permission.

Public Office held was also a pointer to status. The Churchwardens, past and present are well represented in the list of oath-takers, as were Overseers of the Poor, Surveyors of the Highway and the like. Freeholders, some of whom were Jurors, also swore the oath. Altogether, 35 men nearly half the total, held or had held, some public office, most of them more than once.

Among other useful documents are "Briefs". These were house to house or church collections for worthy causes, and sometimes show the amount subscribed by individuals. In the North Tawton Book of Briefs (DHC, 2914A PW5 1685-1723) there are the names of 39 oath-takers who subscribed to Briefs in church collections. Of these 15 gave between ½d and 3d, while 24 gave between 6d and 5/- The amounts subscribed correlate fairly well with other evidence of wealth or lack of it. This of course, takes no account of comparative generosity or the reverse.

There are many other documents which help to place the oath-takers in context, such as names of witnesses to important documents e.g. glebe terriers, (DHC Moger Supplement 2, No.3068), deeds and wills. The same names keep cropping up suggesting these were the most reliable and better educated people in the town, although not all signed by name. Apprenticeship records, Overseer's accounts, rate books, tithes paid, and Quarter Sessions records, all helped to flesh out the signatories. Sometimes an informed guess could be made when the status of parents or siblings was taken into account. Adding all these sources together, a reasonable assessment can be made of the majority of those who took the oath, and the impression is that it was the "middle classes" for want of a better description, who predominated.

Although the North Tawton Parish Registers were well kept, and have been transcribed and indexed, (Devon & Cornwall Record Society, West Country Studies Library), in some cases it has proved impossible to identify an oath-taker precisely, particularly if several generations had the same Christian name.

One well-to-do lady, daughter of another signatory, Joseph Brutton/Britton, "gent", signed using her maiden name, Deborah Britton, although she was at the time, the wife of Benjamin Gayer, a man also described as "gent" in the Parish Register. There is evidence that this was not a unique occurrence, as is to be found in the "Notebook and Diary of John Bound 1711 -1774". when "Mary Gliddon the wife of John Gliddon of Hatherly (she was call'd by her maiden name Mary Hearnaman) died in Shipwash suddenly (by bleeding in her bad leg) on munday near five afternoon. Nov: 22: 1736." (DHC, 1038M/F/2/2).

Taking all the above into consideration, only three oath-takers had received Poor Relief, although none consistently. Ann, daughter of signatory Thomas Bishop, was apprenticed to Richard Hole, the Rector, suggesting poverty. Possibly one woman, Mary Tottershill, was a servant. She went to take the oath on the same day as four well off men at The George in Hatherleigh. She signed by mark, and the mark itself was in a very unformed hand. There was no one else of her surname in the Parish Register, but there was a child of that name baptised in the adjoining parish of South Tawton in 1702, so it seems a reasonable guess it was she, and that she might have been a servant. Although five people gave 1d or less for a Brief, two of these were not poor from other evidence, and not enough is known about the others to make a judgement. However all the foregoing depends on correct identification, sometimes with not much to go on. At the other end of the scale, six men were described as "gent" in the Parish Registers or other documents, Joseph Brutton, John Brocke, John Hole, John Durant, John Skinner and Richard Ware, while Deborah Britton's husband was also so described.

Figure 2: Status of North Tawton oath-takers
Figure 2: Status of North Tawton oath-takers

With regard to occupation this splits into agricultural, woollen manufacture, trade, professional, and unknown. The agricultural population is very large, but as already explained does not distinguish between wealthy landowners, tenant farmers, and others who had some land but it was not their principal means of livelihood. If any oath-takers were farm labourers, it has not been possible to identify them. With this in mind, of the 75 men who took the oath, 35 had some connexion with agriculture in that they owned or rented land, but it was not possible to separate them further. Eight were involved in the woollen trade, two were professional, (one schoolmaster, William Hawkins, and one parson, Richard Hole). Of the remainder one was a miller, one a blacksmith, and the occupation of the rest (28) is unknown. It was impossible to determine the occupation or status of 11 male oath-takers, either because of a problem of identity or for lack of information.

Figure 3: Occupations of North Tawton oath-takers
Figure 3: Occupations of North Tawton oath-takers

Of the 18 women, 11 were currently, or had been, married to prosperous men, Nothing is known of the two Quakers, except that one signed by name and both went to Exeter to take the oath (albeit with different wording, according to their faith). Of the five remaining, four had well-off close relatives, and as already stated one might have been a servant.

It is interesting to speculate why some particular person did not sign. In some cases such people although occurring in the records e.g. in the list of pew holders, probably did not live in the parish, and were allocated a pew perhaps, by reason of owning property which was let to another. However, there is one family in particular, named Gostwycke, who were prosperous shopkeepers and landholders over five generations, and indeed owned several pews, at least one of whom might have been expected to take the oath. There seems no obvious explanation for their failure to do so.

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