Who in Thorncombe did not sign the 1723 Devon Loyalty Oaths and Why?

By Eve Higgs


Among the missing Thorncombe signatories to the 1723 Devon Loyalty Oath are 76 adult paupers documented as being in receipt of poor relief in 1723. Oaths were taken at Axminster before local grandee and magistrate Francis Gwyn. The exclusion of Thorncombe paupers from the rolls therefore suggests Gwyn may have regarded the £10 minimum annual rental on property held by either copyholders or tenants, as the qualifying factor and advised parishioners accordingly. However, the presence of women identified on the roll, as six wives and four spinsters out of 22 females listed, suggests confusion as to whether or not, women were also obliged in law, to sign.

Also absent from the roll are 14 missing marriers whose children were baptised in 1723. They were possibly either returning emigrants, immigrants or dissenters. Twelve have been tentatively identified as Quakers from the 1674-1723 cohort. Four Thorncombe Quakers, listed in the minutes as attending monthly meetings of Thorncombe and Membury's Society of Friends in 1723 did not sign the alternative affirmation. They were the William Bowditchs, senior and junior, and Synderford Farm sergemakers and cloth merchants, brothers Samuel and Joseph French, sons of one of Thorncombe's first Quaker converts, Robert. The Frenchs' annual rent of £50 meant that they were eligible but chose not to sign. This evidence supports the theory that Thorncombe's Quakers may have been more reluctant to affirm their loyalty than Membury Quakers. Conversely perhaps few were qualifying landholders. Circumstantial evidence is found among Plymouth Quarterly Meeting minutes for April 1700. They record that Robert French justified Thorncombe Friends' absence on grounds of poverty. In response, 'as a token of friends love to their pore', John Colsworthy was ordered by the meeting to send them 10 shillings.

By 1723 there had been a Quaker meeting house and burial ground on Thorncombe's parish boundary for 22 years. Dr Evans identified 100 hearers in Thorncombe in his 1715 survey of nonconformists. Apart from Robert French's house, no other nonconformist places of worship was registered in Thorncombe between 1689 and 1763, so it is likely that a significant proportion of non signatories among approximately 700 men and women aged over 18 unaccounted for and living in Thorncombe parish in 1723 were Quakers. But how many there were, their circumstances, and who else, particularly males aged over 18 with land worth in excess of £10 rent per annum who did not take the 1723 Devon Loyalty Oath and for what reason, remains unknown until further evidence comes to light.

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