Other than providing evidence of literacy levels in early eighteenth century Devon, data extracted from the oath rolls can be used to shed light on other areas of society during the period. One promising line of enquiry is the extent to which the men and women who swore before the county justices were required to travel in order to take the oaths. It has generally been recognised that Devon was poorly provided for in terms of transport networks during the early modern period. The county’s famously hostile terrain meant that at certain times of the year some areas were almost entirely cut off from the outside world. This situation did not begin to improve until the introduction of the turnpike trusts in the second half of the eighteenth century.126 Visitors to late seventeenth and early eighteenth century Devon complained of the poor quality of the roads in the county at that time. Travelling from Ashburton to Plymouth in 1689, Celia Fiennes complained that the 24 miles of road consisted of lanes that were ‘exceeding narrow and so Cover’d up you Can see Little about? commenting that ‘the wayes now become so difficult yt one Could scarcely pass by Each other, Even ye single horses?127 Further evidence of the poor condition of roads in certain localities is provided by the returns of parish clergy to the Bishop’s visitation queries of 1744. Thus Joshua Worth, the rector of High Bickington complained that catechizing the parish children was impossible outside of the Summer months because of, ‘the shortness of the day, the badness of the roads & the great distance most of the people live from the Church?128 The two north Devon parishes of Lynton and Countisbury were served by the same curate. However, the provision of divine service in both parishes could be obstructed on account of,
the Declivities and High Hills surmountable in ye Road between the Two Churches, with sweeping Floods of Water sometimes, are so difficult, that they are look’d upon to be very dangerous as well as the worst Road in your Lordship’s Diocese.129Likewise, the four miles of road between Shebbear and Sheepwash was in such poor repair that in winter William Hicks, vicar of both parishes, only administered divine service in Sheepwash once a fortnight.130
Given these problems with making even short journeys in parts of the county, the oaths rolls provide valuable evidence concerning the movement of people in eighteenth century Devon. A full length study of this is beyond the scope of this introduction. However, a systematic analysis of the distances travelled by the oath-takers would provide important insights into the ability of people to move around the county. Some observations can be made on a limited examination of a sample of the oath-takers who swore before the Devon justices in 1723. For this purpose, the journeys taken by inhabitants of parishes beginning with the letters A and B were subjected to closer study. This represented 4,340 oath-takers from 85 different parishes. The total number of different routes undertaken by this sample was 264. The next stage was to estimate the distances travelled by the oath-takers from place of residence to place of swearing. The distances measured were taken as the straight line distance between two parishes, based on the map of Devon parishes available from the Devon Heritage Centre website.131 From this exercise, the average distance travelled by the oath-takers was 5.4 miles. The total distances travelled varied from 0 miles (where place of residence and place of swearing were the same) to 39.4 miles (one oath-taker who travelled from Braunton to Exeter). Excluding the 778 who were fortunate enough to live in a town where the oath was administered, the average distance travelled by those who had to make some journey in order to swear was 6.6 miles. Naturally, the total distance travelled in order to swear would have been double these figures to account for return journeys.
The average distances travelled were thus relatively short, reflecting the fact that many people chose to take the oaths at the nearest available location. Only more detailed local studies of the communications infrastructure in different parts of the county would reveal how difficult these journeys might have been in the early eighteenth century. However, a significant minority of oath-takers travelled distances in excess of 10 miles from their place of residence in order to swear. Table 4 provides a break down of distances travelled divided into 5 mile sectors.
|Distance travelled (miles)||Number of oath-takers||Percentage of oath-takers|
The oath-takers who travelled longer-distances in order to swear may hold the key to uncovering the full extent of the geographical horizons of eighteenth century Devonians. The majority of the longer journeys were made by those who swore at the Castle in Exeter, for example the four inhabitants of Aveton Gifford who made that journey (approximately 30 miles); and seven from Bratton Clovelly. Given that those from Bratton Clovelly could have more easily sworn in either Holsworthy or Tavistock, it might be assumed that those who travelled to Exeter did so for reasons other than to simply swear the oaths. Six of the seven took the oaths in December, so may simply have travelled to Exeter out of necessity having missed the opportunity to swear closer to home. However, Robert Day made the journey in October, well in advance of the Christmas Day deadline.
The full extent of the travelling patterns of the oath-takers requires further research in order to draw more definite conclusions. However, it might be considered whether certain individuals travelled to a specific place due on account of their business or social networks. There may be some correlation between place of swearing and social status, with more prominent individuals travelling the longer distances in order to make a public profession of their loyalty at the Castle in Exeter rather than in the back room of a local inn. The sequences of names that appear on the oath rolls may also provide the key to social networks within parishes. Where a group of individuals from the same parish are grouped together on the same oath roll, it might be assumed that they had travelled together, perhaps reflecting some form of social or economic relationship between them. Inhabitants of some parishes appeared at a range of locations in order to swear. For example, the 185 oath-takers from Uffculme swore variously at Burlescombe, Cullompton, Feniton, Honiton, Ottery St. Mary, Silverton and Exeter. Other forms of association are suggested by 16 of those who subscribed at Burlescombe on 27 September 1723, since their names appear on one of the separate ‘Quaker?rolls containing the approved wording of the Quaker affirmation.132