The Records Office

Did I say yesterday that going to the Records office wasn’t sexy? I lied. I lied very much. It gave me a thrill down to my nerdy little toes. And not just one thrill. You cannot imagine how many thrills my nerdy little toes had today.

Some examples:

  • I got to hold–hold and handle–the rolls containing the oaths of office of all city officials. I wanted to see what form the oaths took. These were 200 year old pieces of parchment. Yes, actual parchment, not paper. It was amazing.
  • There was a massive book containing nothing except parking tickets circa the 1840s, which, while printed on thick paper, gave me a wave of nostalgia for present times: Dear John Sheppy, you left your wagon in the street for two hours, and caused an obstruction; appear at the Council House and pay a fine of up to 40 shillings.
  • There was the book of informations laid in the Petty Sessions. Petty Sessions deal with small crimes. You know the type; hitting your wife, assaulting a constable, stealing pigeons, running away from apprenticeships and the like. Out of around 800 informations laid in the book I looked at, 4 were dismissed; the others were convicted. The punishments were usually either the paying of a fine and/or imprisonment; the normal term was about 7 days, but they went up to 6 weeks hard labor (that one was for exposing ones person), and were as low as a fine of 5 shillings for being drunk in public. Of the four instances where charges were dismissed, two of the defendants had obvious indications of wealth: One had hired a lawyer (there was a cross examination listed in the book), and the other made note in talking of his defense that he had “his gig waiting” during the supposed assault on the constable. Of the other one, one was accused of animal cruelty, and the other of breaking a window. For that last one, the court clerk, clearly knowing what to expect, had already written “convicted” on the line, and had to cross it out.See? That first line–C-squiggle-squiggle-loop–is the law hand abbreviation for “convicted.” I saw a lot of those. If you squint, you can read the line just above it, which shows his defense (or, as they spelled it, defence): “It was accidentally done.”
  • While we’re at it, I’ve always known that the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives the first use found in print, for various phrases is off, particularly for slang. That’s because most words are used in speech long before they are used in printed publications. This is particularly true for words that would have been considered obscene at the time: it would have been illegal to print them.But my margin so far has been around 10 years, maybe 15, depending on the word in question. I’m going to have to rethink that. The phrase in question is “bloody hell,” and the OED attests it first from 1886. But here we are in 1838, and the constable claims he’s been told to go to bloody hell. Now, I note that this is not quite the same thing as using “Bloody hell!” as an exclamation. Nonetheless–all the bloody hell naysayers should take note.

    Incidentally, I liked this court reporter best. His handwriting was legible and not spidery, he wrote fast (meaning that we got much more story when he wrote, instead of a few lines), and he didn’t stint from using language like “bloody hell,” unlike the lame reporter in the beginning who started to write “exposing his naked parts” and then crossed off “naked parts” and substituted “person.” Once I figured out that “afs–” was his abbreviation for assault, we were all good. I imagine from his handwriting that this dude was cute. (I know. He was probably 75 and bald. Awww.)

    I’ve blurred out most of the document because the rest of the tale is pretty darned good–it’s obvious that the defendant knows how to tell a story, and who knows? I might end up using this in some altered form!

  • There was much, much more. But this was seriously awesome.

7 thoughts on “The Records Office

  1. Those are very cute nerdy toes, I’m sure.

    I love old books and documents, like you wouldn’t believe, and I think I would have been at least as thrilled as you were to be handling 200 years old parchment–even if the contents were terribly interesting to me 😉

  2. I think it’s fascinating that you got to HOLD these documents and read them! So jealous!

  3. Fascinating post, Courtney. I love archival research, and if I can’t be there, I’m so glad you are. And writing about it. Hope you find loads of great material. Cheers.

  4. That sounds amazing! To hold the documents in your hands!!

    I’d be afraid that mine would sweat so much from excitement, I’d ruin those historical records.

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