Discovery on the Barrow of a Fishmonger
Western Morning News (6 Feb. 1928) p.6.
"Our London Correspondent"
Prepared by Brian Randell
The documents referred to are now in the National Archives, as "Subsidy Rolls, etc. Forced Loan, Coleridge, Exminster and Wonford hundreds, co. Devon", reference PRO 30/26/59. The catalogue contains the note "3 docts. With two letters from Robert Cole, the collector of MSS. (8 September 1840, with enclosure, and 3 January 1845, with enclosure), and one (1 February 1890, with enclosure and partial transcript) relating to him. Formerly the property of George Townsend, esq., of Deanery Square, Exeter, and presented by Herbert Townsend, esq., of Exeter, in January 1928. See the Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association, iv. 61, 1viii. 153, 1ix. 173-175; and The Times, 20 January 1928, p.17, col. 6."
The important historical records relating to Devonshire which were recently presented to the Public Record Office by Mr. Herbert Townsend, of Exeter, are now being renovated by Government experts. When received from Exeter the papers were torn into three fragments, and it will be necessary to join these together before the records are placed in the perpetual keeping of the Public Records Office, in Chancery-lane, where the rare and precious records of "our rough island story" from Domesday-book and Magna Carta to the latest municipal decrees are preserved for posterity.
The Devon records – which have been saved for the nation only by the generous sacrifice and public spirit of Mr. Townsend – have had several narrow escapes from destruction during their chequered career through the hectic centuries since they were first recorded in the days of Charles the First. They relate to certain forced subsidies which Charles imposed on the people of Devon.
They were rescued from the burning Parliament of 1834, stolen and sold as "rubbish" to a London second-hand dealer, and eventually rescued from a waste-paper barrow by a Devonian searching for second-hand books on the bookstalls which used to line the Hungerford Market at Charing Cross in the days of Mr. Pickwick.
Before describing the documents in detail, a brief history of their wanderings and recovery will show how narrowly these interesting Devon records escaped oblivion.
HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT FIRE.
They originally belonged to the Exchequer Archives, and are officially described as Subsidy Rolls. When the Houses of Parliament were burned down in 1834 the men who cleared the ruins stole a large quantity of official records, which they sold as waste paper. Some months later Mr. Robert Cole, a London solicitor, was taking his walk through the famous second-hand market, where he was in the habit of spending his spare time "rummaging among the rubbish." Mr. Cole was not only a solicitor, he was a well-known antiquary, and, what was even more important in view of his "find" on the day in question, a patriotic Devonian.
He had no luck this day at the bookstalls, but when he was about to return to his office his alert antiquarian eye noticed a bulky bundle of old papers on a fishmonger's barrow. He bought some fish from the man, and the fish were wrapped up in one of the documents. Mr. Cole bought the remainder of the papers for sixpence a pound, and carried them home in a coach.
Among the papers in the bundle were Exchequer receipts and a series of autographed papers, including, among others, the signature of Nell Gwyn, "Sweet Nell of Old Drury."
AN EXETER OWNER.
When the Government heard of Mr. Cole's discovery he was compelled to return the documents. Apparently, however, his Devonian sentiment was too strong to allow him to part with the Devon records. When Mr. Cole died the Devon papers were sold among his belongings, and after some further wanderings they eventually became the property of Mr. George Townsend of Exeter, who left them to Mr. Herbert Townsend.
The peculiar interest of these Devon documents lies in the fact that they relate to the first of King Charles's forced loans. The Devon subsidies in question were imposed in the year 1626. It was his habit of imposing these sudden subsidies on poor localities which led to his unpopularity later on when fortune turned against him. From the local point of view, however, the documents are of even more interest and importance. They contain a full list of all the local people who were compelled to subscribe to the loans, with the amount which each person paid. The lists are divided into parishes and the complete document covers four of the Hundreds into which Devon was at that time divided.
The principle on which the forced loan was assessed is not disclosed, but it is important to remember that that the value of money in those far-off days was much greater than it is now. When allowance is made for this difference, the amounts which the unfortunate Devonians had to pay constituted a heavy burden for many of the poorer classes, who received absolutely nothing in return for the subsidy.
THOUSANDS OF NAMES.
The list contains thousands of names – nearly all of them as typically Devonian to-day as they were then. For example, we find that Susan Yeo, widow in the Hundred of Wandeford, Weste Alington, had to pay £1 17s. 4d. for the upkeep of Charles's tottering regime. Robert Marleigh, described as a "gentleman," was mulcted to the tune of £5, while another gentleman, named Edward Hole, paid £3. A certain John Stone, however, was denied the title of gentleman, presumably because he successfully pleaded poverty, with the result that the tax imposed on him had to be "abated for poverty." Josephe Stone and Robert Geoffrey paid up £3 and £2 respectively. Philip Townshend, of Whitestone, paid 20s., while Thomasyn and Margery Randall – evidently sisters – combined to meet an impost of £1.
An official at the Public Records Office who supplied me with the above information paid a high tribute to Mr. Townsend's public spirit in presenting these valuable records to the nation, and expressed the hope that his generous example will be followed by other Westcountry people who happen to possess documents of public interest, which should be preserved among the public records of the nation.