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Book reviews: Hodsdon, The court books of the Manor of Cheltenham

This review appeared in The Indexer, Volume 29 Number 3, September 2011, pp. 142-143, and is reproduced here by kind permission.

The court books of the Manor of Cheltenham 1692–1803: Gloucestershire Record Series Volume 24. James Hodsdon (ed.). Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 2010. xl + 621 pp. ISBN 978 0 900197 76 5 (hbk) £30.00.

Skittle alleys, theatres, ballrooms, perrukemakers, pastrycooks, Spanish leather-dressers: all featured in the developing resort of Cheltenham in the 18th century, and all appear in this impressive volume, which prints in summary for the first time a continuous run of manor court books covering the period when Cheltenham developed from a minor market town into a major resort and spa after the discovery of mineral springs there in 1716. As well as recording transfers of property, they contain information on topics such as the use of open fields, the upkeep of highways, boundaries and watercourses, the appointment of local officials, and some matters of local justice. A short introduction is followed by about 4,000 court book entries arranged in date order, taking up 524 pages. Entries range from a few lines to more than a page: some examples are:

  No sheep to be kept in Cheltenham fields from Candlemas to 12 Aug.; on pain of £1 10s. for default.

  Richard Grinold to move his mickson or dung lying at the church gate, by 30 Nov., and to lay no more muck or straw there; on pain of 6s. 8d. for default.

  John Bedwell surrenders for Joseph Pitt of Cirencester, Glos., gent. a house on the S side of Cheltenham Street, being no. 1 Colonnade Buildings… Heriot 11s., rent 1s.

To access all this material the editor has provided five indexes covering 93 pages. Although a single index is usually preferable, for a text like this there are good reasons for multiple indexes, both because of the volume of material and because the types of information are in most cases quite distinct. Locators are transaction numbers rather than page numbers; as most of the entries are short, this makes it easier to pinpoint the material on the page (as well as enabling the indexing to be started before the final page layouts were known).

The longest index, A ‘Persons’ (44 pages), will probably be the most consulted, especially by family historians. As is common in record publications, surnames are treated as main headings with forenames as run-on subheadings, and this works well. Forenames have generally been modernised in text and index, with common variants (e.g. Esther/Hester, Catherine/Katherine) grouped together in the index. Very sensibly, no attempt has been made to distinguish different individuals with the same name except in a few obvious cases. Some long ‘strings’ of locators result, as also in the other indexes, but this is inevitable in this type of indexing where there is often no meaningful way of breaking them down. Unlike most general readers, serious historical researchers are usually happy to plough through a long list of locators in the confidence that every reference is included.

There is a useful page of cross-references at the end of Index A to instances of ‘surnames appearing as forenames’; in an era when children were often called by their mother’s maiden name or the surname of a godparent or wealthy relative, a forename can often be significant for the family historian. For example, someone researching the Weeksey family is also directed to the Ellis entry to find ‘Robert Weeksey Ellis’.

Indexes B and C cover place names. Index B, ‘Manorial properties and boundary features’ (25 pages), is to place names within the manor of Cheltenham (including many minor features, with generous cross-referencing), and index C, ‘Places of origin’ (6 pages) is to places of origin of people who appeared at the manor courts.

Index D, ‘Occupations, offices, professions, and qualities’ (6 pages) gives a fascinating insight into trades and professions in 18th-century Cheltenham: for example, a barge-owner, two hairdressers, two post-chaise drivers, a rat-catcher, two snuffmen and a whipthongmaker, as well as nearly two index columns of yeomen. It also includes office-holders (such as ‘supervisor of highways’) and titled persons (such as an earl and a viscountess).

Index E, to ‘Selected subjects’ (9 pages) covers a wide range of topics ranging from local government and legal terms to items such as ‘boundary markers’ (including walls, posts, ‘stones marked with letters’ and various sorts of tree), ‘change of use’ (e.g. ‘garden to skittle alley’ and ‘stable to dwelling house or schoolhouse’), and ‘measures and quantities’ (including farundel, feather, lug and slinget).

The use of passim is frowned on by modern indexers, but there are several instances here: for example, in the ‘buildings’ entry, ‘court or courtyard passim’, ‘outbuilding or outhouse (unspecified) passim’, and in the main sequence ‘brick (as building material) passim’ and ‘orchards passim’. These topics might have been better omitted altogether, with an explanation in an introductory note; but on the other hand, the passim entries do convey their ubiquity in the court books, and it is well known that not everyone reads introductory notes.

The perennial conundrum in a subject index is whether to enter topics as individual main headings or to ‘classify’ under broader subject terms. The editor has followed the late R F Hunnisett’s advice in his useful book Indexing for Editors (1997) [see Note 1] (aimed at editors of record publications), in adopting a ‘classified’ approach, and this causes some problems. For example, individual building types are entered as subheadings of ‘buildings, public and private (and features of)’, covering just over three columns. There are no cross-references from the main sequence, so someone looking for alehouse, alley, almshouse, auction room, etc. under A would find nothing. To avoid using sub-subheadings some major building types are placed in the main sequence with a cross-reference from the ‘buildings’ entry, such as ‘inn, see separate entry’; this entry is headed ‘inns and public houses’ but there is no cross-reference from ‘public houses’ either in the main sequence or from the ‘buildings’ entry.

There are some tantalising minor entries such as ‘deliveries of coal and wood not to be left inconveniently’ and ‘intermeddling by husbands, forbidden’, but no double entries or cross-references at ‘coal’, ‘wood’ and ‘husbands’. Another entry which, although useful, is unlikely to be found by a reader is ‘new construction’. In fact, the riches of this subject index can only be fully appreciated by looking right through it to discover how things have been arranged.

It would be a mistake to claim that only a professional indexer can produce a competent index to any text. For one as specialised as this, the editor has much more knowledge and understanding than any outside indexer can hope to have, and the thoroughness and accuracy of all these indexes is highly impressive. They must have taken a great deal of time to construct, and the editor acknowledges the help of his daughter who checked them meticulously. However, a little advice from a professional indexer could have brought about some simple improvements which would have made these indexes even more useful. There is scope for professional indexers in specialised fields such as this to offer consultancy services to authors and editors compiling indexes.

Ann Hudson
Freelance indexer and SI Training Course Co-ordinator

1. London: British Records Association, 1997. Reviewed in The Indexer 21 (2) Oct 1998, 101–2, and 23 (2) October 2002, 105.

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