The Creation of the Devon Freeholders Books

The process for compiling the freeholders books outlined in Acts of Parliament is reflected in the survival of a large number of the original returns made by the parish and high constables.15 The surviving returns for the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries generally consist of those made by the hundred constable from information provided to him by the parish constables within his jurisdiction, although some parish returns also survive. The information contained in these documents varies. A few surviving parish returns for the late seventeenth century divide those named into freeholders and copyholders, while others go further in nominating individuals for particular juries. For example, the Chudleigh return for 1697 names two individuals each as qualified to serve on grand juries at the assizes and quarter sessions, ten for the petty jury at the assizes, and three for the petty jury at quarter sessions.16 The practice of identifying specific juries on which inhabitants of a parish might serve does not appear to have survived into the eighteenth century. However, the pre-1730 hundred returns vary between those that simply consist of lists of names of men from each parish who were deemed eligible, to rather more detailed assessments. For example, the 1721 return for East Budleigh hundred is notable for containing neatly tabulated records of the ages of 61 of those named and the total annual value of estates of 25 individuals.17

The volume of legislation passed concerning juries in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries has been seen as evidence of difficulties experienced in identifying suitable jurors and then ensuring they served once summoned.18 Evidence of such problems in Devon is provided by a document submitted to the quarter sessions by the high constables of North Tawton hundred on 13 January 1704. This related to a request that the petty constables from all parishes in the hundred appear at the Christmas sessions on account of 'ye: Miscarridge of their Returnes given in unto ye: Justices of ye: Freeholders & Coppie holders within their Respective parishes att Micelmas Sessions last past'. The constables were to undertake to provide 'other Returnes which they hope will give you Content'.19

The process through which the freeholders books were compiled after 1730 is indicated by the survival of original constables' lists for much of the remainder of the eighteenth century.20 On 15 September 1733 Philip Townsend and Henry Hooper of North Tawton signed their names on a list of ten men from their parish whom they adjudged to be eligible to serve on juries. The extent to which the parish constables understood the process is shown by the preamble to the list of names, which states that it is,

A True List of all the Freeholders; Copie=holders Customary Tennants; Tennants in Ancient Demesne and all Leaseholders and so forth within the parish aforesaid; That are qualified to serve on Juries Which is to be given into Court at the next Generall Quarter Sessions of the peace; held at the Castle of Exon in and for the said County of Devon the Second Day of October next Anno Dom: 1733.21
The document was presented to Coulson Fellowes, JP, on 28 September, and its accuracy testified under oath. It seems likely that only Townsend appeared before Fellowes, since Henry Hooper's name has been crossed through. That some effort was made to follow the guidelines on removing ineligible individuals is indicated by the fact that the third name on the list, George Durant, has also been crossed out. The remaining nine names have then been entered into the freeholders book for 1733 in the order in which they appear on the original return.22

The names returned by the constables were then copied into the county lists, although the statutory requirement to draw up books of freeholders 'together with their additions and places of abode alphabetically' was not interpreted literally in Devon.23 The books are arranged alphabetically by hundred, and the names listed by parish of residence, although neither parishes nor personal names are entered in any particular order thereafter. Comparison of the books with the original returns from which they were compiled shows that some information was excluded from the freeholders books. Information concerning the ages and values of estates on which individuals qualified is provided in the constables' returns for a small minority of parishes throughout the century. More commonly, the constables provided the name of a property, which was presumably that occupied by the eligible juror. All references to ages and levels of wealth have been excluded from the freeholders books, and addresses are only provided to distinguish between two or more individuals of the same name. For example, two of the three William Ponsfords returned for Drewsteignton in 1733 are identified as of Burrough and Wiliscombe respectively, while John Browning of Wisdom and John Browning of Hobhouse are also named. The most commonly occurring additional information that was entered into the freeholders books was the status or trades of those named, and (after 1730) whether they were a freeholder, copyholder or leaseholder.

Table 1 provides a breakdown of the number of entries for each year included in the transcribed volumes of freeholders books. The inclusion of leaseholders in the 1730 Act caused the number returned in 1733 to be more than double that for 1721. Assuming that the transcribed volumes are typical for each decade represented, the only notable change after 1733 is a slight decline in the total of those returned in 1751 compared with the figure ten years earlier. However, it is also worth noting that the nature of the property qualification for inclusion in the lists appears to have caused the total number of eligible jurors to remain static for the final two thirds of the century while the total population of Devon was increasing rapidly. Between 1660 and 1805 the population of the county as a whole increased from 227,157 to 358,987. The rate of increase was not consistent throughout the county, with urban populations rising most rapidly.24 The absence of available estimates for the eighteenth century makes an accurate assessment of the proportion of the population represented in the lists difficult. The 1805 estimate includes Exeter, Plymouth, Dartmouth, Great Torrington, Bideford and Barnstaple, the inhabitants of which were excluded from the Devon freeholders lists.25 Subtracting the estimated populations of these towns from the total for the county gives a figure of 272,687, including 65,104 men aged over 21 from whom jurymen could be called.26 Thus the last freeholders book of the century contains the names of 5.3% of the adult male population.27

   Year      Number of entries  
1711 1,162
1721 1,464
1733 3,726
1741 3,602
1751 3,350
1762 3,307
1771 3,389
1783 3,231
1799 3,474
Table 1. Number of entries in transcribed freeholders books

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  1. DHC, QS5. The original constables' returns are arranged chronologically, but are unlisted at the present time. They include a few small bundles of returns filed in 1650, 1657, 1668 and 1692. Otherwise they date from 1696 onwards. [back]
  2. DHC, QS5, 1697 returns, Chudleigh parish. [back]
  3. DHC, QS5, 1721 returns, East Budleigh hundred. [back]
  4. Beattie, Crime and the Courts, 378-79. [back]
  5. DHC, QS5, 1703/04 returns, North Tawton hundred. [back]
  6. A full listing of the years covered by the QS5 lists is unavailable at the time of writing. [back]
  7. QS5, 1733 returns, North Tawton parish. [back]
  8. QS7/14 (1733). [back]
  9. 3 Geo. II, cap. 25. Capitalisation has been modernised. [back]
  10. Jonathan Barry, 'Population Distribution and Growth in the Early Modern Period, in Roger Kain and William Ravenhill (eds), Historical Atlas of the South-West of England (Exeter, 1999), 116. [back]
  11. Although Stoke Damerell was included as having been part of the county of Devon. [back]
  12. Jonathan Barry, 'Towns and Processes of Urbanisation in the Early Modern Period' in Kain and Ravenhill (eds), Historical Atlas of the South-West, 417. The county figure is from Barry, 'Population Distribution', 116. [back]
  13. Barry includes Stoke Damerell in his population estimate for Plymouth. For this reason, the 73 freeholders returned for the parish in the 1799 list have been excluded from this calculation. The number of men aged over 21 in Devon in 1801 has been calculated using national age profiles stated in E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield, The Population History of England 1541-1871: A Reconstruction (London, 1981), 528-529, Table A3.1. A male:female ratio of 0.848545:1 was applied on the basis of census data for Devon provided at Vision of Britain, [, accessed 27 March 2007]. [back]