An important part of the Heritage Lottery Funded eighteenth century Devon project was the involvement of volunteer researchers to find out more about their own communities during the century. To this end, Simon Dixon contacted local history societies around the county to arrange a series of presentations to members of interested groups. These talks concentrated on the documents that were transcribed for the project, and sought to demonstrate how these could provide the starting point for finding out what life was like in a particular town or village during the eighteenth century. The most important documents were the 1723 oath rolls, and the names of inhabitants of local communities they contained. These individuals comprised on average one fifth of the adult population, and it was suggested that volunteers undertake archival research linking the names on the oath rolls with other contemporary documents as a starting point to reconstructing life in their communities during the eighteenth century.
These talks were followed up by a series of workshops at the Devon Heritage Centre for those keen to find out more. Over 50 potential volunteers attended these sessions, at which they received a tour of the office from county archivist John Draisey, followed by an introduction to eighteenth century documents led by Simon Dixon. As well as those who had attended meetings of local history groups volunteers were recruited through articles published in relevant newsletters, emails sent out to potentially interested parties, and through word of mouth. No previous experience was requested, and all those who expressed an interest in the project were encouraged to get involved. The only qualification required was a passion for history and enthusiasm for making new discoveries about the past. Therefore, the volunteers involved ranged from experienced local historians to those whose work on the project was their first experience of working with historical documents.
During the research workshops, volunteers were given advice about finding sources for local history research on the eighteenth century. The amount and type of material surviving varied widely from one parish to the next, and the availability of evidence shaped the resulting research projects. The suggested starting point for research was the 1723 oath of allegiance rolls, and a series of research questions were suggested. The oath rolls themselves were a previously untapped resource for local history research, and before this project little was known about the people who took the oaths.
The suggested research areas were shaped around finding out information about the oath rolls as a historical source. The objective was to find out who the oath-takers from a particular place were and what their status was within the community. Questions addressed included: Were the oath-takers heads of households? How old were they? What were their occupations? Where did they live? Did they own property? Further questions were suggested based on the evidence of the oath rolls themselves. For example: how literate were the oath-takers? How far did they travel to swear their oaths?
Whilst these were suggested starting points for research, the approach taken was that of offering advice and suggestions rather than formulating a prescriptive programme for research. Volunteers were encouraged to pursue their own lines of enquiry and follow their own research interests. The end product was an article describing the research findings to be published on the final project website. As will be seen on the following pages, the local contributions represent a wide range of research interests and approaches to the general goal of finding out more about life in eighteenth century Devon.
The Friends of Devon's Archives would like to thank all of those who contributed to the project for the many hours of hard work they gave over the two years. Their efforts have enriched the overall research findings greatly, and it is hoped that the following articles will inspire future researchers to delve into the archives to find out more about the people and communities of Devon's past.