Lucky Dip #7 – Debtors’ Account Books

It’s time for another Lucky Dip! Aisle 7 contains various types of court records, which have been catalogued under the “F” class. Court records are not part of my cataloguing project, but have a place in the new structure that they will be put into later. I selected this box off the shelf… “Debtor’s Prisoners Account books.”

1 box of records - debtors prisoners' accounts

1 box of records – debtors prisoners’ accounts

At first glance I assumed it would be accounts for the running of the debtors prison, but as the label says, it is the accounts of the prisoners themselves. When debtors were taken to court for defaulting (in York this was either at the Guildhall or the Castle) their business accounts were inspected as part of the process. As you can see, they were not always returned!

We have several boxes of these accounts, which are a window into the everyday dealings of business folk in York. This box is from the 1830s. They were not created as civic records, but entered the custody of the council as evidence in the legal process.

Out of the pile of books, I picked the top left one to look at in more detail to see what these records have to offer us.

The notebook is around modern A5 size

The notebook is around modern A5 size

This is the cash book of Henry Holmes, Miller, 1836-1838. Physically it is very different from the official corporate records we have had for most Lucky Dips.  You can see that is a small notebook of paper pages, card boards, a parchment wrapper and a nice little clasp, that has the options of three different holes to use as the notebook expands in use.

The plate with the holes on has come off, but was still slipped in the cover, so I put it back to show what it would have been like

The plate with the holes on has rusted off, but was still slipped in the cover, so I put it back to show what it would have been like

It has been annotated on the back by the court, like all these notebooks, with the name of the debtor (some of the others also have the date of their court appearance). I don’t know how I’d feel about the court scrawling all over my nice notebook, they even wrote upside down!

The label added by the court - Henry Holmes' case was at the Castle, not the Guildhall

This writing was added by the court – we learn that Henry Holmes’ case was at the Castle, not the Guildhall

Inside, the book lists all the orders of the miller – who and what he is selling to individual customers. From this page you can see the  types of grains that he milled and sold by the imperial bushel: wheat, barley, oats .This is a great primary source for his trade in this period.

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A double page spread of orders, grouped by customer

However, what’s even better is that as well as his customers, he also kept in this book the bills that he paid to others (or not, if he ended up in court for debt!) These have been kept in a little pocket in the book. I tipped these out and looked through to see what I could find.

Who can resist filling a pocket in a notebook with receipts!

Who can resist filling a pocket in a notebook with receipts!

There is a whole mixture of transactions recorded here, from hay and coal deliveries to the purchase of a coat, and repairs to the leather belts that drove his mill. The bills and receipts vary from pre-printed forms to barely legible jottings from other tradesmen.

Here are the tiny folded receipts - the open one is for a new coat.

Here are the tiny folded receipts – the open one is for a new coat.

This bill, for lengthening a leather mill strap, has been "settled" - paid - and so wasn't the reason why he was up in court.

This bill, for lengthening a leather mill strap by three feet, has been “settled” – paid – and so wasn’t the reason why he was up in court.

Just by using this one book as a historical source, you could piece together a picture of how this miller ran his business and interacted with the city around him. Using all these books in this series together allows a more complex picture to be built up of local trading networks.

Part of this work has already been done at the archives. This particular collection, part of accession 203, has been listed at item level by volunteers, and a database of customers with over 4000 entries has been created. Some have also been cross referenced with entries in the York Herald. This is exactly the kind of highly detailed information that we have about some parts of our collection, that has been gained over time by close study, but is currently hidden away.

acc 203 debtors lucky dip 7

So, at the moment we have a detailed list and database, but a user walking into our searchroom has no easy way of knowing that these account books exist at all unless they ask someone who happens to know! That is why this project is necessary, because it will place individual records in a bigger picture, or map, of the collection, and make them easier to find.

Once a user knows individual series exist, then they can make use of the hundreds of detailed lists that we already have, and get the benefit of research by staff and volunteers over the decades. It’s the perfect example of why archival cataloguing needs to start at the general before moving to the specific, why we need to share the gist of the whole before focusing on the parts.

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