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Male occupations in coroners' inquests

Male occupations in coroners' inquests

Coroners' inquests, that is reports drawn up by coroners summarising findings of inquisitions held to determine the cause and circumstances of violent or unnatural deaths, are an unexploited and extremely rich source of information about occupational structure in Britain in late medieval and early modern periods.1 Based on the existing studies and data collected in the course of ongoing or recently completed research projects that rely on coroners' material (see below) the total number of inquisitions between 1487 and 1752 can be estimated at approximately 100,000. Up to a half of this number contain occupational/status data along with personal information such as name, surname, age, wealth and place of residence of the decedent. Around 60 per cent of these concern adult males so the body of usable material for the period in question is likely to consist of between 20,000 and 30,000 separate inquisitions. The inquisition come from all over England including some of the most remote and least densely populated regions in Cumbria or Cornwall. London and Middlesex are the least well covered – they were anomalous jurisdictions, their inquisitions were treated differently and do not survive in large quantities.

Coroners' reports can be roughly divided into four major categories based on the verdict: homicide (includes most instances of one person killing another without differentiating between murder and manslaughter etcetera, although contemporaries were familiar with and used classifications resembling a modern one), suicide, accidental death and divine visitation (includes deaths from illnesses, diseases and exposure, natural deaths, deaths in gaol). Until the early 1530s there is a preponderance of homicides over other deaths, particularly in the early years, but from that point an average yearly yield for KB9 material is around 100 inquests per each category. Occupational data is provided in about 30 per cent of accidental death inquests, for 60-70 per cent of murder victims and suicides and for 20-30 per cent of divine visitations. Therefore, a yearly file provides just over a hundred inquests with occupational data concerning adult male decedents. Coroners' inquests can be found in the records of a number of courts.

Coroners' inquests in King's Bench

The bulk of extant early modern coroners' reports are preserved among the records of the Court of King's Bench, one of the two principal common law courts along with the Common Pleas, at the National Archives in classes KB8-KB14. The statutes of 1487 and 1510 (3 Henry VII, c 2 and 1 Henry VIII, c 7) required coroners to produce all their records of inquests regularly at gaol deliveries, normally held twice yearly, under the penalty of £5. The gaol delivery justices, and later assize judges, would then forward them to the King's Bench at Westminster, except those relating to prisoners then in the gaol and tried by them for homicide. This practice continued until c1752 when coroners' inquisitions began to be collected by clerks of the peace.

The longest and largest King's Bench series containing coroners' material is KB9: Court of King's Bench: Crown Side: Indictments Files, Oyer and Terminer Files and Informations Files. At Easter 1675 this single series spanning 1294 and 1675 and made up of undifferentiated term indictments came to an end and was replaced by two separate series: KB10 covering London and Middlesex, and KB11 covering all other counties. A pilot study carried out in spring 2015 demonstrated that KB10 contains virtually no inquests whereas material from other counties preserved in KB11 continues to be bountiful until the 1740s.

A few inquests were removed from KB9 at various points in time and are now in KB8: Court of King's Bench: Crown Side: Baga de Secretis (the official records of many of the most important 'state trials', mainly for treason, held between 1477 and 1813). A number can be also found in KB13 which contains records from 1748-1808 mostly from counties in the Western assize circuit, but with a few from the Oxford circuit and from Nottinghamshire. KB14 contains inquisitions taken on dead prisoners in the King's Bench Prison at Southwark between 1746 and 1839.

Nottinghamshire inquests from 1485-1558 and Sussex inquests from 1485-1838 were calendared by R. Hunnisett between 1969 and 2005. Several hundred of Middlesex inquests from 1549-1690 were published in the Middlesex County Records, ed. J.C. Jeaffreson, 4 vols (1886-1892).

Coroners' inquests in records of other courts

Coroners' material can also be found in records of other courts. In the archives of the Palatinate of Chester, among records of the Courts of Great Sessions of Chester and Flint (TNA classes CHES 21: Crown Books, and CHES 24: Gaol Files) there are 2,444 coroners' reports or summaries of reports from 1600-1700, and approximately 500 from 1560-1600. Chester material has been studied by J. Sharpe and R. Dickinson as part of their ESRC-funded project Violence in Early Modern England: a Regional Survey: Cheshire, 1600-1800'. Database generated by the project is available from UK Data Service. Sharpe, J., Dickinson, R. (2002). Violence in Early Modern England: a Regional Survey: Cheshire, 1600-1800. [data collection]. UK Data Service. SN: 4429, http://doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-4429-1 Project findings were published in a series of articles but reconstructing occupational structure was outside the project's scope.

A few hundred 16th- and 17th-century inquests from the Palatinate of Lancaster are in TNA PL 26: Palatinate of Lancaster: Crown Court: Indictments Files, Coroners' Files, etc. The series consists of material from the years 1525-1546 and 1660-1867.

A difficult to estimate number of inquests, but probably in the region of a few hundred, from the years 1582-1877 are to be found in TNA class DURH 17: Palatinate of Durham: Clerk of the Crown: Indictments Files.

Thousands of early modern inquests with the verdict of homicide that were retained by assize judges to be used at trials are still among files of their respective assize courts in TNA class ASSI. Surviving Elizabethan and 17th-century home circuit assize records were calendared in the 1980s and 1990s by J.S. Cockburn. Printed and unpublished assize material is the principal source for historians of crime in early modern Britain such as J.S. Cockburn, J. Sharpe, L. Stone, J. Samaha, G. Walker, and has been used in many studies.

Preservation

Originally, all inquisitions were kept in stacks, bundles or rolls with other related and unrelated documents and bound together with sinew or leather thongs and held in leather or linen burses. Nowadays the majority of coroners' reports in King's Bench are sewn together with other KB records, arranged into files and stored in paperboard. There are usually four files per year, one for each judicial term – Hilary, Easter, Trinity and Michaelmas. The reports can be browsed and studied with relative ease. A small proportion have been damaged or the writing has faded so some information they contained is irretrievably lost. Coroners' inquests in CHES 24, PL 26 and especially DURH 17 are very difficult to access and examine because they are still in tightly bound and often brittle and damaged bundles. Some are only available on special request and some cannot be consulted at all.

Sample coroners' reports along with transcription and translation, and photographs of bundles and TNA folders can be viewed on the websites of the Everyday Life and Fatal Hazard in Sixteenth-Century England project, and the Living Standards and Material Culture in English Rural Households 1300-1600 project.

Representativeness

A pilot study by Tomasz Gromelski suggests that each type of inquest was broadly representative of adult male occupational structure, though agriculture appears somewhat over-represented amongst accidental deaths. This probably stems from the frequency of deaths by drowning or from accidents involving horses.

Further preliminary information about the representativeness of coroners' inquests as a male occupational data source can be gained from the comparison made with the 1522 muster list, in Sebastian Keibek's recent PhD dissertation. The current dataset of observations from coroners' reports, kindly made available to the Cambridge Group by Gunn and Gromelski, list only some six hundred observations for the 1500-60 time period. Although this number is (even) smaller than that in the 1522 muster lists, on which existing early-sixteenth-century estimates have been based, the coroners' reports have much wider geographic coverage. A national occupational estimate for the early sixteenth century derived from them, has been compared to estimates derived from the 1522 muster list – as depicted in Table 1.

Coroners' inquest derived occupational data compared to other sources

Table 1. Comparison between estimates for the male structure of England and Wales, c.1525
Sources: Broadberry et al, 'When did Britain industrialise? The sectoral distribution of the labour force and labour productivity in Britain, 1381–1851', Explorations in Economic History, 50:1 (2013), pp. 16-27; Keibek, The male occupational structure of England and Wales, 1600-1850 (PhD dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2017), pp. 163-4; coroners' inquests kindly made available by Steven Gunn and Tomasz Gromelski.

Bibliography (in alphabetical order)

  • Everyday Life and Death hazard in Sixteenth-Century England project, 2011-2016 ESRC-funded, Oxford-based, Steven Gunn (PI) & Tomasz Gromelski (RA). Analyses 9,000 accidental death reports filed in the King's Bench in the years 1500-1600
  • Keibek, S.A.J. (2017). The male occupational structure of England and Wales, 1600-1850 (PhD dissertation, University of Cambridge), pp. 163-4.
  • Kesselring, K.J. (2015). 'Bodies of Evidence: Sex and Murder (or Gender and Homicide) in Early Modern England, c.1500–1680', Gender & History, Vol.27 No.2 August 2015, pp. 245–262. Studied 1,000 King's Bench homicide reports from the first half of the 16th century (both manuscript and calendared)
  • Living Standards and Material Culture in English Rural Households, 1300-1600 project, 2016-2019 Leverhulme-funded, Cambridge-based, Chris Briggs and Ben Jervis (PIs), Alice Forward, Matthew Tompkins & Tomasz Gromelski (RAs), Max Satchell (GIS specialist). Looked at 500-600 King's Bench inquests of all categories (mainly suicides) providing valuations and inventories of goods of the decedents, from sample periods between 1485 and 1600.
  • MacDonald, M. and Murphy, T.R. (1990). Sleepless Souls: Suicide in early modern England. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Looked at 12,363 suicide reports in King's Bench from the years 1485-1714
  • Sharpe, J. and Dickinson, J.R. (2011). Coroners' Inquests in an English County, 1600–1800: A Preliminary Survey, Northern History, 48:2, 253-269
  • Sharpe, J.A. and Dickinson, J.R. (2016). Homicide in eighteenth-century Cheshire, Social History, 41:2, 192-209
  • Sharpe, J.A. and Dickinson, J.R. (2016). 'Revisiting the 'Violence We Have Lost': Homicide in Seventeenth-Century Cheshire'. English Historical Review, 131: 293-323. Analysed 3570 inquests and summaries of inquests returned to the Court of Great Sessions of Chester between 1601 and 1800.
  • Stevenson, S.J. (1987). 'The Rise of Suicide Verdicts in South-East England, 1530-1590: the Legal Process'. Continuity and Change, 2: 37-75.
  • Stevenson, S.J. (1987). 'Social and Economic Contributions to the Pattern of "Suicide" in South-East England, 1530-1590'. Continuity and Change, 2: 225-62. Examined 1,329 suicide inquests from Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent, Surrey and Sussex drawn up in the years 1560-89

1 In the modern historiography, coroner's inquisition, inquest, and report tend to be used interchangeably.