by Michelle Barber
Think your family history might be dull because all your ancestors are agricultural labourers? There could be nothing further from the truth.
One of the family history questions that I have been asked is “how can family history be interesting if all your ancestors are agricultural labourers?”
My answer was that people are more than their trade. They also have love, hate, trouble and happiness. When I said that, I hadn’t realised what was lurking in the depths of my own family history with an agricultural labourer. I came across this troubling story while researching one of my direct ancestors.
In 1808, my 4X great uncle, Robert Escritt and his friend John Paul were in the pillory 3 times for conspiring to blackmail concerning homosexuality; homosexuality was a hanging offence then. In fact, they were the last recorded case for the pillory in Driffield, East Yorkshire. Reading the court documents for his trial would be enough to make any relative squirm at being related to such a cad.
Robert Escritt was an ordinary agricultural labourer who by a wicked twist of fate had his normal life turned into what can only be imagined as a nightmare.
He was born in 1780 at Kirkburn, East Yorkshire to William Escritt and Elizabeth Bentley. He married Ann Braithwaite in 1802 and they lived in Garton on the Wolds.
Imagine Robert Escritt, like thousands of other agricultural labourers, wearing a wide brimmed hat to protect himself from the elements, a smock which would reach down to his knees and his only pair of boots made of leather with steel toe caps and hobnailed soles.
At the top of the hierarchy in village life would be the landowner or village squire. After him would be the tenant farmer who tended the landowner’s livestock and land. Usually the tenant farmer would be provided with a farmhouse. The farmers who tended a large farm with fertile soil would be able to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle. In the middle of the village hierarchy would be the skilled craftsmen such as blacksmiths, carpenters, saddlers, thatchers and coopers. These men were vital to the smooth running of the village.
At the very bottom of the heap would be the poor labourers like Robert Escritt and John Paul. They would have constantly done back breaking work but the landowner would have enjoyed most of the profit. The landowner would give the farmer his share and the labourers would get a pittance for all the relentless work they were forced to do in order to earn a meagre living.
Agricultural labourers were often the poorest people in England. Even though their rewards were minimal, the work and suffering they had to endure was not. For instance, during the planting season the whole family would be expected to work out in the fields, in freezing cold weather, from dawn to dusk. Alternatively, during harvest the whole family could be toiling in the fields from dawn to dusk in the blazing sun. He certainly would not have had much in the way of comfort but that life was probably viewed as much better than what was to come.
I was not aware of Robert Escritt’s existence until I was looking for my two of my great grandfathers by the same name. I had decided to look on the Beverley Treasure House Archives. The search for Robert Escritt brought up the form QSF/399/B/6 – Indictment of John Paul and Robert Escritt of Garton labourers 26th April 1808. I knew it could not be one of my direct line Roberts as one was a farmer who had died in 1800 and the other was a cooper who was yet to be born.
After looking on FamilySearch to find out if I could place that Robert Escritt, I found out that he had married Ann Braithwaite. I referred to my family tree on Ancestry.co.uk and was able to place Robert Escritt as my 4X great uncle. A trip to the Treasure House was in order to see what was in the document.
The journey was met with both trepidation and excitement. I knew he had done something unlawful but what? As the archivist brought the 200-year-old document to me, my mind was buzzing with every single crime that could be committed – was he a murderer, a burglar, a petty thief? The list was endless but of course, I was nowhere near the truth.
The document was placed before me and weighted down. The first court hearing was 28th July 1807. Robert Escritt and John Paul were:
“persons of ill name and fame and dishonest and unlawfully contriving to deprive one Francis Brown the younger of his good name, credit and reputation and also to obtain and get themselves of and from large sums of money on the 10th day of July in the reign of our sovereign Lord George the third with accusing him of the unnatural act of sodomy, commonly known as buggery”
It was stated that John Paul and Robert Escritt conspired to accuse Francis Brown, gentleman, of sodomy to try to obtain large amounts of money from him.
On the 11th day of July they had gone to Henry Grimston Esquire, being one of His Majesty’s justice, to keep the peace, and told him that Francis Brown had sodomised John Paul. Robert Escritt had witnessed it. If they were blackmailing Francis Brown for sodomy when he was not guilty, but he would not pay up, surely they would have gone on to another victim who might be so frightened that he would hand over the cash. It does not make sense that they would have gone to the magistrate, after all they were supposed to be in it simply for the money. However, they were poor labourers and Francis Brown was a gentleman farmer, they were not believed. They were taken to court and suffered the humiliation of an embarrassing cross examination on a subject which in those days was considered so terrible that it was a hanging offence. On the 12th of January 1808 both men were found guilty of conspiracy to blackmail.
The sentence was a year in the House of Correction and to stand in the pillory for three consecutive market days. The court document states that Robert Escritt and John Paul should stand in the pillory for one hour between twelve and 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Robert Escritt and John Paul would have had the humiliation of standing at the top of Exchange Street, Driffield for 3 consecutive market days. Their heads and hands would have been put into the carved out slots in the wood and then a second piece of wood would have been closed down upon them so that they could not move from the missiles which would have been thrown at them. Decayed fruit and vegetables, rotten eggs, excrement, dead rats and sometimes hard rocks would be hurled at the person in the pillory. Often, a pillory would be rotated so that the public could get a good look at the person trapped in it.
Robert Escritt and John Paul were also sentenced to one year in the House of Correction at Beverley. The House of Correction at Beverley is famous for holding Dick Turpin the highwayman in 1738. His real name was John Palmer and he was incarcerated in the House of Correction for shooting his landlord’s cockerel. In those days the House of Correction was situated at Beverley Guildhall. It had one small courtyard for all prisoners with a work shed in it but no water. When the prisoners were allowed water, the gaoler would have to fetch it from across the way. Men and women felons each had a separate day room upstairs and the room where the women would sleep would adjoin it. The smell was overwhelming for lack of sewers.
Robert Escritt and John Paul would have slept in one of the two dirty cells below. They measured about four square yards and were badly ventilated. There was a small window with bars in each room. Their beds would have had straw in the ticking and they were allowed two blankets and a rug for warmth. To pass the time they would have been made to pound tile-shards which they were paid 6d a bushel for.
What happened to Francis Brown? I searched for him on Ancestry.com. and found him in the England and Wales Criminal Register 1791-1892. He was transported for 7 years. It was time to research in The Treasure House archives again.
A week earlier, I had been reading what a dishonest person my ancestor was for intending to deprive Francis Brown of his good name and reputation. The document before me named Francis Brown as a common cheat. He had promised George Sproxton, a tailor from Driffield, a house and land for £150. The house and land had belonged to the late Francis Brown, Brown’s father. The property had never been Brown junior’s to sell. He simply intended to relieve George Sproxton of his money.
Robert Escritt settled down to live what seems to be a quiet family life. He returned home to Garton-on-the-Wolds to his wife, Ann. She gave birth to Robert in 1810 and Hannah in 1812. Robert and Ann are both on the 1841 and 1851 census, still living in Garton-on-the Wolds. Even at the age of 71, Robert put his occupation down as an agricultural labourer. He died at the age of 77, which considering the mortality rate of the period and what he had been through, he survived quite well.
The true story of Robert Escritt and John Paul proves that ancestors who were agricultural labourers can have colourful histories. Your agricultural labourer’s history might make my story seem like watching paint dry. We never know what is lurking in the archives.
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