Customs of the Manor


Rep. Trans. Devon. Ass. Advmt Sci., 149, 89−116 © The Devonshire Association, June 2017 (Figures 1–24)

Customs of the Manor and Borough of Bovey Tracey from the Seventeenth Century

Frances Billinge B.Sc.Hons., M.Sc, Ph.D. Devonia, Ashburton Road, Bovey Tracey, Devon, TQ13 9BZ

Customs of the manor and borough of Bovey Tracey are described from the seventeenth century using unpublished survey, court and rent rolls and property deeds. Some customs fell into disuse and others changed, but they mainly showed continuity during the centuries, and were overseen by officers of the ‘middling sort’ whose commitment to this public duty is why the borough continued until the end of the nineteenth century. Many customs and associated officers were similar to those of other manors but Bovey Tracey borough was unusual in that it accepted incomers as tenants because of the needs of its expanding pottery industry.


Bovey Tracey is a small town on the south-eastern edge of Dartmoor. In the thirteenth century its manor was granted a weekly market, an annual fair and borough status. Using the Crown’s survey of the manor by Norden (1615), as well as records of Bovey Tracey manor and borough courts and rentals for over two hundred and fifty years from 1654, the customs of its manor and borough are examined.1 The courts were an important institution and allowed tenants to deal with concerns about such matters as not abiding by the customs, inward migration, roads, water supply, use of shared commons and resources, and the general management of getting on with neighbours in both a rural and urban setting. Bovey Tracey needed a group of tenants who were prepared to make decisions, allegedly for the good of all, according to locally agreed customs. These courts with their customs were institutions which were a significant part of English local government. Bovey Tracey’s courts and their customs responded to increases in population and the developing pottery industry. The officers appointed by the court were the middling sort who therefore had a voice in their community.


At the time of the Domesday survey in 1086 the manor of ‘Bovy’ was held by Geoffrey de Mowbray, the bishop of Coutances. The manor then included Warmhill, Little Bovey, Scobitor, Woolleigh, Hatherleigh, Hawkmoor, Elsford, Pullabrook, and Brungastone (Open Domesday). In 1260 the Lord of the Manor, Sir Henry de Tracy, obtained a grant for markets and fairs, and the charter for a borough was also granted at this time (Kowaleski, 1995; Letters, 2003; Billinge, 2012, p. 3). The borough comprised an inner circle of land and the manor was the outer perimeter made up of farms. Together they were almost co-terminus with the parish boundary of today. The boundary of each can be estimated from the 1596 Church Rate which listed land owners by their residence either in the borough or the manor ‘land’.2

The existence of a borough within the manor meant that Bovey Tracey had two sets of administrative records connected with legislative, administrative and judicial powers as a form of local government. From at least 1260 both the manor and borough had customs related to land and property tenure, collection of rent, land use, and payment of dues and performance of services owed by tenants to the lord of the manor. The customs also covered legislative issues, arbitration on disputes, and the appointment of court officers. In common with the rest of England this administration was managed by the regular holding of courts of both the manor and borough, with each having a court leet and a court baron.3


These courts were the premier courts of the first instance in most places, and they satisfied the desire and need for neighbourly justice. The jurors, who sat in judgement in these courts, were local men. They were doctors, merchants and businessmen who were, thereby, regarded as the most influential citizens. In this way the middle classes were drawn into the body politic. This local court system was available for everyone in the manor and borough. By laying down rules and monitoring one’s neighbours it is understandable that a manor was described as ‘a little commonwealth’ by Southey (1820, p. 564) in which he was echoing the description by Norden (1607, p. 28). The function and purpose of the courts was essentially administration. The Court Leet punished petty offences, suppressed disruptive behaviour, regulated economic life, helped to protect common resources as well as overseeing assizes of bread and ale, and the sealing and searching of leather. The Court Baron dealt with property and land ownership or occupation disputes, collection of dues payable, and performance of services owed to the lord of the manor. Tenants were expected to attend the court (Painter, 1943, pp. 97–100; Pollock and Maitland 1968, pp. 531–532; Ellis, 1994, pp. 51–57).


The Crown needed to raise money and sovereigns had started to sell Crown lands in Devon from the middle of the 1500s (Kew, 1967, pp. i, ii; 1970, pp. 94–100). This was continued by James I who, in 1612, granted John Norden the surveyorship of the King’s lands in several counties including Devon in preparation for the sale of these lands. 4Norden was an experienced cartographer and surveyor who had published instructions for surveyors (Norden, 1607, p. 28). Sometimes he would produce a map, but in some surveys, such as that of Bovey Tracey his work was a manuscript description.5 Kitchen (1970, pp. 50, 54) explained the methods which Norden used in his surveys as these varied depending on what was required. Norden called courts, examined records, physically inspected the ground, produced a register of holdings, tenants, values, obligations and other details. As part of his Bovey Tracey survey, which he undertook in 1614, Norden listed and commented on the customs of the manor.

Together with the information from Norden’s survey a number of Bovey Tracey court rolls and presentments and rental records are extant from 1654, and in particular there are consecutive court records from the lordships of John Stawell, William Stawell, the Viscount (later Earls) Courtenay, and Charles Bentinck which survive from the middle of the seventeenth to the start of the twentieth century. Through these documents the customs of the manor and borough can be discerned.6 A list of customs is filed with the court roll of April 1675.7 Also on taking up his lordship in 1747 William Courtenay instructed his steward to list all the customs and these are now lodged with the court rolls of that year. His father, also William Courtenay, had compiled a similar list in 1716 for the Courtenay’s manor of Braunton Abbot in North Devon, and the customs of Bovey Tracey were similar (Dymond, 1888, pp. 258–291). The Bovey Tracey list of 1747 generally referred to the first date in the extant court records when the custom was recorded, and described the courts as, ‘having been for some time discontinued and lately renewed on the petition of the tenants of the lord of the manor.’ This demonstrates that the tenants valued their local courts which concurs with Waddell’s (2012, p. 275) conclusion from his study of several English courts that they were far from being a decaying system from the 1600s.

How ancient each of the listed customs was is a matter of conjecture, but there are references to legal terminology of ‘from time out of mind’ in Courtenay’s list, and ‘which we understand was a former privilege’ as in the 1735 manor court roll. We need to be aware that stating a custom was ancient does not necessarily mean it was, because customs changed and grew as Rose-Troup (1934, p. 23) showed for the manor of Ottery St Mary and, as Bovey Tracey land lease records illustrate.8 Wood (2013, pp. 133–135) in his study of several manors, also explained that much of the everyday operation of custom was unrecorded, based on long established habit, which was added to according to everyday expediency, and so might or might not be as ancient as claimed.

What we do know is that certain customs were confirmed in the records from as early as 1614. In his study of one hundred and thirteen English manors, Waddell (2012, p. 278) analysed their customs and found variations, which was understandable given that coastal, rural and town areas had different needs. Certain customs, however, seem to have been fairly general, because everywhere needed to ensure law and order and that rents were collected. Courtenay’s Steward summed it up in 1747 by saying that:

“the court leet and court baron have in all other respects the same authority and jurisdiction as is usually exercised in other courts leet and courts baron.”9

Although the court leet and court baron might at one time have had separate sittings, the extant minutes show that the Bovey Tracey manor court leet and court baron were often merged into one. The 1737 ‘Court of Law of Frankpledge with Court Baron of the Lord of the said Manor 25th October 1737’ is such an example. The same occurred with the Borough’s courts. This was common throughout the country.

Unlike some places, the manor and borough courts always remained separate. In most urban areas the manor court was an alternative to a borough court or became subsumed within it, thus becoming a lesser court, but this did not happen in Bovey Tracey.10 There is no record that the borough ever attempted to purchase the manor court when it was sold to various owners from the seventeenth century onwards. There is no evidence of competition in the relationship between the manor and borough. This was partly because many officers and other tenants had holdings both in the borough and the manor. Also officers of the manor courts had relatives who were officers of the borough courts.

THE CUSTOMS The customs covered the process of administration and regulation, and the appointment of officers to carry out various duties. The court leet and court baron were held twice yearly within one month of both Lady Day and Michaelmas, and at other occasions as needed. The Lord of the Manor, who was also Lord of the Borough, appointed a steward to hold the courts leet and courts baron for both the manor and borough on his behalf. Annually the Michaelmas Court appointed a jury of local freemen to deal with its duties. A foreman was sworn in, followed by eleven or twelve homagers. The minutes of the borough court 1665 described it as a law court and it appointed a jury of eleven men plus the portreeve as foreman. The freeman requirement for office, rather than just being a tenant, meant that eligibility as a juror was kept within a more elite group of residents. These were the local merchants, businessmen and farmers. As with courts throughout the country the jury appointed various officers, who were freemen, to carry out certain tasks for the smooth running of the manor and borough (Pollock and Maitland, 1968, p. 43). They were sworn in annually at each borough and manor Michaelmas Court from at least 1665. As only freemen could serve, the courts were not representative of all in the area and poorer tenants and sub tenants could not be office holders. It was possible to hold two offices at the same time as shown by the pound keeper also being the crier in 1750. Officers were appointed by the jury and sworn in annually at each borough and manor Michaelmas Court from at least 1665. Below are described the officers appointed and the regulations of the courts.

The Reeve was an appointment of the manor court. One of the reeve’s duties was to give tenants due notice to attend court if they were required. As a rule the reeve was a good husbandman who was responsible for cultivation. The borough appointed its own portreeve annually at Michaelmas. The term ‘portreeve’ implies the reeve of a ‘port’ or market town. Despite the manor and borough holding their courts on the same day the election of two officers acting as reeves underlines the separation of the two administrations.

The Bailiff acted as a superintendant of the court, in a role similar to that of an accountant and was responsible for collecting the rents.

The Hayward supervised sowing and reaping, although none of the records give actual examples of his work.

The duties of the Constable/Tithingman involved summoning the Jury, overseeing good behaviour in court, arresting vagabonds and nightwalkers, and generally keeping the peace. Two constables and two tithingmen were appointed each year by the manor and two constables by the borough. The Office of Constable was an ancient one, which also had duties beyond the local court; hence the need to identify the Constable to the Crown’s Officers.

The Crier’s duties included calling people forward in court. In 1890 the crier was upbraided for not ensuring that the symbols of office were placed in the court.

The Searcher and Sealer of Leather ensured that leather was of a certain quality and that it was sealed accordingly. The Ale Taster/Assize of Ale checked the price, measure and quality of ale.

The Pound Keeper oversaw the keeping of stray animals and the levying of a fine for their release. There was only one pound, called Stray Park, which was on the manor/borough boundary.

The Scavenger was responsible for cleaning refuse from the borough’s streets. He was permitted to use the sweepings to enrich his soil.

The Surveyor of the Highway checked the state of the highways and byways, and arranged for their repair, where and when this was required.

The Affeerer collected amercements or fines and was told to “spare no-one through love or affection, nor raise or enhance anyone through malice or hatred.”

The Wood Warden inspected the woods of the manor and noted any saplings which needed to be taken down.

Amercements/Fines for Officers Not Being Sworn Although some payment and/or privileges were associated with each office, people often did not want to undertake them (Hone, 1906, p. 76). There are various reasons given for this. It might have been difficult dealing with the disputes of your relatives and neighbours, and farming needs might have had to take precedence over time-consuming civic duties. An appointed officer did not always appear at the court to be sworn and, as a result, was fined until he appeared.

Croslegh (1911, p. 136) described similar problems in his study of Bradninch where officers who were due to be appointed failed to attend as they did not want the onerous civic responsibility. They pleaded that they had not been to communion and so did not meet the required custom of their court for such an appointment. In Bovey Tracey the requirement of having freehold property in the manor or borough was not so easy to argue against if a man did not want office, as the rent rolls showed who met the property requirement.

Customs of Officers The only custom listed under this heading was that of the Reeve. He received an unspecified payment for collecting rents and the profits of the courts, as shown in the 1753 manor court which stated that it allowed the reeve, ‘some salary for the trouble of collecting the rents, and this was a former privilege which we apprehended was allowed to the reeve.’

Appointment of Affeerers In the October 1687 court, the collecting of amercements/fines of the borough courts was listed as the duty of the portreeve, but in later courts the portreeve appointed affeerers (debt collectors) on his behalf. This is one of the few examples that illustrates how a custom changed over time. On October 1748 the manor court affeerers were appointed to collect the amercements/fines of the last two courts. This indicates that some did not pay on the day, and/or that the fine was not levied until three hearings in court. By 1753 affeerers were appointed to ‘affeer the amerciaments’ in the last four courts, which showed another change in the custom as tenants were by then being given even longer to pay their fines.The use of the term fine was different from how we would understand it today, as it was the money due for such things as inheriting a tenancy and was not a payment for wrongdoing.

Appearing in Court All the tenants, of whatever kind, who ought to do suit at the court and made default could be amerced for such default. Presentment of free tenants for making default is recorded from1675.11 In the 1750 manor court five people were not present and so in default and were each amerced 3d. In 1751 ten people were amerced 3d each for not appearing. By 1752 twelve defaulters had to pay 2s 6d each, showing another example of change in a custom. It was permissible to send an attorney, or proxy, in your stead as seen in the borough court of 1752.

Failure to Attend Court When Summoned Pollock and Maitland (1968, p. 43) indicated that, in the legal framework of English feudalism, people were summoned by the court three times and if they did not appear their chattels were distrained and this distraining was also called three times. This meant an issue could carry on over several months or even years. In the 1752 court we find that those presented for cutting of turf on the borough common had not come to the last two courts and so, at this third court, they were dealt with. This is more fully described below under the customs of the commons.

Leaving Court Early It was not permitted to leave court early without permission before the business for that day was concluded or adjourned. So doing resulted in an amercement which varied from sitting to sitting. Leaving early would undermine the authority of the court and was considered to be a serious matter. At the 1749 borough court a tenant left without leave and was amerced five shillings, a large sum. At the 1752 October borough court three jurors left early before the presentments were finished. Two were fined three shillings and four pence, but the third who had an inflamed hand was excused his going home and fined only threepence. At the next court the chief offenders pleaded ignorance and promised amendment for the future so their fines were reduced to sixpence each.

Keeping the Peace at Court It was the duty of the constables to ensure that the court was run peacefully. In 1751 the crier was amerced for not keeping the peace in court by disturbing the jury whilst they were swearing in, and the steward fined him three shillings and four pence. Resistance to the power of the court has also been described in other parts of the country and it could come at a serious cost (Waddell, 2012, p. 284).

Hearing of Presentments The list of presentments to the borough and manor courts was varied and from them we can interpret various customs and note the amercements involved for disregarding them. Most presentments were about inheritance and changes in tenancies, but others were about illegal turf cutting, or poor maintenance of highways or buildings. There was a dispute in the 1751 court leet and court baron of the borough when a father appeared on behalf of his son, who was away at sea, and claimed that his son’s property – called Dunkirk – did not owe rent to Bovey Tracey as it was in the manor of neighbouring Knighton Heathfield. As this house was in the middle of the borough, half way up Fore Street, this seemed a most unlikely claim and was not upheld.

Custom of Fine or Amercement for Offences A scale of fines was used for various offences. Fines were set according to custom but amercements could vary depending on the matter in hand. Courtenay’s steward described this custom as follows; ‘All offences usually presentable in a court leet and a court baron under the cognisance of this court and offenders within the manor may be according fined or amerced.’

Taking Suits without Liberty Suits were heard within the manor where the offence occurred. Various men, not of Bovey Tracey, were presented in the Bovey Tracey courts for illegally cutting turf on the commons. At first the decision was to amerce them, but when it became known that they were not locals the matter was referred directly to the lord of the manor for him to adjudicate, as this was not within the jurisdiction of the local courts.

Feoffment There was a custom of feoffment which was a way of land changing hands without the requirement of paying a sum of money for the renewal of the lease as the feoffees continued with the holding as a corporate body. The feoffees were similar to modern trustees, although not a direct equivalent.

Customs for Widows Pollock and Maitland (1968, p. 404) demonstrated that, although arrangements might vary throughout the country, generally a widow was entitled to a third of her husband’s land and to remain in the tenement for life. This was sometimes referred to as dower. In the manor rental of 1755 there is a record of a widow paying 10s rent for Crowde which was previously her husband’s property. An 1834 conveyance deed of a borough premise called Cross Tenement referred to the dower third rights of a previous leaseholder.12

Tenancies The rentals show various types of tenancy. By the sixteenth century there were two main types of manorial tenure in England; freehold and copyhold. Both of these could also hold land by lease. This was not the same as modern freehold. The records from Bovey Tracey show many descriptions of types of tenancies indicating changes that took place over time.

      Freeholders paid chief rents or quit rents which had been fixed in medieval times and these rents were not reviewed and so tended to be low.These rents were paid in lieu of service by free tenants. In medieval times such tenants owed various services to the lord such as farm labouring but, later, these were commuted to a cash equivalent which was not variable. By 1798 the borough had almost a hundred quit rents, which were rents for the burgage plots. Freeholders attended manor and borough courts where they could be appointed as jurors. Some freehold tenancies included rights of animal grazing and furze cutting on the commons (Hone, 1906, p.111; Gayton, 2013, p.71). In Bovey Tracey there were customs regarding the number of animals which could be pastured on the commons, and a scale of fees for different animals. Several tenements, such as those in East Street and Hind Street, had appurtenances with rights of common on Bovey Heathfield and other commons.

Copyholders, by the sixteenth century, were the most common tenants in Bovey Tracey. Sometimes these copyholders were called conventionary or customary tenants, or copyholders in fee, illustrating nuances in the different types of land holdings as in the 1735 rent rolls.Copyholders in fee meant the copyholder payed a fee rather than provide services to the lord. In 1736 some manor rents referred to the customary rent of a pound of cumin seeds or 4s ½d; a pound of beeswax or 6s; and half a pound of pepper or 1s. Such rents were not unusual. Chope (1902, p. 426) describes the same type of rent of a pound of pepper as a rental payment for a tenement in the manor of Hartland.The rents had a considerable range from 2d to 19s 7d in the borough in 1700. When tenants with copyhold wished to dispose of their land, or pass it to a family member, the change of tenancy was inscribed in the court roll and the tenant given a copy; hence the description copyhold. This form of tenure eventually became freehold as late as 1922 in the Law of Property Act. Such tenants either held their land through inheritance, or for a set number of lives, usually three being the tenant, his wife, and a child. These tenants paid an entry fee, called a fine, when the tenancy changed. Generally this was a fixed sum of two years’ rent. Gayton’s (2013, p. 71) findings confirm similar results in Hampshire manors.

    Rents Leasehold was another form of copyhold tenancy. Drayton (2013, pp.7, 28) shows that these were initially used as a way of letting out the demesne land of the lord. Leasehold was beneficial to the lord because the terms were not fixed by the customs of the manor and so could be let, and re-let, at a true market value. The medieval practice had been to let leases annually, but by the sixteenth century it was more common for leases to be set at twenty-one years or three lives. This might explain why some death-bed marriages were of a very old man to a considerably younger woman to ensure the tenancy continued for as long as possible. Examples of leases for lives are seen with the Stickwick tenancy in 1753 which described the tenant as having, ‘a life by lease which on her death would fall to the lord’s hand.’ Scottway was taken by the son on his father’s death as it was a lease for three lives. Females were permitted to take on a lease for three lives and this could pass to their husband. Thomas Hardy (1986, pp. 78, 137–8, 146–7, 152–5) in The Woodlanders, published in 1887, illustrated through a fictional account the problems which tenants might encounter when leases were held for lives. Marty South risked losing her home on the death of her father as he had not taken the opportunity to extend the lease. Giles Winterbourne became homeless through the complications of inheritance on his family’s life holding.

It suited the lord to change copyhold to a lease arrangement as this could vary with land values. By 1756 some tenants were listed as former copyholders and conventionary tenants, illustrating another change in custom. By 1798 the borough rental listed them as leaseholders. Leases generally started as being for a few years, then for twenty and later for ninety-nine years. In 1798 only four conventionary tenants were listed: John Taylor’s house and herbary; Moses Savery for a third of Coniam’s; Mrs Hearn for Tan House tenement; and William Langley for late Strong’s Tenement. There was no objection raised to properties being divided as shown in the borough rental of Whitstone and also Bradley in 1750.


Rents were calculated on an annual basis payable twice a year at Lady Day and Michaelmas.


In the borough rental of 1798 ‘incroachments’ were listed with a charge on them. Tenants had to pay for building work which encroached on the borough. For example, 2d rent had to be paid for a wall newly erected on Trough Lane. There is no record of the tenants seeking permission in advance for such encroachments, but there was always a payment after the encroachment occurred.

Admittance to the Manor or Borough

When land or property changed hands the transaction, called admittance, had to go through the court, with the new tenant being sworn in and paying a fee which was called a fine. The courts leet and baron of the borough, in 1752, showed that customary fees payable by the tenants were 1s on each and every tenant on their admittance to the borough. It also showed one moiety of the fee belonging to the steward of the court and the other moiety to the jurors. This meant the steward received 6d and the twelve jurors each received a halfpenny. These fees on change of ownership were called alienations or reliefs on the rent roll. Copyholders in fee or free tenants of the manor who did suit and homage to the court paid double their rents on their death or alienation. By 1766 the borough set all such charges at 1s illustrating another change in custom. This relief was payable on each tenement the heir inherited. This was not without contention as seen in the court baron of 1751 the foreman of the jury, who must have been well aware of the custom, contested the relief he was asked to pay of a shilling each on two tenements. He argued that he only owed one shilling, but the jury and other homagers still amerced him two shillings for his default. Later he paid the correct relief.

With free tenants the court did not necessarily know who the rightful next owner might be.The 1675 court had presented ‘the death of James Satterly being a free tenant who died since the last court the heir we know not’. Generally reliefs were paid at the court when the death was first presented, unless the heir was uncertain and then the relief was postponed.

The rents of Bovey Tracey give no indication that new tenants were unwelcome. There is no reference to the manor or borough resisting the expansion of the town, or the division of properties within it. This is different from other parts of the county which favoured a stable population and a fixed settlement pattern. Waddell (2012, p. 285) has shown that in other manors sub-letting was not permitted, nor was providing lodgings to the mobile poor. This suggests that workers were needed in Bovey Tracey initially to help develop the market trading and later for the pottery business (Adams and Thomas,1996). Comparison can also be made with the borough of Maldon in Essex, as William Petchey’s study showed that too much inward migration caused Maldon’s borough to cease functioning (Petchey, 1972, pp. 69, 71, 92, 282, 311, 312). Too many people coming in meant that there was not enough of a management infrastructure for governance. No one wanted to do the work of the courts. By the late 1500s, fifty percent of Maldon’s population was transient. These immigrants rarely stayed more than ten years and those who did stay were pensioners or the gentry who were not really interested in the functioning of their town. Maldon even lost its charter in 1688 and did not get it back until 1810. Fortunately for Bovey Tracey its residents were keen to keep the borough going and prepared to take on the duties of governing. Also by the late 1700s Bovey Tracey had a developing industry and its immigrants would have been younger people seeking work.

Taking of Distress /Distraining

With regard to unsettled disputes or ‘effray’ about inheritance the custom listed by William Courtenay’s steward states, ‘that all effrays remain in the custody of the lord of the manor or his bailiff, and if not own’d within a year and a day become the property of the lord’. The borough court of October 1766 provided an insight into the custom and referred to the requirement for a tenant to pay the amount to make up the fee farm and quit rent required from an inheritance. The tenant was told that he had to pay the relief or he might be immediately distrained and his goods and chattels taken away for the payment of the rent. To underline the seriousness of the non-payment offence the court stated the rents had to be collected and taken to Powderham Castle, the lord’s seat by the first week of December 1766. This had the desired effect and the tenant paid up.

Keeping Property in Repair

From a dispute about property at Stickwick ‘being out of repair’ in November 1749 we see that the manor wanted to ensure that its properties were well kept. A chimney in danger of ‘taking fire’ was frequently presented to the court as a danger to other houses.

Offences Regarding Water Supply

There are examples of the water supply, generally an interruption of it, being a matter taken before the court. The tenants of Mary Street were criticised for not repairing their watercourse according to the ing the pot water at Stickwick. With the development of the vestry, poor law commissioners and ratepayers groups in the nineteenth century, the responsibility for agreeing who should oversee the water supply became blurred. This meant that presentments about the water supply were not only taken to the local courts, but also to other public bodies, none of which felt able or prepared to resolve the problems (Billinge, 2014, p. 98).

Portreeve’s Parks

From an earlier time, the portreeve had the two Portreeve’s Parks as a privilege from the profits of which he was expected to fund the festivities of the annual Rogationtide; see ‘Beating of the Bounds’ (Billinge, 2013). In the borough courts leet and baron of 1751 we learn that the portreeve had ‘the privilege of the dung of the streets of the said borough to be carted off by the scavenger to apply manure to improve the Parks’.This would have been a perk as manure was valuable. The Portreeve’s Parks still exist as fields on the edge of the boundary of the historic borough (Fig.1).


Figure 1. Great Portreeve’s Park. Frances Billinge, 2016.

Pillory, Ducking Stool and Stocks

The lord of the manor was expected to keep the cage, pillory, ducking stool, a pair of stocks and a lock in repair. This is confirmed by a presentment to the borough court in 1675 stating that these items were in a state of decay and, as they continued in decay for several decades, it can be assumed they were not in use.

Use of Borough and Manor Commons

A document in the court book of the 3rd March 1668 listed the common land on Knighton Heathfield, Wood Hill, Red Hill and Lower Down as comprising 6,230 acres in all on which copyholders had rights of grazing, and stated ‘there were divers customs appertaining to these commons’. The custom of paying for grazing was also listed as follows: Pasturage of horse on Bovey Heathfield one penny a year Pasturage of a bullock on Bovey Heathfield one penny a year Pasturage of five sheep on Bovey Heathfield two pence a year Bovey Heathfield is still used for grazing (Fig. 2.). The commons were important to the inhabitants and they did not shy away from calling the lord of the manor Charles Aldenbugh Bentinck to court in 1852 to accuse him of enclosing Heathfield commons against their wishes.


Figure 2. Grazing on Bovey Heathfield. Frances Billinge, 2016.

Cutting Turf on Manor/ Borough Commons

The protection of resources such as fuel, timber, and game was another function of the courts. They were also responsible for preventing individuals from damaging the commons by digging out soil, sand or clay to which they were not entitled. Certain tenants had the right to cut turf on the manor and borough commons for their own use. The lord was to be compensated for any turf cut illegally. This seems to have been a frequent occurrence as turf cutting was presented to the courts in 1666, 1695, 1723, 1749, 1750, 1752 and 1753. In the case of 1752, it was decided that as the offenders were not tenants of the borough they could not be amerced and the lord of the borough needed to deal with them. This shows that the court was not a true court but rather an institution of what was a very local government. Even the town crier was fined for cutting turf on the borough common of Bovey Heathfield and fraudulently selling it to the Chamber of Exeter in 1752. Also, an important local businessman was not averse to exploiting commonly held land. A hundred years later in 1852, John Divett, joint owner of the Bovey Tracey Pottery Company, was accused of digging soil on Heathfield commons, selling it for profit, and leaving large pits which were a danger to cattle. In 1856 the same John Divett was accused of spreading pottery waste on ‘The Heathfield’ which destroyed the pasture, and he was directed to discontinue this practice.

Custom of Repairing the Road and Watercourse by One’s Property

In the October 1665 borough court the inhabitants of Mary Street were criticised for not repairing their water course according to custom (Fig. 3). The Mary Street water supply continued to be a problem and even led to litigation in the mid-nineteenth century. It was described as ‘the dirtiest street in Christendom.’ This problem was never resolved by the borough and there was an unwillingness from all the other public bodies to spend the necessary money (Billinge, 2014, p. 98).





Figure 3. Mary Street. David Lewis private collection, 2016.

Weights and Measures

A borough court presentment of 1717 confirmed that the weights and measures should be provided by the lord and that the ale taster kept them. These weights and measures survive and are on view in the Bovey Tracey Town Council Chamber.


Thirsk (1984, p. 48) described how access to manure was important in medieval times. For this reason tenants might be required to pasture their livestock on the lord’s fields. We do not have any record of this but presentments indicate that dung use was a custom. The refuse of pigs driven to pound was presented as an item for discussion at the court on 16th April 1719. The Portreeve’s office included the dung privilege of Mary Street, East Street and Fore Street, and by 1751 also included Hind Street suggesting that the latter thoroughfare was developing in importance.

Cattle Pound/Stray Park

A court of 16th October 1699 showed that stray cattle were to be put into the ‘Straye Parke’ of the Lord after impounding. The pound was locked and the records of the manor court of 1750 show the pound keeper or his deputy had the key.

Grinding Corn at the Lord’s Mill

John Norden’s survey of 1615 and the manor court record of 23rd October 1707 stated that there was no custom of obliging persons to grind at a particular mill.

Fairs and Markets

The weekly Thursday market was granted in 1219. The annual threeday fair, around the 8th July feast of the translation of St Thomas Beckett, was granted in 1260. Both of these customs might have been established before the royal grant. The 1759 court record referred to a dispute in the borough which Viscount Courtenay’s steward was seeking to resolve. Part of the rent for the fairs and markets was allocated to the borough and a smaller part to the manor. This shows that both the manor and borough profited and it was the actual proportion of the division of the spoils which was being disputed. By 1766 the dispute was settled.

Manor Pound

The 1750 court presented that, ‘the profits of the manor pound having been for many years past left’; that is gone into disuse. They were then reinstated as by 1753 the manor pound’s profits were recorded. This might have been a pound for crushing apples as there were several cider orchards in the area.

Enclosure of Waste Ground

In the 1748 court a tenant was presented to be admitted as owner of a fourth part of the commons of Furzeley. This indicates that a part of these commons was enclosed by this time and were no longer available for the commoners’ use. In 1750 the court ruled regarding enclosure of a waste plot at Furzeley Green. This was the lord’s land and was described as having been for many years enclosed and the conclusion was that a rent would be charged.

‘Beating of the Bounds’

Extant records show that the bounds of the borough and manor together were partially beaten each year at Rogationtide and this was also called ‘Mayor’s Monday’ (Billinge, 2013, p. 72). It is not known when this custom started as it is another of those described as ‘from ancient times’.

Oaths Taken and Ceremonies Followed in the Court

These were recorded in the papers of Charles Aldenbugh Bentinck, Lord of the Manor, showing the words used when each officer was sworn in. As an example, the following is the ‘Oath of a Scavenger’ (Fig. 4): ‘You shall well and truly execute the office of scavenger within the Borough for the year to come and until another be chosen in your Room and take due care during the continuance of your said office that the Streets in the said Borough be kept clean and that the Dung and soil that may annoy Passengers in the said streets be from time to time carried off. And all other duties of your said office you shall well and truly observe and do according to the best of your knowledge. I declare…’13


Figure 4. The Oath of a Scavenger. Reproduced with the kind permission of Devon Archives and Local Studies Service.


Records show that the work of the Bovey Tracey manor and borough courts fell into five main categories: 1) attendance at court; 2) managing court procedures; 3) entry into property; 4) protection of utilities to avoid nuisances; and 5) use of the commons. Similar to other manors, as described by Waddell (2012, p. 285), dealing with public disorder offences was not a significant component of court time. This was because serious offences were heard at Newton Abbot Petty Sessions or the Quarter Sessions in Exeter.

Collecting rent in both borough and manor was meticulously undertaken. Throughout the period studied the officers of the courts were appointed annually together with a jury of twelve local men to sit as the legislative body and administer neighbourly justice. Even after the official demise of the manor and borough in 1894 the officers were still appointed although they had no official function.

The extant presentments made to ninety-six of the Bovey Tracey courts leet and baron held between 1750–1925 were analysed (Table 1). Most presentments (~70%) were for admitting new tenants which included a considerable influx in the 1850s. This was when the pottery business was flourishing and skilled workers were moving in to the area from Staffordshire. 14The next most common issue (~13%) was dealing with poor attendance at the court. It was obviously important that the court was taken seriously, but tenants had their work to do and paying the non-attendance fine was possibly not too much of a burden. Seven percent of presentments were from tenants who said they had not been given due notice to attend. Similarly, 7% concerned the misuse of the commons at certain times with the unauthorised digging up of turf, sand or soil, and the lord wishing to enclose common land. This also coincided with the expansion of the pottery business which used sand, and also needed to get rid of its ‘wasters’; the pottery which was not up to standard. Only 3% of issues were connected with mending the roads, houses falling into disrepair and causing a nuisance, or people allowing their water supply to affect the roads. By the nineteenth century, most buildings, water and roads issues were being put to the local vestry and Poor Law Union as their powers and influence were expanding. Indeed the vestry had been dealing with such issues even earlier than this.

Croslegh (1911, p. 153) illustrated that violence and law and order issues were frequently presented to Bradninch courts. Unlike this and also the presentments described by Waddell, there were no issues reported in Bovey Tracey (Table 1) in connection with fighting, noise from inns, and only one in connection with general public disorder. The one local disorder recorded was when one member of the jury kept shouting at the court regarding a fine he was due to pay and as a result he was fined even more.


Attendance No Notice Entry Death Utility Commons Total
1750s B 13 12 6 4 35
1750s M 2 4 16 9 5 8 44
1840s B 7 3
1840s M 5 1
1850s B 54 21
1850s M 21 10 5
1860s B 33 7 3
1860s M 2 2
1870s B 1
1870s M 12
1880s B 1
1880s M
1890s B 3 19 3
1890s  M
Total 31 26 163 60 6 16


Table I. Summary of Presentments to Manor and Borough Courts 1750–1925.

It would seem that the people of Bovey Tracey generally got along amicably with their neighbours and did not discourage newcomers. In the eighteenth century there was an increase in the number of properties and the division of existing properties because of workers moving in. This is quite different from the mainly Yorkshire manors studied by Waddell (2012, pp. 285, 299) where he found a stable population and fixed settlement pattern to be prized, and specific means used by locals to exclude unwanted immigrants by not permitting sub-letting to ‘undersettlers’ nor providing lodging to the mobile poor.

Agricultural matters were not a significant element of court work, again unlike those described by Waddell. This was because Bovey Tracey continued to develop as a market town and place of trade and industry albeit set within a rural landscape.

A further comparison can be made with the manor of St Ives in the East of England. Mary Carter described the seventeenth and eighteenth century in this urban society and its hinterland (Carter, 1988, pp. 25–72). Like Bovey Tracey, its court dealt with issues about use of the commons, markets, and road repairs, but unlike Bovey Tracey it was also concerned with unlicensed ale houses and illegal inmates. Taunton Deane’s customs were listed from a court held in 1817. There the customs were extensive and far more complicated than Bovey Tracey’s. Taunton Dean was a rich trading area with a complex society owned by the Bishop of Winchester (Shillibear, 1821). It would seem from these comparisons that the customs of manors and boroughs were different depending on local requirements. This was one of the key advantages of the manorial/borough customs over national statute law, as local customs could be much more flexible. Although Bovey Tracey’s customs remained similar over the years studies, some fell into dis-use such as the ducking stool and stocks, and others developed to include more tenants such as the custom on admittance to the manor or borough.


The manor and borough courts of Bovey Tracey were institutions which administered many aspects of daily life. Matters relating to getting on with one’s neighbours, paying one’s dues, and improving the surroundings were things that were dealt with locally. They also provided an opportunity for residents to interact and be part of the decision making. As the manor became a busier place a better water supply was needed and roads needed to be maintained, but people did not want to pay for it and this meant little was done.

Although the courts had worked well for centuries, in the nineteenth century increased government requirements such as poor relief, health boards, improvement commissions, the development of the vestry to support welfare of the poor, boards of governors for the workhouse union, and ratepayers’associations meant more officers were sitting on more public boards. There was overlap and lack of progress with the argument used that it was someone else’s problem or jurisdiction. Trinder (1980, p. 3) in his study of Banbury Manor, described how the political influence of aristocratic landlords was destroyed by the 1832 Reform Act and the Municipal Corporation Act 1835 as local boards led to townspeople governing themselves. We have seen that after this time the local courts in Bovey Tracey even summoned the lord of the manor to explain his unacceptable actions regarding enclosure of common land.

The customs of Bovey Tracey were necessary for its manor and borough to function smoothly and provide a pleasant residential environment. Many customs were similar to those of other manors and boroughs as law and order had to be upheld, and rents collected. Bovey Tracey’s customs differed in their own way in response to particular local needs such as an increasing population and industrial development. We know that the tenants valued the customs as shown by support for their re-instatement in the eighteenth century. Some customs fell out of use and others were incorporated into later laws, but their importance for maintaining an orderly place to live and work meant that Bovey Tracey continued to thrive. French (2007, pp. 28, 201, 266) and Chase (2013, p.276) have described the political culture of the ‘middling sort’. Hindle’s (2001) work showed this in rural England from the 1500s, and that the manor remained important even though its powers were changing. It was the place where ordinary people had a primary encounter with the business of government. For the ‘middling sort’ the manor was both parliament and judge. This description fits well with what we have found in Bovey Tracey. It was the ‘middling sort’ who ran its affairs and who took their responsibilities seriously.

Local government reorganisation in 1894 saw the demise of the manor and borough of Bovey Tracey and the later creation of Newton Abbot District Council. Even so, the courts continued to meet and elect officers until 1925 even though their functions were curtailed and they had no actual office to perform. Bovey Tracey now has a local Town Council which purchased the lordship of the manor in 1984 and appoints annually a representative Lord of the Manor who carries out ceremonial functions. In this way Bovey Tracey’s link with its historic manor is not forgotten. Bovey Tracey is like George Eliot’s (1899, p.162) fictional description of St Oggs in The Mill on the Floss, ‘a town which carries the traces of its long growth and history like a millenial tree’. Bovey Tracey’s main streets are still lined with some shop fronts of the 1800s, and the layout of the town centre still bears the imprint of the thirteenth century burgage plots.


I would like to thank the Editor and the anonymous reviewer for their much appreciated advice which has assisted with the focus of this paper. Also thanked is Dr Brodie Waddell, Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck College, University of London, for his most helpful suggestions on an earlier draft. I also thank Scott Pettit, Manorial Records Archivist, South West Heritage Trust for his support and Jackie Paxman, Supervisor, Bovey Tracey Library.

ABBREVIATIONS DHC, Devon Heritage Centre


  1. London Metropolitan Archives, CLA/044/05/041 f 59r-85v, Bovey Tracey, 1615-16 John Norden’s survey of various manors in the county of Devon; DHC Manorial and Borough records from 1657–1925 lodged in 1508M//M/1-11 BT; 3424Z/M/1; 3861M//1–88; L 1508M/E/Rentals; DHC 1508 M, Devon Manor, Bovey Tracey, 1 and 2, Law court of the borough October 1665, and presentments, April 1675 with a list of borough customs.
  2. DHC 312M/Z PH1–2, 1596 Church Rate Bovey Tracey.
  3. Dennis Stuart (1992, p.1), Brodie Waddell (2012, pp. 276–278) and Malcolm Chase (2013, p. 270) all describe various aspects of manor courts; Ian Mortimer, 25th April 2015, Documentary Sources for Understanding Medieval Localities at, (accessed 9th June 2017) explained Devon examples.
  4. Calendar of State Papers Domestic Series James I, 1611–1618, p. 158. 26 November 1612, ed. Mary Anne Everrett Green, HMSO, 1967.
  5. John Norden’s survey of Bovey Tracey 1615–1616, see Note 1.
  6. Bovey Tracey Manorial records, see Note 1.
  7. DHC 1508 M, Devon Manor, Bovey Tracey, 1 and 2, April 1675.
  8. Land lease between Ellis and Coniam 1770, DRO 1695M/T75 is an example of a changed custom.
  9. DHC D 15O8M/M/1–11, October 1747.
  10. Brodie Waddell (pers. comm., 2016) in Leeds the manor court was an alternative to a borough court; the persistence of the two courts in Bovey Tracey was unusual.
  11. DHC 3861/M/1–88; DHC D1508M/M/1,2. List of presentments 1508M Manor Bovey Tracey 1 and 2, October 1665 and 12 April 1675.
  12. Cross Tenement conveyance deed viewed by kind permission of the owner 2015.
  13. DHC 5595 add 2 and add 3 DHC Bovey Tracey Court Books Scavenger’s Oath.
  14. The National Archives Census England 1851–1901 accessed through http://www. (12th August 2016).



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