Civic Traditions in the Atlantic World: A Week With Provincial Town Records

Having completed a week of my research in the UK, it is perhaps time for an update. Thus far I have visited records offices in Hull, Matlock, Bedford, and Portsmouth.

 When working with seventeenth-century records one always expects to encounter gaps and omissions, and even problems with the physical quality of the surviving material, and this trip has been no different. At the Derbyshire Records Office in Matlock the surviving borough corporation records for Derby were in such a poor state of repair that the archivists were unable to let me consult them. 

However, there have been a number of important breakthroughs. In Hull I was able to consult the corporation records from the years surrounding the Restoration and learn about the purge of the city government by royal officials in 1661-1662. Robert Beverley, who was a prominent town promoter in seventeenth-century Virginia was born in Hull and live through this era in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Although he didn’t serve on the corporation these events were no doubt important to the local community there and he may have been more actively involved in one of the smaller towns nearby that I did not have time to investigate on this visit. 

In Bedford I was able to learn more about the Fitzhugh family who I wrote about in my previous entry. Of particular interest here was the fact that Virginian William Fitzhugh had an uncle who remained active in the Bedford corporation during the 1670s and was ultimately called before the King’s Privy Council for suspected violations of the Corporation Act (the law that granted the King more direct control over England’s towns).

Finally, in Portsmouth I focused on the town politics of the 1680s. During these years Francis Nicholson, later governor of Virginia and Maryland, and designer of Williamsburg and Annapolis, was a soldier garrisoned in the town. The few scant records that survive from 1680s Portsmouth paint a picture of a town torn apart by the political divisions of the era, with sailors, soldiers and townsmen brawling the streets, and considerable tension between the garrison, the citizenry, and the formal corporate officers of the town. There can be no doubt that Nicholson learnt much urban politics and society while in the town. 

Onwards to Bristol and London this week, where the story becomes more detailed, but the potential leads and connections multiply too.