Mr Barrington’s gelding

by Nick

I’m in the midst of writing up my dissertation, hence the lack of posts in recent weeks. Most recently I’ve been going through issues of Severall Proceedings in Parliament, a newsbook set up in October 1649 under the auspices of the Commonwealth’s new licensing act. It was licensed by Henry Scobell, the clerk to the Commons, and edited by Henry Walker. In issue 9, in amongst material on the war in Ireland and reports on parliamentary legislation, is this:

Last Sunday night was lost a large Dapple grey Gelding, that paces and Trots with heat in his feet, who before had lost a dark Grey trotting mare, wall eyed, a ban[…] face, 5 years old. And a Flea-bitten grey Gelding, that paces and trots of 18 years. Mr Barrington of Colchester will give content to any that shall help him to the knowledge of them.

Walker had a habit of dropping obscure small ads into the midst of high political news, but even so I had to stifle a laugh when I read this.

Mr Barrington is, I think, Henry Barrington who was from one of Colchester’s longstanding elite families. His wealth came from brewing; he was mayor of the town in 1631, 1641, 1648 and 1658. He was an Independent who clashed with more moderate Presbyterians over government of the town. In 1653 he would go on to sit in Barebone’s Parliament.

I’ve had a look through the Essex assize records and the case never came to trial. So it’s not clear whether whether Mr Barrington ever did get his gelding back. What the records did reveal is that gelding theft seems to have been to mid-seventeenth century Essex as bike theft is to early twenty-first century Cambridge – that is to say, completely endemic. Here are all the cases of gelding thefts heard at one assizes session in Chelmsford on 26 July 1649:

  • 10 April 1649. Indictment of Thomas Albrett of Billericay labourer there stole a bay gelding worth £5, belonging to Thomas Cordwell. Pleads not guilty; guilty; to be hanged, reprieved after judgement. Witnesses: Thomas Cordwell, Edras Humfrey. (ASS 35/90/7/23)
  • 10 May 1649. Indictment of Edward Smith of Feering labourer, there stole a bay gelding worth £15, belonging to William Mihill. Ignoramus. Witness: William Mihill (ASS 35/90/7/57)
  • Indictment of William Barnes alias Avis Playse (sic) of Little Baddow labourer, 1 June 22 Chas.I, there stole a fleabitten gelding worth £5, belonging to William Meade. Ignoramus. Witness: William Meade. (ASS 35/90/7/50)
  • 24 June 1649. Indictment of William Markes of Beaumont labourer there stole a “yellow bony” gelding worth £8, belonging to James Heard. Pleads not guilty; not guilty. Witnesses. James Heard, Edward Cole. (ASS 35/90/7/41)
  • 3 July 1649. Indictment of John Rutter and William Baily of Barking, labourers, there stole a abay gelding worth £3, belonging to the same Henry. Pleads not guilty; both acquitted. Witness: John Savidge. (ASS 35/90/7/12)
  • Indictment of John Archer of “Walden” labourer, 11 July, at “Hallingbury’ stole a grey gelding worth £8, belonging to Geo, King gentleman Pleads not guilty; not guilty. Witnesses: George King, Roger Smith. (ASS 35/90/7/20)

Horse theft increased significantly during the civil wars, for obvious reasons. But even in times of relative peace it could have significant profits. In the 1590s, a ‘flea-bitten ambling gelding’ could fetch over £3. As the records above attest, typically thieves were labourers down on their luck, although there is some evidence of organised gangs operating sophisticated enterprises, with stolen horses taken outside the county and sold elsewhere. But Barrington also attracted significant criticism from the Presbyterian minority in Colchester, so it’s possible there were more personal reasons at play in the theft of his horse.