Disabled servicemen of Norwich in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

Petitions are perhaps the most immediately personal class of document amongst the early modern records of the Norwich criminal justice system. Several different courts sat regularly in Norwich during the later middle ages and early modern period, including the Assembly court, which dealt with everyday matters of government, and the Court of Mayoralty, an equity court. Because Norwich was a “city and county” (an incorporated borough administratively separate from Norfolk), it also had its own Quarter Sessions, which oversaw the implementation at the local level of many areas of national government policy. It was presided over by Norwich’s justices of the peace, who were the Mayor and senior aldermen. An enormous number of petitions to these various courts were generated during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Hundreds survive in Norfolk Record Office’s strongrooms, where they have recently been listed in detail.

One aspect of business which fell within the Quarter Sessions’ purview was the granting of pensions to disabled ex-servicemen. Those who had served in the armed forces were entitled to support when they were unable to work for their living any longer due to infirmity. There are a number of petitions by disabled soldiers and sailors among the Norwich city records, from men wounded in conflicts ranging from the Dutch Wars of the mid-seventeenth century to the Seven Years’ War of the mid-eighteenth century. The stories of wartime courage, hardship and survival which they contain are still of interest to us today.

The immediacy of these documents is despite the fact that city petitions were almost always written up by scribes, not by the people making them. The quantity of petitions of various kinds presented at each sessions could be large. In recognition of this, scribes tended to follow a formula which essentially represented ‘best practice’; with their legal experience and training, scribes could distil the main points of the petitioner’s case and present them in a clear and logical, yet still heartfelt manner, calculated to appeal to the judges’ compassion without wasting any of their time.

In the case of disabled servicemen, after the address to the mayor and justices of the peace, they state their names, give details of their service (generally described as “true and faithfull”) and the nature of their disability or injuries. They also establish that they are poor and needy, and unable to get their living by any other work. If they have family to support, this is also mentioned.

A typical example of such a petition appears below. It shows how easily accessible this class of records can be to researchers of all levels. Unlike many early modern documents, they are in English, generally in good condition, and do not pose unusually difficult palaeographical challenges.


Petition of Benjamin Short. Norfolk Record Office, NCR Case 12e/3a/7.



Some of the petitioners participated in the most notable battles of the age, and mention it in their petitions. For example, William Randall of St Giles parish served for ten years “and upwards” in General Howe’s regiment during the War of the Spanish Succession, and received a wound at the battle of Ramillies (1706), one of the Duke of Marlborough’s most famous victories. Thirty-two years later, he asked the city for his pension, saying that by reason of this wound “and other infirmities, he is rendered incapable of getting a livelihood and reduced to great necessity” (NRO: NCR Case 12e/2/32). Since he had evidently coped with a war wound for such a long time, in this case it was presumably the “other infirmities” that were the principal cause of his hardship. The normal pattern seems to be one of wounded ex-soldiers making a living for as long as possible after leaving military service, before claiming a pension once old and infirm. Nicholas Helwis, for example, entered a petition in 1684 saying that he was “in the three last ingagements at Sea against the Dutch” – presumably in the Third Anglo-Dutch War which ended ten years previously – and “received severall wounds in severall parts of his body whereby he is disabled to labour to gitt his living being very poore and old” (NRO: NCR Case 12e/3b/1). Another Norwich veteran of the Dutch Wars, Matthew Sherwood, a “mariner”, may be an exception. Sherwood lost his right arm in battle on board the ketch HMS Elizabeth, “by which said Losse of his right Arme he is totally disabled to use any Employ for to get his living by – he having two small children” (NRO: NCR Case 12e/3b/84). This petition is unfortunately undated, but the age of his children, the extreme seriousness of a wound that had left him “totally” unable to work, and the fact that (unlike Helwis) he is not referred to as “old” all combine to suggest that he was appealing for his relief soon after his return from the war.

Petitions could include witnesses vouching for the petitioner’s honesty and character. Job Blyth enlisted in 1756 in the Chatham division of marines, in which he served 6 years and 6 months, “and being then Unfit for Service by uncurable Piles was then Discharged”. Having “frequent returns of the above Disorder and from great heats and colds Contracted during his service” he was “in a great measure disabled”. Illiterate, Blyth signed with an X (unlike most of the petitioners, who could sign their names). His petition includes a paper stating that “The Bearer Job Bly[th] is a native of this Parish [St Paul’s], and has, to the best of our knowledge, always behaved himself honestly, soberly and industriously.” It was signed by John Goodwin and Samuel Cooke, the churchwardens of St Paul’s, and two other witnesses (NRO: NCR Case 12e/3a/6).

The most storied military career in the collection is probably that of John Ames. In 1776, his petition reveals that during his seven years of service in the artillery train, he fought at the battles of Minden, “Haltzenhauzen” (it is not clear what this refers to), Warburg, Corburg, and Williamstahl, at which he was ordered “with two long six pounders to stop a pass of the Enemy, at which place our Company took a Standard of Colours”. He was also at the sieges of Munster, Wesel, “and several others too tedious to mention”. In the year 1759, by reason of a severe frost, he lost the use of his legs for four months, “and by many hardships endured while in the service is frequently rendred incapable to provide… for himself and Family”. Four supporters recommended his petition to the court (NRO: NCR Case 12e/2/36).

This blog post has only begun to reveal the many stories of life in early modern Norwich which the petitions in the city archives contain. Many others are waiting to be found by anyone who wishes to explore this rich source of information further.

Compiled by Robert Smith, NRO Research Blogger.

This entry was posted in NRO Research Bloggers, Snapshots from the Archive. Bookmark the permalink.

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