Recently, I’ve been working through the warrants of the High Court of Admiralty (HCA), which are kept in HCA 38 at The National Archives. These are not the most exciting sources I have ever used; not on a daily basis, anyway, because they are short, formulaic, and quite repetitive to transcribe. Yesterday, however, I found rather a good one, so I’ll use it to introduce this kind of source.
Warrants were how you started a case – or ‘cause’ – in the HCA. A plaintiff, or plaintiffs (in the HCA, as a civil law court, you could sue as a group, and you could sue a group: in common law suits had to be one-on-one) would pay to have a warrant made out. In short, the warrant would list the people or goods to be arrested (again, in civil law, you could accuse or ‘attach’ not only people but goods, ships, and so on), the day on which they had to appear in court, and the plaintiffs’ names. Sometimes there might be extra details, such as the name of the proctor representing the plaintiff, or the ‘Action’, the amount of money at stake. Warrants, then, vary from extremely detailed to quite sparse. For most of the seventeenth century they were written in Latin, but in the 1650s the court changed briefly to English.
So here is my warrant from yesterday (from HCA 38/33, dated 28 November 1657):
Which reads: ‘The same day
Arr[est] a certaine Mastiff Dogg onboard the shipp the Planter [inserted: belonging to William Tubb] or onboard any other shipp whatsoev[er] or wheresoev[er] &c and the same &c And to cite all &c to appeare the third day after if &c to shewe cause why the s[ai]d Tubb should not be putt into the possession thereof/’
You can see, in all the ‘&c’s, the formula in which the warrant has been set out, but essentially William Tubb is claiming here that his ‘Mastiff Dogg’ is, for some reason, being kept from him on the ship Planter, and he wants it back. Anyone with an interest in this claim (‘to cite all &c’) is to appear in court on the third day after the warrant was served, by a marshal of the court, to whoever was withholding the dog.
There is an intriguing extra detail in the margin on the left – the word ‘paup[er]’ (the second ‘p’ is a special abbreviation). William Tubb was poor, so the court would waive the costs. There must be a good story behind this. Who is Tubb? How did his dog get onto the Planter? Who is stopping him from getting the dog back?
I sincerely hope that I find more on this story in the other papers of the court, but the odds are against it. As Professor George Steckley shows in this article, few of the warrants filed ever resulted in other court activity, and even fewer resulted in judgements. Serving a warrant was not really about getting someone to appear in court, but threatening them with court action so that, in this case, they would give you your dog back. A full court case was a last resort.
So did Tubb get his dog back? I will tell you if I ever find out. It just goes to show, though, that you never know what you mind find even in the most repetitive of sources. If you would like to know more about the HCA, check out the MarineLives project who are digitising the court papers from the 1650s, and currently looking for volunteers.
Incidentally, this has reminded me of another two animal-on-ship stories. Featuring monkeys. But they deserve posts of their own, really.