When processing a collection of old court papers, sometimes archivists have to use their imagination to interpret what was written. The words don’t always make sense in the context of the sentence and we must decide whether the mistake is in the handwriting or in our interpretation. Is it how the word is used (or misused) in the sentence? Or might it be my own personal misunderstanding of the word in the context of the times?
That was what happened to me when I was processing an 1823 Lynchburg chancery case. The injunction suit, Daniel B. Perrow vs. Smith Barnard, etc., was unremarkable. Perrow had rented a house from Smith and William Barnard on Cocke Street in Lynchburg, and by all accounts, the dwelling needed some repairs. Various affidavits indicated that during “wet weather” the house was nearly uninhabitable. The renter and landlord had come to some sort of an agreement about the repairs that were needed, who would pay for them, etc.; that is what the suit was about. The repairs were to be made to the “house and inclosure” in order to make the property “tenantable.” Because of the repairs, a credit or allowance would be given to the tenant.
In the course of reading the affidavits, however, it became apparent that the tenant, Perrow, was doing more than repairing the house. He was also working on the “inclosure.” The affidavits indicated that Perrow was removing the soil, down to the hard “clay-foundation” in the garden, yard, and alley. I figured that the complaint was made because without the soft soil the ground was unfit for planting. But why was Perrow taking up the soil? George K. Lambert, who acted as an agent for Smith and William Barnard, noted in his affidavit that he considered the damage done by Perrow while “digging the lot for the fives alley” and “building the Battery” was “fully equal to all the repairs” that Perrow had made to the property. In other words, the damage outweighed the repairs that Perrow had made. But what was “fives” and what was the “Battery”? During his deposition, one William Love was asked, “do you not think that the damage done to the lott by taking the Soil of was [sic] not equal or more than the improvement to the said House & Lott,” to which he answered, “I think it was an injury to the lott.” Another affidavit indicated that Perrow had built “a fives Batry [sic] on the lot,” and cleared “out an ally to play fives much to the injury of the lott.”
By this time, I knew it wasn’t them—it was me who was out of context. What was “fives”? A quick trip to the Google machine indicated that there was (and still is) an ancient English game known as Fives. According to Wikipedia, “The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1925) describes fives as a ball game played with hands or bat in court with two, three or four walls.” From illustrations found online, it appears to be a form of handball. The same entry includes an image of a “public notice of a Fives competition at Brecon in 1786” in England. So Perrow was a fives player in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1823. Although no decree can be found, as a result of his commitment to the game, he would probably not win his chancery injunction because of the injury to the lot.
–Eddie Woodward, Senior Local Records Consulting Archivist