Media Moment 1: Bristol’s Audits

This blog introduces a new series of posts related to Middling Culture research: Media Moments.  These posts will provide short “glimpses” into topics that relate to ordinary, everyday lives in early modern England under the scope of this project, from keywords to documentation to objects and images.  This post begins the series by considering early modern Bristol’s civic accounts, which are presented in the surviving yearly audits made by the Chamberlain (now held at Bristol Archives).

“Audit is about much more than just the numbers,” according to one of the world’s Big Four professional services firms; “it’s about attesting to accomplishments and challenges […].”  For professional financial auditors, “numbers tell a story.”

In that sense, auditors’ scrutiny of today’s businesses shares an affinity with historians’ interrogation of the past—its successes and its failures; the lessons to be learned and the stories that are sometimes obscured, eclipsed, or simply hidden from sight.  One central source for anyone approaching such “big theme” issues is to look at the finances behind both individuals and communities—and to consider the different stories they might tell.  Such work is unsurprisingly at the centre of a range of historiographic traditions, not least economic history.  The growth of early modern material culture studies over the past thirty years or so has also led to focus on sources such as personal account books, wills, and inventories.  Each of these sources is built from descriptions, quantities, and prices and they offer insight not only into the development of local and national economies but into issues as various as individual wealth, domestic interiors, personal networks, and the circulation of the paper on which such details are written—the life of the material text itself.  In Hugh Oldcastle’s words, from 1588, such sources are “used and compiled of many things.”[i]

It is with these several strands in mind that I approached the financial statements of early modern Bristol from the 1550s to 1620. 

Bristol Archives, F/AU/1/13, p. 254-55 (opening of audit from 1592). Reproduced with permission from Bristol Archives.

Each year, the city’s Mayor commissioned an audit of its accounts by its Chamberlain.  They begin with the yearly rents of property owned by the Corporation, which include a range of houses, tenements, and shops across the centre of the city.  They go on to detail the fees and dues paid by the Council for various obligations and debts and then list the individuals made “free” of the city (i.e. those given the licence to practice their trade there) either by apprenticeship of usually 7 years, or otherwise by marriage to a freeman’s widow or daughter, by having a prominent father, or by “redemption”—permission granted at a fee by the Council.  All of those made free here are men, but a number of those training apprentices are women.  Perhaps the richest vein in these yearly audits is the general payments: these include expenditure per week and range from substantial building work at the quayside or marsh or reparations on Council-owned buildings to money for horse hire and travel, gifts for visiting noblemen, or cleaning and gilding done on the swords and guns belonging to the Council and its members or officeholders.

These documents can help create and shape historical narrative and they offer some insight into “ordinary” business and the men and women involved—often otherwise obscured.  It is here where many of those in the middle sections of society—and those “below” (i.e. unnamed labourers, “a poore woman [paid] for keeping clean the house of office and the watering place at the Guildhall door” (F/AU/1/15, p. 216 [1604])—lie recorded in acts that range from the mundane (cleaning the sewers) to the sensational (piratical escape and capture).  In part, these sources provide a useful chance to understand more about what might define “ordinary” or “middling” identity: not only do a number of figures here receive regular, substantial income from their work (therefore providing economic indicators of status), they also occupy positions of distinction within the community—as officeholders, as people shaping the material life of the city, as key suppliers of materials (including stationery, furniture, or arms) for civic administration and display; or as senior employers in the building, painting, stationary, or leisure industries.  The remainder of this blog offers some glimpses into how entries in these audits can bring questions of middling culture, and the writing of history more broadly, to the surface.

Accounting for the Past: Bristol’s Audits, 1550-1620

A number of “ordinary” individuals are preserved in the record only thanks to their civic contract work as recorded here.  Some of these were clearly substantial business people in Bristol society, regularly contracted for major infrastructure works by the Council across decades—but a number of these cannot (as yet) be found in other record sources (including marriage, birth or death records), outside these audits.  

Others in the labouring class also play significant roles in Council business.  In 1578, the Council paid “William Savage a labourer for going on foot to the Court to Greenwich to deliver a letter sent from Mr Mayor to the body of the Council touching a letter which was received from my Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sydney touching the intent of Stewckley” (F/AU/1/11, p. 225)—a reference to the notorious English mercenary, Thomas Stukeley, killed later that year during The Battle of Alcazar in Morocco (who proved valuable fodder for stage plays across the following decades).  Savage’s postal duties show an interesting breadth of opportunities available to the “labourer” and indicate a civic “honour” or office that may have conferred status or distinction upon a non-elite worker.  Other such offices were occupied by the likes of prolific mason Thomas Barwell, a regular payee for a range of “subcontracted” work for the city, who was also one of Bristol’s “surveyors”: those responsible for assessing building work and the safety and integrity of existing or proposed structures.

In 1600, the Council paid one Widow Phippes “for painting the City’s Arms upon the new Conduit at the quay and for gold and other Colours” (F/AU/1/15, p. 84).  The entry testifies to the significant role that women played not only in the local economy but in inscribing civic identity into the city—here via her craft as a painter.  Presumably, Phippes must have been highly adept at her profession to gain this commission, and her family were also painters: in 1608, Morgan Phippes was made free thanks to his apprenticeship with one John Phippes in this trade; according to the Early Modern British Painters Database, (another) John Phippes (d. 1583, and perhaps Widow Phippes’s late husband) was also commissioned for work on Bristol’s gates.  This tiny glimpse into the Phippes’ suggests a small family dynasty of creatives, working in a period in England when “painting” was largely considered practical manual labour, but during which its status as a noble artistic pursuit was slowly gaining traction.

The bittiness of historical accounting documents means that, by their nature, they offer partial records of acts and exchanges and not discrete or rounded wholes.  As I have explored elsewhere with regard to theatre history, this scrappiness can be embraced as an inherent part of early modern bureaucracy and honoured in our analysis of the past.  Entries such as 

Item paid for a book of large paper of 4 quires for the Tolsey covered with calfskin vellum, bought it of John Pacie and delivered to Mr Pacie — 4 shillings (F/AU/1/11, [1579])

or

Item paid for taking down the stained cloths at the Tolsey — 4 pence (F/AU/1/18, p. 172 [1617])

represent the fullness of a particular type of record. The challenge, especially for a project such as ours, is how to preserve that spirit of story-less “scrap” while building around it a broader picture of social networks, material objects (in particular extant ones), and other markers of social and cultural status.  Part of the aim of this project is to gain a more holistic sense of the lives of “middling” individuals by looking at the fullness of their lived experience, in order to do as much justice as possible to those lives for whom we do have various “scrappy” surviving records but who are not always popularly at the centre of the stories we tell about the Tudor or Stuart period.

Ancient House painted cloth, from Ipswich (c. pre-1578); photo Tara Hamling. This photo shows one of the few surviving painted cloths from the period.

Among the more surprising features of these accounts are the instances where the Chamberlain bursts into fine storytelling form.  Take this series of “pirate” entries from 1577:

Item paid for the charges of a man sent to London at the appointment of Mr Mayor and of the Aldermen to obtain a special Commission for to arraign the Pirates, wherein a gentleman of the new Inn of Chancery took pains therein, wherein also William winter gave his good will, but my Lord Admiral would not agree to it, the charges of the said journey cost: 16 shillings…

[…] Item paid to Henry Robertes for a charge of Pursuing the pirates by the Flyboat whereby the said Pirates were forced to the shore, near Steart in the County of Somerset, whereby 4 of them were apprehended, whereof three were executed and one was saved by his book, and were arraigned by the Commission of Oyer and determiner for that the fact is felony by statute law, the which charges were examined by Mr Mayor and the Aldermen and amount to 12£

[…] Item paid to John Baton carpenter for 2 days’ work to frame timber for a pair of Gallows to be set up in Canning marsh, for the executing of 3 Pirates, which were condemned, who were of that company that stole a bark of Dongarvan out of the 6 rock and Pill of 30 Ton and went away with her, which being pursued by my Lord of Leicester’s flyboat, furnished with 60 persons well-armed, was forced to come a land near Steart, where the pirates fled, at 12 pence per day… (F/AU/1/11, pp. 164-65)

Not only do these entries preserve details about the pirates’ theft of a boat and their sensational capture by the Lord of Leicester’s man, who gave chase and ran them aground in Somerset, but they also record the mundane, the banal.  In the stories of these anonymous pirates, the quotidian and the sensational come together, and the picture of John Baton engaged in 2 days’ work constructing a gallows that will kill 3 men provides a sobering reminder that all of these payments—some more significantly (and irreversibly) than others—have material consequences for the men and women involved. 

Bristol Archives, F/AU/1/11, p. 165.

Coda

The payments in these audits witness Bristolians carrying out major acts of cultural construction.  They build inexpensive gallows to execute pirates but they also rebuild and repair leisure infrastructure or “new build” the legal and administrative hubs of the city in the Tolzey and the Guildhall.  They paint the City arms on its new water fountains. Each of these acts—and a surprising number of their actors—would have been entirely lost to posterity but for the survival of these meticulous audits.  As such, they testify to both the possibilities and limits of historical narrative; they present self-contained scraps of banal, brilliant, or tantalising detail, snapshots of action and activity across early modern Bristol.

On the broadest level, then, “auditing” the historical city by taking into account the fullest scope of records such as these is a fruitful and important way of recovering what we might mean by the loaded term “ordinariness” in the archives, identifying and exploring the lives of people whose names would be otherwise forgotten yet whose labours are inscribed into the fabric of the city.

Callan Davies


Notes

[i]Oldcastle, John. A briefe instruction and maner how to keepe bookes of accompts after the order of debitor and creditor…. London, 1588. Web. Early English Books Online. 5 Sep. 2019. B4v.

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