Humphrey Beckham, Craft, and Literacy among the Middling Sort

Section of Humphrey Beckham’s Panel

A common misconception when thinking about those below the level of the elite is that the majority were completely illiterate, with no reading or writing ability whatsoever. Many of those at the centre of Middling Culture were indeed literate, though the extent and nature of their literacy varied. It’s a complex issue, as people learnt to read before writing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so just because someone leaves no trace of writing (e.g. a signature) does not mean that they could not read. Equally, “illiteracy” would not preclude a person from reciting a well-known story, recognising an image including Biblical figures, or understanding a street sign or coat of arms (Tara Hamling is going to address visual literacy in a future post). Literacy mattered to people: for instance, an abused apprentice in Bristol was ordered in 1621 to be sent to school ‘for the space of five yeeres together to learne to write & read Englishe’–demonstrating that not giving a middling child apprenticed to a trade a chance at schooling could be considered a form of mistreatment.[1]

 It is, however, very difficult to know exactly how many people had some form of literacy, with David Cressy’s signature-counting study being the most extensive exploration of ability to write in early modern England.  Cressy found a clear upward trajectory in terms of the number of people able to sign their name in witness statements.[2] It is very hard to understand the scale of literacy during the period and to properly assess where people fell on it: someone who could read the Lord’s Prayer and recognise the letters of an alphabet would have a very different kind of literacy to someone who could draw up a simple account, note, or basic will, and they, in turn, possess a different kind of literacy to someone like Shakespeare. Yet all of these people might be of a similar social status. Access to some means of learning to read and write from a parent, school, acquaintance, or at church, would be essential to a person’s literacy, and during the late sixteenth century new free schools and grammar schools were set up to facilitate a growing drive for reading and writing. Many of the boys which came through these schools would go on to occupy trades, hold positions of office, and maybe even become clerks or other kinds of administrators for corporations or parish churches and then create the records we use for our research.[3]

When we think of Shakespeare, therefore, his literacy has to be seen in the context of his family – his father, John, who rose through the ranks of the Stratford Corporation and became wealthy, but who left no trace of an ability to write, and his mother, who was from a wealthy farming family.[4] John Shakespeare clearly reaped the benefits of legal knowledge thanks to his positions of office, and the family had the wealth to allow William the time to go to school and learn to read and write to a high level. In fact, for many tradespeople an ability to read and write was beneficial to their business, from accounting to buying books that inspired aesthetic choices in performances of craft. As such, it is unsurprising that many people of Shakespeare’s status display a range of literate practices in their work or in the documents they leave behind. An example from one of our case study areas, Bristol, is the inventory of William Gethen, composed on the 7th June 1597. He self-authors an inventory of his belongings kept in two chests within the widow’s house he is lodging in, declaring that it is ‘p[er] me William Gethen his in[c]ke’ before leaving Bristol to go on an adventure with one Thomas Vaure.  Although he does not state his occupation, he is probably a middling merchant, and many of his belongings are items he has gathered from various places, including a Flemish chest full of ‘writings’. In writing his own inventory in preparation for sailing, Gethen demonstrates the means to which an individual might put their literacy.[5] Contemporary culture, particularly in looking to the past, often engenders a Two Cultures mind set between those engaged in reading and writing and those who occupying practical pursuits. In reality, these divisions do not play out in practice, and they can prevent our appreciation of the ways skill, knowledge, craft, and literacy interact across many fields.

The Beckhams of Salisbury

Chair Attributed to Humphrey Beckham’s Workshop 1610-1620, Bonhams

 To give an example of a family who display various kinds of literacy and who are of middling status, making their money through the craft of joinery-work, let’s take a trip to seventeenth-century Salisbury to meet the Beckhams.

John and Humphrey are the two eldest brothers in the Beckham family and those who appear most frequently in the records. They grew up on the east side of Catherine Street in the parish of St. Thomas in a large house complete with warehouses with their joiner father Raynold, mother Mary, five brothers and three sisters (ten children in all). In the decades and centuries after his death, Humphrey became quite a famous joiner, with chairs attributed to his workshop by their carved crests. Accounts of his life, however, often describe him as illiterate:

Beckham’s learning reached no further than being able to read the Testament or Psalms, so that want of money added to other circumstances precluded him from all improvement [instead he spent his youth] gazing at the Statue of Henry III in a niche over the Arch of the close gate. ‘Tis very extraordinary what an impression this statue made on Beckham’s mind, he contemplated it from his infancy, and formed his works to that model as nearly as possible.[6]

This 1777 antiquarian account gives the sense that Beckham had no time for reading and writing because he was needed to aid his family’s financial situation and, anyway, he was too busy becoming an extraordinary joiner. But it is worth pausing to ask just how illiterate was Humphrey? After all, he is most famous for a spectacular carved panel in St Thomas’ church which displays Old Testament narratives in great detail.

 The written record of the family clearly contests the antiquarian sources about the Beckhams’ literacy level and, as a family, they really were not very poor (though also not very rich), with Humphrey’s inventoried wealth equalling almost £190 at the time of his death (at the good age of 83). There was also a free school right round the corner from the Beckham household situated in The George Inn. It operated from 1590-1624, perfectly timed for Humphrey and his brothers’ schooling.[7] Furthermore, Humphrey and his youngest brother Benjamin were literate enough to appraise John’s inventory in 1645, and Humphrey also witnessed the will of John Young, another Salisbury joiner, in 1618, and on both documents he was able to fully sign his name.[8] Humphrey’s inventory also mentions that he owned ‘books’ to the value of 5s, a desk, and a coffer: a clear indication that he read and also conducted some writing at home.[9]

Humphrey’s writing practices might also be hinted at in a note made in St Thomas’ Church vestry minutes, which record how, on 14th January 1660:

At their meeting of the vestry Humphrey

Beckham brought in a note for worke

about remoueing the pulputt & some seats

& for cou[er]ing the new font w[i]thin

the whole couer to 4li 15s 5d

& its appoynted that some corse be

taken for paym[en]t w[i]th as much speed

as maii be.[10]

Although it is not clear here whether Humphrey is the author of this note, from his clear signatures and presence of a desk in his home, it seems he would have likely been capable of writing it. As such, Humphrey’s literacy allows him to use writing for practical means – in this case to create a memoranda so that the church vestry pay him for work completed.

John Beckham’s Will

John Beckham’s will  of 1645 offers a powerful case study to conclude this exploration of seventeenth-century Salisbury’s middling artisans and literacy. John was the eldest Beckham brother, and his original will is signed by his brothers William and Benjamin as well as himself. It is idiosyncratically written, with minimal preamble (‘I John Beckham dooe make my laste will and testament I bequeath my soule in to the handes of the allmightie ^god my maker^ and my body to the earth’) followed by a list of bequests, complete with lots of crossings out and additions. [11]  The ink is unevenly distributed across the page and content gets closer together the less space there is to write, suggesting someone not all that practised at writing a will. Although the scribe might not have been John, Benjamin or William, from their signatures it seems they all would have had the literacy to write this kind of will. The inventory, taken by Humphrey and Benjamin, is in the same hand as the will, perhaps narrowing the scribe down to Benjamin, who appears on both documents, but it does not necessarily mean that Humphrey could not have written it too. If one of the Beckham brothers did write this will, however, it gives us an insight into the uses literacy could be put to at a middling level – to create legal records and a written legacy of the goods and chattels of an individual.

The Beckhams’ Cultural Awareness

            Beyond Humphrey Beckham’s panel, which demonstrates acute awareness of Biblical narratives and printed iconography, Benjamin, the youngest brother, also seems to show an interest in a wider textual world. Benjamin bequeaths to his tenant, one William Spencer: ‘one picture of Mary Magdalen one picture of King James one picture of King Charles and one booke which he shall make choise’.[12] These bequests give an insight into the historical interests of Benjamin, with his portraits of past Kings and devotional imagery in the form of an image of Mary Magdalen within his house. Perhaps these interests were shared by his family, to whom he remained close to throughout his life, as illustrated by the brothers’ bequests to one another, witnessing of legal documents and provision of sureties for each others’ debts.

            When assessing what it means to be “literate” among early modern England’s middling sort, it is easy to be swayed by arguments about artisans not learning to read and write, being so dedicated to their craft. But, from the example of the Beckhams, and indeed Shakespeare, it is clear that this was not always the case. With the number of schools rising in urban areas, it boys in towns would have likely been able to access education if their parents could spare children from the family’s means of financial production. Equally, not being literate, in the sense of being unable to read and write, did not mean that people would not have been deeply engaged in pervasive networks of literacy, able to recite stories, recognise images from popular texts, or sing ballads or rhymes.

Hannah Lilley


[1] Bristol Archives, JQS/M/2, 19v.

[2] David Cressy, ‘Levels of Illiteracy in England, 1530-1730’, The Historical Journal, 20:1 (1977) and Literacy and the Social Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

[3] A particularly well-documented school is Shakespeare’s school in Stratford-Upon-Avon. See: Ian Green, “More Polite Learning”: Humanism and the New Grammar School’, in The Guild and Guild Buildings of Shakespeare’s Stratford (Ashgate, 2012), pp.73-97.

[4]David Fallow, ‘His Father John Shakespeare’, The Shakespeare Circle (Cambridge: CUP, 2015), p.37.

[5] Bristol Records Office, EP J/4/18, Bundle 1542-1601, William Gethen.

[6] Edward Ledwich and Walter Pope, Sarisburienses: Or, The History and Antiquaries of Old and New Sarum (1777), p.211.

[7] <https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol6/pp81-83>

[8]Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, P4/1618/16.

[9] Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, P4/1671/14.

[10] Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, 1900/174., fol.71r.

[11]Wiltshire and Swindon Records Office, P1/B/320

[12] Wiltshire and Swindon Records Office, P4/1683/16.

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