How to Get Ahead in Early Modern London’s Maritime World

London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 83v. 3 April 1632.

Early modern London was a port city, which sat at the centre of England’s international networks of colonial and commercial venture. However, London’s maritime operations were underpinned by working communities that were situated just beyond the city’s walls, in the vast parish of Stepney to the east. Home to the riverside hamlets of Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliff, Limehouse, and Poplar, and host to branches of powerful institutions such as the Navy, the East India Company, and Trinity House, Stepney provided London with the materials and workers necessary for the capital’s overseas activities. The economic growth of both London and the maritime sector in the late sixteenth century prompted a huge number of workers to migrate to maritime Stepney, some of whom settled permanently but many of whom were seasonal workers or mariners sent immediately to sea. 

This post will offer a look at some of the individuals, chiefly of the middling sort, that lived, worked, and fought for their positions within the mobile communities of Stepney’s riverside hamlets. In a maritime parish permeated by competition at all levels, it was necessary for individuals to take advantage of every opportunity to establish their social and professional positions. For the early modern middling sort, holding administrative office was a valuable way in which one could achieve social advancement. The following exploration of Stepney’s vestry minutes book will uncover some of the ways in which middling individuals worked to write themselves into their local community and, through administrative culture, equipped themselves with the edge needed to get ahead in maritime London.

The vestry minutes book (1579-1662) of St Dunstan’s, Stepney, contains a textual record of the meetings and administrative activities of the parish’s chief civic and ecclesiastical governing body, the vestry. Chronologically ordered, and loosely structured around the annual election of parish officers, the vestry minutes provide a frequently updated index of the parish’s local elites, or ‘chiefest inhabitants’, as well as a record of the region’s shifting social, economic, and topographical landscapes.[1] However, Stepney’s vestry minutes book was not just a static record of past events; it functioned as a tool that, like the navigational instruments crafted in the maritime parish’s workshops, could be used to locate and project one’s current and future positions. As an object of communal memory and consensus that parish elites repeatedly returned to, and subsequently disseminated the contents of, the vestry minutes book provided a textual surface onto which the parish’s middling sort could write their identity and assert their position within their local community. By providing access to this important piece of administrative culture, the vestry served as a privileged platform on which Stepney’s land-based middling sort could attempt to negotiate and settle identities of place, self, and other within the parish’s turbulent and mobile maritime hamlets. 

The Vestry 

Although the appearance of vestries as the central unit of local government did not occur in many rural areas until after 1660, Stepney’s minutes indicate that the vestry was central to local governance and administration by as early as 1579.[2] Initially made up of thirty-two men – eight representing each of the parish’s four hamlets of Ratcliff, Limehouse, Poplar, and Mile End – Stepney’s vestry was populated by necessarily local individuals, who were largely drawn from the middling to upper-middling sort. Rather than being ruled directly by manorial authority or by the elite commercial or naval officers that worked within the parish, Stepney’s vestry was largely composed of individuals whose social and economic positions were won through the professional status that they held within the parish’s maritime industries. That they described themselves as the ‘chiefest inhabitants and p[ar]ishoners’ is significant – these were men that lived and worked within the realms of Stepney parish, and the parish bounds were often the limits of their influence.[3]

Stepney’s maritime social signature was clearly reflected in its vestry. From 1589 onwards, Stepney elected to operate a ‘select vestry’, meaning that only those chosen by the previous vestrymen were able to serve, ensuring the group remained a self-selecting maritime ‘in-crowd’. Amongst the names in the vestry minutes are individuals whose colonial and military involvement gained them wide renown, such as William Borough and John Vassall, and also those whose professional achievements earned them fame beyond the parish, such as John and William Burrell, a father and son that were, between them, Master of Trinity House and Master Shipbuilder for the East India Company.[4] However, most vestrymen were successful middling professionals whose occupations included ballasters, ropemakers, shipwrights, anchorsmiths, chandlers, and victuallers. 

The Vestry Minutes Book 

This example of a minutes book was a new form of textual culture that developed alongside the establishment of England’s vestries and the growing civic consciousness and cultural identities of the middling sort. Drawing on established models of administrative and textual culture, such as chronicles and court records, vestry minutes often rhetorically positioned the vestry to speak on behalf of the entire parish and depict the group’s decisions through a united authoritative voice.

Wee the Cheefe Parishoners beinge now assembled together […] have by mutuall assent and consent, ordayned and agreed, that there shalbe chosen of the fowre Hamletts viz. Ratcliff Lymehowse, Popler and Milend, Eight specyall p[er]sons w[hi]ch […] assemble together in the Vestrie and there to consult, and agree, howe to reforme, and order any matter, or thing […] and the same enter or cause to be entered in this Churchbooke for a Testimony of their agreement.

We the Parishoners p[re]sently assembled both for ourselves, and in the name of all the rest of the Parishoners doe bynde our selves, and them by mutual assents, To howled, observe and mayntayne.

London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 19r-19v. 17 August 1589.

The language of unity and consensus used throughout these minutes was especially important for the Stepney vestry’s depiction of itself as a cohesive governing unit, as the group of thirty-two was larger than most early modern vestries, which nearly always consisted of twelve or twenty-four members.[5] In 1599, the vestry elected to increase its number even further to forty. Reflecting the vestry’s large membership, Stepney’s minutes book contains a vast diversity of “hands” (handwriting styles representing an individual) both anonymous and identifiable, giving the book the appearance of an incredible work of joint authorship – an example of this multitude of hands can be seen in the list of signatures included later in this post. Furthermore, a wealth of scribal evidence throughout the book demonstrates that generations of future vestrymen repeatedly returned to the vestry minutes and election records. 

The above table records the names of the vestrymen elected for Ratcliff and Limehouse in 1594; ‘dead’ and ‘gone’ are marked against the names of those no longer on the vestry and the names of future vestrymen are inserted into empty spaces. Whilst the inscriptions of ‘dead’ and ‘gone’ evidence that the minutes have been returned to by a parish clerk or a member of the vestry, it is not entirely clear when any of these notes were made. Joseph Pett’s name is inserted towards the bottom of the list for Limehouse alongside the label ‘dead’ – whilst Pett did become a vestryman in 1599, the next vestry election after the creation of this table, he did not die until 1605. 

Paper Performances and Placemaking

Whilst the surface performance of unity and continuity was important for the vestry’s image as an authoritative collective, the minutes book’s pages also served as a site of social competition amongst the vestry, particularly amongst those of the middling sort that were looking to consolidate and improve upon their hard-won positions.

Stepney’s vestry minutes book was a stage on which displays of skill and literacy were performed. The vestry minutes were produced and consulted in meetings that involved influential maritime figures, meaning that individuals who had earned a place on the vestry, but who were still seeking social and professional advancement, could exhibit their skilled identity in front of – and in competition with – the other local elites. 

London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327

Robert Salmon, who served variably as vestryman, auditor, and churchwarden for Stepney parish between 1623 and 1641, was a prominent merchant, a leading director of the East India Company, a sometime Master of Trinity House, and the suggested eponym for Stepney’s Salmon Lane.[6] A conservative estimate, based on the number of signatures made in the vestry minutes book, puts the document in Salmon’s hands and gaze at least fifty times during his tenures. Catching Salmon’s attention through the vestry meetings and minutes could have proved a profitable endeavour.  

From ‘A Map of London and the adjacent Country’, John Rocque, 1746

Whilst it was Salmon’s reputation that placed his name onto the map and into public use, the vestry meetings – and the minutes book itself – also played a part in shaping place and space in early modern Stepney.

As the East India Company’s presence in Stepney rapidly increased, particularly after the building of Blackwall Yard began in 1614, the hamlet of Poplar’s importance began to be challenged by nearby Blackwall. Within the vestry minutes, the ‘hamlet of Popler’ increasingly becomes the ‘hamlet of Popler & Blackwall’, reflecting Blackwall’s rising significance. 

London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 108v. 16 April 1650

However, Stepney’s vestry minutes book not only records the ways in which conceptions of local place changed, but evidences active attempts made by vestrymen to shape the places of the parish. Just as the area of Blackwall had been thought of as a subdivision of Poplar, before being elevated to the same status as the hamlet itself, the district of Shadwell began as a part of the larger hamlet of Ratcliff. In 1641, the vestry formally decreed that owing to the difficulty of managing Ratcliff’s growing population, they would divide the hamlet into two distinctly bounded administrative regions. 

Whereas the Hamlet of Ratcliffe is of late so largely encreased by the multitude of buildings & number of Inhabitants […] It is therefore at this vestry ordered & decreed, so farre as in vs lieth, that in the Hamlet of Ratcliffe shalbe chosen two Churchwardens […] 

the Churchwarden of Ratcliffe to have for his division, Stepney, Whitehorse street, Brookestreet, Ratcliffe wall, Ratcliffe street unto the old balist wharfe, And the Churchwarden for Wapping side to have for his division, upper Shadwell, lower Shadwell, Ratcliffe highway, Foxes lane, wapping wall, Prusons Iland, Kingstreet Wapping, Knockfergus, Newgravel-lane & Old gravel-lane.

London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 99r. 19 May 1641.

Yet, whilst Ratcliff’s division from Shadwell is explained as an administrative necessity, the vestry’s decree also functioned as a placemaking activity that was closely bound to the control of civic identities. The vestry’s division of Ratcliff into the ‘Stepney’ and ‘Wapping’ sides clearly distinguished the wealthy eastern side of Ratcliff from the much poorer Shadwell to the west. Although both sides had churchwardens to regulate their districts, it was only the eastern ‘Stepney’ side that retained the name of Ratcliff and only this side that was represented on the vestry. Furthermore, whilst the decree’s first item clearly asserted that the two churchwardens ‘shalbe reputed & taken but as one’, within four years Ratcliff’s churchwarden is openly referred to as the ‘upper churchwarden’ over Shadwell’s ‘under’, consolidating Ratcliff’s superiority.[7] That the large majority of vestrymen lived and worked in Ratcliff, rather than Shadwell, is no coincidence.

By formalising the social and economic division between Ratcliff and Shadwell through the creation of parochial offices, and through further repeated appraisals within the vestry minutes of an ‘upper’ Ratcliff and ‘under’ Shadwell, Stepney’s vestry consciously shaped concepts of place within the parish.[8] By 1670, Shadwell had become its own distinct parish, functioning as no part of Stepney at all.

‘Shadwell Churchwarden’. London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 99r. 19 May 1641.

Being elected to the vestry was a testimony to one’s reputation and position within a local community. It allowed middling individuals, who were still working daily to keep their social and economic positions, to assert their place amongst a ‘better sort’ and attempt to fix this achieved position through acts of parochial legislation and record-keeping. Stepney’s vestry minutes book functioned as a tool that allowed its users to demonstrate their skills and project their own envisaged identities, whilst also shaping places and managing the ‘divers others’ that were not a part of the vestry’s ‘unified’ local elite. 

By Michael Powell-Davies
(PhD Candidate, University of Kent, School of English and Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies)


[1] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 30r. 26 May 1597.

[2] Steve Hindle, The State and Social Change in Early Modern England, 1550-1640 (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 206-7.

[3] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 30r. 26 May 1597.

[4] For biographies of these individuals, and many others mentioned in the vestry minutes book, see Memorials of Stepney Parish, ed. by G. W. Hill and W. H. Frere (Guildford: Billing & Sons, 1891).

[5] J. F. Merritt, ‘Religion and the English Parish’, in The Oxford History of Anglicanism, Volume I, ed. by Anthony Milton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 122-147 (pp. 135-6).

[6] Sydney Maddocks, ‘Ratcliff’, Copartnership Herald, 3.26 (1933), no pages. Hector Bolitho disputes this claim, suggesting that the lane is named after an earlier Captain Robert Salmon (fl. 1588) in Without the City Wall (London: John Murray, 1952).  

[7] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 99r. 19 May 1641.

[8] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 103v. 6 May 1645. Subsequent references to the ‘West’ and ‘East part of the Hamlett of Ratcliffe’ evidences that ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ are appraisals of position rather than topographical references. 

Strangeness, Jacobean Drama, and Chester

BOOK LAUNCH DETAILS: Zoom, 6 October 2020, 6pm. Contact MEMS details in poster below or c.j.davies@kent.ac.uk for a Zoom link:

On 23 April 1610, the city of Chester in the north-west of England inaugurated its new St George’s Day horse races on the surrounding fields known as the Roodee—a tradition that endures today.  To celebrate the occasion, a raft of pageants and activities unfolded all over the city and its environs.  The festivities were recounted in a pamphlet of that year dedicating the races to James I’s eldest son, Prince Henry, which relates how the opening “act” (so to speak) saw “A Man by strange devices climbing to the top of a very high spire steeple”—the St Peter’s Church—and flying the flag of St George, shooting a gun, and “casting Fire-workes very delightful,” all while doing a handstand (Chesters triumph in honor of her prince, 1610; A3r).  This bizarre, elaborate, and visually spectacular performance seems to me an ideal emblem of “strange” performance.

“Strange devices” is a particularly choice phrase, especially in 1610.  Both words have a multiplicity of meanings in early modern English.  I was first drawn to the phrase when researching plays and their contexts in Jacobean England, and it sits at the heart of my book, Strangeness in Jacobean Drama, published today. There will be a launch event and roundtable on strangeness in early modern performance hosted by the University of Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (part of their digital seminar series for this term) on the 8 October at 6pm.  The book’s interest in “strange devices” broadly speaking spans the different meanings of “device”: across verbal constructions (ie how something is written or said) and material technology (a “device” in the sense of, say, a winch or perpetual motion machine).  

My prompt to explore “strangeness” itself as a dramatic concept came when I noticed how many plays in the years around 1610 employed the term or its derivations to describe their technological and rhetorical “devices,” as well as their narrative and generic peculiarities.  Despite its remarkable prevalence in characters’ speech, only two plays use the term in stage directions referring to visual action, both dating from the early 1610s—Shakespeare’s The Tempest (c.1610/11) and Heywood’s The Brazen Age (c.1613): “Medea with strange fiery-workes, hangs aboue in the Aire in the strange habite of a Coinuresse” (Brazen, G2v).

In turn, as the Chester festivities capture, I became especially taken with the term’s ambiguity and mystery. How on earth did the man in Chester climb to the top of the steeple?  A reader is left only to imagine what such a performance looked like.  Recovering the early modern connotations of the word “strange” seemed to me to be an important step in understanding how performance worked, as well as how it was articulated by playwrights, eyewitnesses, or commentators. 

A number of the thoughts underpinning the book have helped me approach the lived experience of Chester for middling individuals on this present project.  For starters, the term strange often speaks to questions of legal and/or geographical belonging, and the port city of Chester occupied a site of particular cross-cultural interaction and multi-lingualism: numerous residents spoke both Welsh and English; Chester was a mid-level trading port dealing with intra-coastal and overseas merchants; and the city sat in this period as England’s main “gateway” to Ireland and was therefore at the heart of the English state’s ongoing project of violent colonisation.  Simultaneously, the city (like many others across England) periodically expressed deep concern about “strangers”—which includes anyone born outside of Chester itself or not “free” to trade in the city, as well as those hailing from outside the nation.  The complex national and racial dimensions that underpin the label “stranger” are laid out in the ERC Tide project’s invaluable Keywords (see “Stranger”), and its enduring significance in this regard (as taken from a phrase in Othello) provides the exposition for Ayanna Thompson’s magnificent engagement with Shakespeare and race in contemporary American performance, Passing Strange

Early modern Chester is also marked by strangeness in other conceptual ways.  Like liberties in London such as the Blackfriars (which also happened to be characterised by a high population of immigrant craftspeople and was therefore especially strange), it sat at the time partly “estranged” from England: it had a complex jurisdictional arrangement as a “Palatinate,” which had for some time given it some autonomy apart from the Crown but whose separate authority was eroded and blurred by Elizabethan legal reforms.  Nonetheless, as Catherine A. M. Clarke has shown, the area’s broader cultural imaginary, formed through historical associations with the long-past kingdom of Mercia, cultivated a distinct “local” identity “which is contiguous—but not synonymous—with ‘England’ and ‘Englishness’” (202).

Such local distinctiveness is clearly visible through the vibrant records of performance in the city and the different “strange devices” at the heart of its musical, dramatic, and tumbling culture.  Indeed, the Stanley family who were Chester’s chief aristocratic champions included one Ferdinando Stanley, AKA Lord Strange (b.1559, d. 1594).  Strange not only gave his name to the London-based performing troupe of the period (whose plays, Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth MacLean have shown, have strong regional markers linking them to the area), but the Derby/Strange family were also one of the only named early modern aristocratic patrons of a tumbling troupe (Revels Accounts, TNA AO 3/907; 1582)—a pastime especially popular in the north-west city.  

The term strange occupies a powerful position in the early modern English vocabulary, and it is one tool through which early modern English speakers and writers attempted to understand and articulate the human experience.  It therefore provides a fascinating example of one way in which a culture processes major change in a period of newness, doubt, and aesthetic and linguistic development.  This is just as true of the more “provincial” area of Chester as it is of London or the royal court.  

For early modern England, “strangeness” is at the root of legal questions of immigration and nationhood, it provides the means to make sense of challenging natural phenomena, and it is a site of debate about human communication and how individuals process and articulate their experience of the physical and social world. In the early years of James’s reign, the word begins to take on even more concentrated associations as it fell into the cultural spotlight: how is language related to thought and can words be trusted? What do mechanical inventions signify and to what ends can they be used? How should forbidden or queer desire be expressed?  How can we relate powerful sensory experiences? 

Strangeness in Jacobean Drama aims to plant some of the seeds for exploring these questions and identifying the widespread cultural and dramatic significance of “strangeness.”  In some oblique way, I also wonder if it might tell us something about the experience of living through times of extreme uncertainty and scepticism (something achingly familiar to us in 2020).  For, as I suggest in the book, the early modern concept of strangeness doesn’t simply serve to reflect or accept profound doubt but reacts to it—it represents an “attempt to resist total uncertainty and confusion by constructing open-ended and productively ambiguous aesthetic and linguistic responses.”

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.

Mudlarking on the Thames, Part 2: What can we do with Fragments and Waste?

Image One: The group standing on shards under the Shard.

In Rubbish Theory, Michael Thompson argues that there are three kinds of value categories: ‘transient’ or ‘here today, gone tomorrow’; ‘durable’ or ‘a joy forever’; and rubbish. Things can move between categories, with a bottle thrown away at its time of use becoming a collectable or a ring that slipped from the finger five hundred years ago ending up on the Portable Antiquities Scheme and revalued.[1] Mudlarking, when the term was first in use, was used to describe those who scavenged for valuable goods in rivers and sewers, sifting through rubbish for a lump of coal or dropped coin.[2] Since our trip with the Thames Discovery Programme, I’ve been thinking a lot about fragments and waste – what do we do with them? What do they tell us about middling culture?

Image Two: Items lost and found.

Mudlarking finds that make the news are those, we realised, that are both hard to find for the untrained eye and rare compared to the vast quantities of glass, pottery shards, single-use plastic and bones that litter the foreshore.[3] What we found was an abundance of fragments. Little pieces of clay pipe, bottle necks, terracotta pipe pieces and cow teeth. The waste of London: building debris and stuff that had washed down to the river from layers of construction work. These pieces were very had to judge: how old were they? What object did they form part of? Where are they from? All of these questions we largely saved until the end, going by our individual eye for colour and shape, with most of us ending up with a homogeneous selection of fragments we judged to be old or pretty.

These fragments are, in many ways, a useful way of thinking about evidence in archives as well as in archaeology, museums and collections, and the way in which it is coming together in this project to narrate hidden histories. Often, we might only have a small quantity of information about a person or object: a record of a parish clerk and his activities in the churchwardens’ accounts, but no will, inventory, baptism or marriage record; houses destroyed in war, renovation or fire; objects without a clear idea of where they come from. It’s the threading of a multitude of material and textual fragments together, which build a sense of cultural lives. So this trip taught us to look more closely at the broken things, those pieces of objects that might have formed part of a middling person’s tableware, like the olive-green glazed borderware pieces we found in abundance.

These small pottery fragments, when found in such plenty, also point to a hidden archive of things that were not necessarily treasured for long, and which had a lifetime dictated by their fragility or style. These ceramic and glass fragments reveal an archive of broken things that are not often recorded and are part of the everyday, non-expensive but also indispensable, objects that appear in-use in recipes or literature. The items we uncovered are those we most frequently overlook. Some things, as Michael Thompson argues, are ‘transient’; they are bought for a particular purpose, then disposed of, break or decay. Yet, when we pick up these pieces of pottery, we start to revalue them as important to understanding past activities.

 Another aspect of material culture the Thames foreshore confronted us with was dispossessed objects. What do you do with something that cannot be traced to a specific place, person or even an object? There were so many layers of broken things that had been washed up, and a great swathe were still being washed down river. Where did they come from? Did they come from a dump, from a commercial context like a potter or butcher, or from someone’s home? Does this change how we might read them as deposits? One of the beautiful things about mudlarking is that the river dictates the travel of fragments downstream, depositing by the weight of the materials, so doing its own sorting. As such, it was difficult to read the journeys of the things we picked up, with fragments of pipes seeming as alien as bits of delftware. In many ways, a lot of research is an exercise in re-homing the displaced: thinking about the original composition of a rebound manuscript in an archive, placing a letter alongside a portrait, or imagining a silver spoon in someone’s hand. The foreshore presents a challenge in judgment when thinking about provenance because there is just so much, and every piece could be read as a valuable fragment of evidence for craft practices, industry, tools and use, aesthetic taste, or leisure activities.

The river’s waste is fascinatingly revalued through mudlarking, and some items are lifted out of obscurity and carefully recorded. But another thing about these fragments is their geographical particularity. All of the rivers’ deposits have arrived into, been consumed or dumped within the Thames. Although this is a very large area, it struck me how mudlarking often seems to be a London-focused activity. It would be fascinating to know of people doing similar activities elsewhere in the UK, and to know how deposits in the Thames compare to other rivers. This experience has been an invaluable exercise in thinking about fragments and their implications, methodologically and practically, and also how they relate to middling lives, where individuals and objects might appear dispersed across documents, spaces and things.

Hannah Lilley


[1] Search the Portable Antiquities Scheme Database here for all sorts of things lost and found: <https://finds.org.uk/>, Bottle dumps: < https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-22336710>.

[2] ‘Mudlark’, OED. See also: Evans, F. (2017, 09). The river’s debris is my pleasure and my obsession. Apollo, 186, 29. Retrieved from: <https://search.proquest.com/docview/1935786815?accountid=8630&gt; and Sanderling, T. (2016, Oct 12). Just mudlarking about. Country Life,94-95. Retrieved from <https://search.proquest.com/docview/1828172610?accountid=8630&gt;.

[3] <https://www.theguardian.com/global/2019/jun/09/tales-of-the-thames-joining-the-new-mudlarkers> and <https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/mar/21/-sp-thames-mudlarking-foreshore-3d-pictures-audio-nick-stevens>

Skill and Handwriting

This exploration of early modern skill in handwriting comes from Hannah Lilley, who joins the project as a Postdoctoral Research Associate this month and is based at the University of Birmingham.

My first post for this blog approaches one of the project’s keywords: skill. This term, and how to interpret it, is something I’ve been thinking about over the course of my PhD on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scribes writing for a living and their material, spatial and social practices. Although skill can be read into any number of activities, I’m going to focus on writing, specifically handwriting. Literacy ‘as learned and embodied skill, and as a site of cultural connection’ has already been established in a previous post as a ‘mark of middling status’, alongside other activities. Knowing how to write could lead to gaining office and entry into administrative roles, and many of those middling sorts emerging for this project are those with the literacy to participate in record creation (though this could be artisanal, in the form of craft and the material record, as well as textually…). 

What is it?

The OED defines skill in multiple ways, including: ‘to have discrimination or knowledge […] in a specified matter’ (5a) and to possess ‘capability of accomplishing something with precision and certainty; practical knowledge in combination with ability; cleverness, expertness. Also an ability to perform a function, acquired or learnt with practice’ (6a).[1] These definitions establish skill as a term that can be applied to any number of activities: from baking to walking to storytelling to shopping. What is clear is that skill is usually applied positively to denote someone who has spent time learning, honing and practising an activity to develop the ‘discrimination’ or ‘knowledge’ to be perceived as holding expertise. Outside perception and judgement is essential to an understanding of a person as skilled, and this could take place in a commercial transaction – when commissioning work or buying a product, for example – or through sharing space with a person performing a task.

Speaking Skill

There are, however, multiple methodological issues when it comes to discussing skill. For example:

  1. Skill is expressed through action and so it might be difficult for the actor to verbalise how they do a task/ it does not need to be passed on in writing or through speech.[2]
  2. Skill’s definition rests on those perceiving the result of an action as practised and, as such, is subjective and dependent on multiple factors such as: age, gender, geographical location, education, and purpose. Skill is also entwined with moral, political and economic value judgements.
  3. Environmental factors could play a role in its development/ expression: access to materials, spaces, and social networks.

Handwriting

When thinking about these issues and handwriting, then, here are a few questions (of many) that come up, and I’m going to think about a couple of them later in this post:

  • How is skill individual and how is it social?
  • How might it be local or national?
  • What role does gender or social status have on perception of handwriting skill?/ Can we describe a skill as being ‘middling’?
  • How does it develop within different spaces (workshops, homes, classrooms etc.)?
  • How might perceptions of practical skill be entwined with abstract concepts?
  • How can practice be interpreted?

Interpreting Practice Using Image Processing

One of the methods I’ve been using to explore questions around individual and social skill in handwriting is a digital approach called Image Processing, alongside a digital forensic handwriting analysis expert Dr Richard Guest. Although this is preliminary research with regards to using Image Processing to analyse sixteenth- and seventeenth-century handwriting practices, it does show promise as a means of exploring similarities and differences between demographic groups of scribes as well as between individuals. I used letterforms as a means of comparison (imperfect, but a good way of seeing whether the method works before moving onto full words) and some interesting interpretations of handwriting practice came out of the data.

To give a brief example, one of the experiments was on clerks working in the Kentish town of Lydd 1560-1640. I looked at how their handwriting practices changed over the period and thought about how this relates to changing perceptions of what constitutes handwriting skill in the town at this time. The examples below are from some of the simpler measurements applied to the letterforms – area and perimeter – and the charts show both the median and mean results.

Chart 1 showing mean area (in pixels) of samples of letterforms for Lydd clerks (earliest to latest) [sample for letter y doesn’t cover full period]. More information in my thesis: Interpreting Practice: Scribes, Materials and Occupational Identities 1560-1640.
Chart 2 showing median area (in pixels) of samples of letterforms for Lydd clerks (earliest to latest) [sample for letter y doesn’t cover full period]. More information in my thesis: Interpreting Practice: Scribes, Materials and Occupational Identities 1560-1640.
Chart 3 showing mean perimeter (in pixels) of samples of letterforms for Lydd clerks (earliest to latest) [sample for letter y doesn’t cover full period]. More information in my thesis: Interpreting Practice: Scribes, Materials and Occupational Identities 1560-1640.
Chart 4 showing median perimeter (in pixels) of samples of letterforms for Lydd clerks (earliest to latest) [sample for letter y doesn’t cover full period]. More information in my thesis: Interpreting Practice: Scribes, Materials and Occupational Identities 1560-1640.

Charts One to Four are brief examples showing a clear change in handwriting practices in Lydd across the period, with the majuscules for the earliest three clerks having mean and median values that far exceed the measurements for the later three clerks, meaning that the three earlier clerks are using much larger letterforms. This demonstrates a change in attitude towards letterform size over the late sixteenth into the early seventeenth century and is one example of how we might think about practical skill as being social. Collectively, the clerks in Lydd show a trend towards smaller letterforms. Furthermore, these clerks are all of middling status, literate and play an important role in their corporation. Skill at writing has enabled them to become part of their community’s record creation. There is more to be done here, and more in my recently completed thesis – but this is just a glimpse into how a digital method can be used to approach non-verbalised practical skill.

Moralising Handwriting Skill

The aesthetic expectations for handwriting during this period included: script style appropriate to document type, purpose, or context, and this is one of the ways in which we might understand what scribes thought constituted skill at writing during this period. For example, mastery of chancery hand was essential for clerks working at the chancery court. Beyond this, there were plenty of printed prescriptive texts circulating during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, extolling the importance of fair handwriting and good practice. Although these present problems with regards to gaining insight into actual scribal practices because they are prescriptive texts, they do give information about how handwriting skill was connected to positive individual qualities.

Image 1. John De Beauchasne and John Baildon, A Booke Containing Diverse Sorts of Hands (1571). Italic hand example. Text: It is the part of a yonge man to reuerence his elders, and of suche/ to choose out the beste and moste commended whose counsayle/ and auctoritie hee maye leane vnto: For the vnskilfulnesse of/ tender yeares myst by old mens experience be ordered & gouern.

Although there are many examples of this in printed handwriting texts, the example in Image 1 is from John De Beauchasne’s and John Baildon’s A Booke Containing Diverse Sorts of Hands. Here, the handwriting exemplar for the starting-out scribe carries a moral message about revering and respecting elders and being governed by their experience. Due to the audience for this text likely being students at home or in the grammar school, the message for the ‘yonge man’ is pertinent. Furthermore, there is an example of a young middling scribe using this text to learn to write in Ann Bowyer, Elias Ashmole’s mother, whose commonplace book (Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 51) includes exercises drawn from this text. Consequently, good handwriting practice would also likely involve close attention to moral sentiments, connecting skill at writing to good character (something which instructional texts – such as Peter Bales’, The Writing Scholemaster – do very explicitly).

As such, for literate middling sorts of scribes, who would have likely gained their initial education in literacy at grammar school, at home, and at church, mastering scripts would have been important not only to their future employment but also to the way in which they may have been perceived by their social network. An example of this is can be seen in the chamberlain’s accounts for Lydd, where the town clerk until 1574, John Heblethwaite, scribes the accounts because the chamberlains are ‘unlearned’. He goes on to state in his will that he has written it ‘with my owne hand welleknowne’ demonstrating how important his handwriting becomes to his social standing – it leaves a recognisable mark.[3]

Writing not only rested on forming words in a legible and aesthetically appropriate manner and learning standard formats for documents, but also involved the mastery of the tools and materials of writing including cutting a quill fit for the hand, making ink or sourcing some of good quality to buy, and choosing paper. All of these processes generated a certain perception of both the document and its scribe.[4] The material knowledge displayed by scribes is also artisanal expertise; it rests upon a relationship between the equipment used in writing and the scribes’ repeated practice with it in order to gain writing skill. 

By way of concluding this post, then, skill might be thought of as involving the dialogue between a person, materials and their social world. As these brief examples show, practice was entwined with the social world in which it was embedded, where it was entwined with the collective activities of proximate scribes and their moral, as well as practical, education.   


[1] “skill, n.1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2019, <www.oed.com/view/Entry/180865>. Accessed 17 September 2019.

[2] For useful reflections on this point/ further reading see: John Sutton and Nicholas Keene, ‘Cognitive History and Material Culture’, The Routledge Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Catherine Richardson, Tara Hamling and David Gaimster (Oxford: Routledge, 2017), Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), Pamela Smith, The Body of the Artisan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), and Tim Ingold, Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2013).

[3] Kent History and Library Centre, LY/2/1/1/3 and PRC 31/95 S1.

[4] For letter writing, see James Daybell, The Material Letter in Early Modern England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Middling Culture Project Launch: The Middling Sort – Some Reflections…

We’re pleased to share Jonathan Willis’s write-up of our opening event, here. You can read our own overarching summary of the day in this post: https://middlingculture.com/2019/07/05/interrogating-middling-culture-a-workshop-report/

the many-headed monster

Jonathan Willis

I was lucky enough to travel down to Canterbury on Tuesday 25 June 2019 to attend the launch of a new ARHC project, ‘Middling Culture: the Cultural Lives of the Middling Sort, Writing and Material Culture, 1560-1660’.  The project is being run by Catherine Richardson (Kent), Tara Hamling (Birmingham) and Graeme Earl (KCL), along with Callan Davies and Ceri Law, and you can find out more about it (and read their own blog) here.

cropped-cloth-header-final-23646409

The growth of a sector of society that was more educated and prosperous than the ‘plebs’ or ‘meaner sort’ but which lacked the established wealth and pedigree of the gentlemen or exalted members of the aristocracy was one of the distinguishing features of early modern English society.  The ‘middling sort’ encompassed a diverse range of people, including ‘yeoman and husbandmen farmers and artisans’ and those who worked in business or the professions.[1]

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