Precarious Household Middling Examples

Thomas Cowper

You are described in the Ipswich Assembly minutes in the late 1560s as “a poore Townes man” in prison for debt.

However, you had for a long time been “a specyall benefactor” of the town.  Moreover, you were when younger an “apprentice & factor of one Mr Toolye”—one of the most significant charity founders of early modern Ipswich with enormous local influence!

Your family is now, however, in great poverty, and you are petitioning your local authority for assistance

Lettice Greene (née Tutt)

You were born into a gentry family, the daughter of Henry Tutt of West Meon, Hampshire. You did not marry until your late 20s, where you met Thomas Greene and moved to Stratford-upon-Avon, where you lodged with William and Anne Shakespeare at New Place from around 1603-1610.

Your husband benefited from the wealth you bought to the marriage and your good social status, which was likely to have facilitated his purchase of a prominent house called St Mary’s. You made friends with influential women in Stratford-upon-Avon including Elizabeth Quiney, Margaret Reynolds and Anne Shakespeare, and Elizabeth trusted you to be a witness for a deed of conveyance in 1611, which you signed in italic hand.

You played an essential role in your husband’s career during his absences to London and this is shown in his diary, where he records information about the enclosure of the common fields at Welcombe which was conveyed by you. In a letter to Thomas Greene from William Chandler, there is evidence that you sent documents to your husband in London from home too. You also had at least four children, two sons and two daughters, who were recognised in your husband’s will. Like other women in Stratford-upon-Avon, you also laboured in other ways to support your household, and brewing equipment located in your home, alongside your orchards, were likely to have been used by you to generate produce to sell and generate extra income.

In 1617, you move away from Stratford upon Avon to St John’s Parish in Bristol, where you live for the rest of your life. Due to there being very little surviving information as to your time there, it is difficult to know what you did. However, it seems you had a happy marriage, with Thomas making you executrix of his will and giving you all of his remaining goods and chattels. He writes that he is ‘sorry’ not to have more than he has to give ‘to soe good a woman’. By the time you marry Greene, then, your social status declined, and you became part of the profession-al middling group; married to a man who had to work for a living and having to also generate some income through your own domestic activities. The ‘gentleman-like’ house you lived in whilst in Stratford was paid for on credit which your husband could not pay back, thus your appearance of wealth and status did not match with the reality of your financial situation. By the end of your life, you may even be considered part of this group of “precarious household” middling, whose security was far from guaranteed and whose economic and social situation could plausibly come to ruin.

Inventory: Edward Wheaton, sailor (1620)

The inventorie of all and singular the goods and howsholde stufe of Edward Wheaten late of the p[ar]ishe of St Michels sailor deceased taken and praised the twelfe daie of M[ar]ch 1620.  

Taken and appraised by Richard Beacon  as it followeth 

Imprimis in an upper chamber one flockbed 

one old rugg and one old blanketVIIIs 

Item one halfe headed bedstead and one small chestIIIIs 

Item in an other upper rome a old presse and one 

Table bordVIII 

Item four old joined stools & two littell low stoolesIIIs 

Item two paire of old sheetesIIIIs 

Item one old table clotheVIIId 

Item in the kitchinge two pewter platters one beker 

One small brase kettellIIIIs 

Item one yron crookeIIs 

Item earthen dishes and wooden wareVIIId 

Item one old slyce and two old paire of tongesXIId 

Item one old twiggen chaire and one old sea  

Chest: and one paileIIs 

Item his wearing apparrell woollen and  

LynnenVIIIs 

Item things which maie be forgottenXIId 

Sum IIli Vis IIIId