Bringing Sextons Back: Stepney’s Buriers, Bearers and Searchers of the Dead

In my last post, I introduced the maritime hamlets of early modern Stepney and explored some of the ways in which the parish’s middling sort used admin and officeholding to establish themselves as part of a local elite. Returning to the vestry minutes book as a starting point, this post will examine some of Stepney’s less desirable parochial offices before attempting to place these stations within the maritime parish’s complicated civic and social hierarchies. 

Noisome Graves and Troublesome Sextons

Plague had an acoustic, and that acoustic was the ringing of bells[1]

Adam Smyth, Autobiography in Early Modern England

Stepney’s sexton played a crucial role in the daily management of the parish. Responsible for both the ringing of the parish church’s bells and the digging of graves in the churchyard, the sextons employed at St Dunstan’s, Stepney, found no shortage of work during the first half of the seventeenth century. As the parish’s population swelled and outbreaks of plague tore through the riverside hamlets, the St Dunstan’s churchyard quickly became overburdened. The vestry minutes record that in 1625 ‘the spedy purchasing of one parcell of ground’ for new burials was ordered, as well the earthing over of the present churchyard, owing to the ‘noysome sents’ that emanated from ‘the ground there so opened by reason of so many bodies formerlie enterred there’.[2]

Unfortunately, the Stepney vestry found itself repeatedly troubled by ‘very uncivil and disorderly’ sextons.[3] In 1601, sexton Francis Whitacres was ‘put out of his place’ and ‘utterly dismissed’ from the parish for a series of transgressions, which included neglecting and breaking the church bells to ‘the great chardg’ of the parishioners; attempting to persuade the parish clerk to embezzle funds so that they did not ‘dye beggers’; breaking his bonds and promises with the vestrymen; and bidding a churchwarden to ‘shake his eares emonng dogges’. A later sexton, William Culham, was similarly declared ‘unfitt for any further imployement’ after making himself known to be a ‘contemner & scoffer of them that are godly’ and refusing to ‘suppress a victualing house’ that he leased and ‘furnish[ed] … w[i]th beere’.[4] The early modern sexton perhaps best lives on today in the shape of Shakespeare’s proud ‘sexton here, man and boy, thirty years’, the Gravedigger from Hamlet.[5] The Gravedigger’s oaths, flippancy, morbid wit, and request for a ‘stoup [jug] of liquor’ suggest that unruly sextons were not only found in Stepney but throughout the nation, working their knavish grave-making characters into the broader early modern imagination. 

However, the position also provided perks and financial security. Along with the respected and necessarily literate clerk and curate, the sexton was provided a room above the vestry house and was also guaranteed a steady income owing to the constant need for bellringing and burials.[6] Furthermore, as demonstrated by Culham’s position as both sexton and landlord of the victualing house ‘the Rose’, Stepney’s sextons were able to pursue other economic ventures alongside their paid parochial responsibilities. 

A sexton at work in Humphrey Crouch’s Londons Vacation, and the Countries Tearme (London: Richard Harper, 1637)

Bearers and Searchers of the Dead

During the plague of 1625, ‘certaine [individuals] dwelling about Stepney’ took it upon themselves to become ‘common bearers of such as die of the pestilence and other diseases’.[7] In an attempt to suppress the extortionate ‘summes of mony as are no ways sufferable’ that were charged by these bearers, Stepney’s vestry decided to formalise the trade, setting fixed rates for the bearers of between four and twelve pence depending on where the body was carried from and its method of burial. The vestry further ordered that the bearers must travel ‘w[i]thout cloakes and cary red wands in theire hands that euery one may take notice of them’. It was decreed that the production and delivery of the wands to the bearers would be the responsibility of the sexton. 

Another office created in response to disease – this time an initiative of the vestry, rather than the regulation of an existing practice – was advertised for in 1617, although it was not filled until the outbreak of plague in 1625. It was ordered by the vestry that, in order to prevent the spread of infection, ‘there shalbe chosen in euerie hamlet two fit aged women to search and vew the bodies of euerie one decease[ed]’, with the women being paid ‘four pence a peece by the householder for the said vew and serch’ or the same amount by ‘the Churchwardens or Collectors for the poore’.[8] In 1625, Mary Oswell and Elizabeth Scott of Ratcliff were ‘chosen to be searchers […] in case & feare of Contagion of sicknes now suspected’.[9] Unsurprisingly, given the wealth disparity within the hamlet of Ratcliff, the St Dunstan’s parish registers reveal that both Mary Oswell and Elizabeth Scott resided in the hamlet’s poorer western side, in Shadwell near to Wapping Wall. 

Elizabeth Scott of Shadwell, ‘widow & pentioner’, is entered into the parish’s burial register on 8 May 1626, one year after her appointment as a searcher of the dead.[10] Mary, ‘wife of William Oswell of Shadwell[,] mariner’, followed just under a year later on 6 March 1627.[11] By tracing Mary and William Oswell through the parish registers of Stepney, Wapping, and St Katherine by the Tower, it becomes clear that Mary lost a three-year-old son a month after becoming a searcher, and left an eight-year-old daughter and two-month-old son behind after her death.[12] William, perhaps owing to his need for childcare and an imminent return to sea, remarried just three months later.[13]

The above example illustrates that although women’s names are almost entirely absent from Stepney’s vestry minutes, women did indeed perform civic office and play vital roles in the management of their communities, as has been explored in fantastic detail by the Women’s Work in Rural England, 1500-1700 project. However, in this instance, it is possible that Elizabeth Scott and Mary Oswell did not have much choice in the matter. In The Launching of the Mary by Walter Mountfort, a drama composed by the middle-ranking East India Company merchant during his 1632 return to Stepney from Persia, the hardships of mariners’ wives are extensively portrayed. The characters Mary Sparke and Isabel Nutt testify that the ‘two months paye a year’ provided by the East India Company is not ‘able to keep’ them whilst their husbands are at sea, and the character Dorotea conveys the need to ‘sitt at shopworke’ to ‘gett a liuinge by hard hand-labour’ during the ‘discontinuance of theyr husbands’.[14] Bearing in mind William Oswell’s profession, and the age of their children, it is possible that Mary Oswell found herself in a similar position. 

Civic Benefaction

So far I have argued that while the office of sexton might not have been the most desirable or respected occupation, it was nonetheless a necessary job that provided a secure position and reasonable economic stability – as long as you behaved and did as the vestry asked. While the reputation gained from performing the role of sexton might not be transferrable to another parish, and there is no evidence in Stepney of individuals advancing from sexton to a higher parochial office, the parish’s sextons seem to consistently hold positions somewhere between securely middling and of the lower-middling sort.

Stepney’s bearers and searchers of the dead also performed acts of civic benefaction that were necessary to the continued function and wellbeing of the parish community. The performance of deeds that benefitted the broader civic community was a key way in which individuals could gain public reputation for being a valuable member of the parish. The bearers’ and searchers’ acts of civic duty took the form of the dangerous handling of the parish’s diseased bodies, and these acts were carried out in public view and were recorded in important records kept in the parish chest. However, while this might sound like the ideal circumstances for achieving social advancement, for the bearers and searchers of the dead the reward was not favourable reputation but the monetary incentive that directly replaced – or at least supplemented – the poor relief they would otherwise receive. The wages of these workers were provided directly from affording households or from the already established overseers of the poor. Although these ‘offices’ received parochial recognition – and in the case of the bearers were even provided with uniform – just like in the case of Shadwell in my previous post, these individuals were brought into the public eye and recorded within parish documents so that they could be identified, shaped, and regulated by the parish’s central governing body.

Stepney’s parish records are full of complex narratives. These may partly be pieced together through retrospective historical study, but, far from being superimposed by scholarship, they were consciously written into these texts by early modern individuals whose representations have remained inscribed upon them ever since. 

The office of sexton is proving a particularly fascinating position to explore in the investigation of Stepney’s middling sort as, although the officeholders seem to have consistently occupied places amongst the parish’s lower-middling sort, unlike others in their social and economic position they held a secure role that was assigned to them for the length of their ‘naterall lyffe’.[15] Was it the guarantee of work and social position, but lack of hope for advancement from their office, that gave Stepney’s sextons the confidence to repeatedly act out against the vestry?  As Hamlet notes to Horatio beside the Danish sexton, ‘The hand of little employment hath the daintier sense’.[16]

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


[1] Adam Smyth, Autobiography in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 177.

[2] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 71v, 73r.

[3] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 106r.

[4] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 106r, 113v.

[5] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Methuen Drama, 2006), p. 420. 

[6] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 40r, 71v.

[7] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 70r.

[8] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 57v, 69r. 

[9] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 69r.

[10] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/277.

[11] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/277.

[12] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/256; P93/DUN/265; P93/DUN/277.

[13] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/265.

[14] Walter Mountfort, The Launching of the Mary, ed. by John Henry Walter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932).

[15] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 10v.

[16] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Methuen Drama, 2006), p. 414.

Noisome Graves and Troublesome Sextons

Plague had an acoustic, and that acoustic was the ringing of bells[1]

Stepney’s sexton played a crucial role in the daily management of the parish. Responsible for both the ringing of the parish church’s bells and the digging of graves in the churchyard, the sextons employed at St Dunstan’s, Stepney, found no shortage of work during the first half of the seventeenth century. As the parish’s population swelled and outbreaks of plague tore through the riverside hamlets, the St Dunstan’s churchyard quickly became overburdened. The vestry minutes record that in 1625 ‘the spedy purchasing of one parcell of ground’ for new burials was ordered, as well the earthing over of the present churchyard, owing to the ‘noysome sents’ that emanated from ‘the ground there so opened by reason of so many bodies formerlie enterred there’.[2]

Unfortunately, the Stepney vestry found itself repeatedly troubled by ‘very uncivil and disorderly’ sextons.[3] In 1601, sexton Francis Whitacres was ‘put out of his place’ and ‘utterly dismissed’ from the parish for a series of transgressions, which included neglecting and breaking the church bells to ‘the great chardg’ of the parishioners; attempting to persuade the parish clerk to embezzle funds so that they did not ‘dye beggers’; breaking his bonds and promises with the vestrymen; and bidding a churchwarden to ‘shake his eares emonng dogges’. A later sexton, William Culham, was similarly declared ‘unfitt for any further imployement’ after making himself known to be a ‘contemner & scoffer of them that are godly’ and refusing to ‘suppress a victualing house’ that he leased and ‘furnish[ed] … w[i]th beere’.[4] The early modern sexton perhaps best lives on today in the shape of Shakespeare’s proud ‘sexton here, man and boy, thirty years’, the Gravedigger from Hamlet.[5] The Gravedigger’s oaths, flippancy, morbid wit, and request for a ‘stoup [jug] of liquor’ suggest that unruly sextons were not only found in Stepney but throughout the nation, working their knavish grave-making characters into the broader early modern imagination. 

However, the position also provided perks and financial security. Along with the respected and necessarily literate clerk and curate, the sexton was provided a room above the vestry house and was also guaranteed a steady income owing to the constant need for bellringing and burials.[6] Furthermore, as demonstrated by Culham’s position as both sexton and landlord of the victualing house ‘the Rose’, Stepney’s sextons were able to pursue other economic ventures alongside their paid parochial responsibilities. 

A close up of a book

Description automatically generated

A sexton at work in Humphrey Crouch’s Londons Vacation, and the Countries Tearme (London: Richard Harper, 1637)

Bearers and Searchers of the Dead

During the plague of 1625, ‘certaine [individuals] dwelling about Stepney’ took it upon themselves to become ‘common bearers of such as die of the pestilence and other diseases’.[7] In an attempt to suppress the extortionate ‘summes of mony as are no ways sufferable’ that were charged by these bearers, Stepney’s vestry decided to formalise the trade, setting fixed rates for the bearers of between four and twelve pence depending on where the body was carried from and its method of burial. The vestry further ordered that the bearers must travel ‘w[i]thout cloakes and cary red wands in theire hands that euery one may take notice of them’. It was decreed that the production and delivery of the wands to the bearers would be the responsibility of the sexton. 

Another office created in response to disease – this time an initiative of the vestry, rather than the regulation of an existing practice – was advertised for in 1617, although it was not filled until the outbreak of plague in 1625. It was ordered by the vestry that, in order to prevent the spread of infection, ‘there shalbe chosen in euerie hamlet two fit aged women to search and vew the bodies of euerie one decease[ed]’, with the women being paid ‘four pence a peece by the householder for the said vew and serch’ or the same amount by ‘the Churchwardens or Collectors for the poore’.[8] In 1625, Mary Oswell and Elizabeth Scott of Ratcliff were ‘chosen to be searchers […] in case & feare of Contagion of sicknes now suspected’.[9] Unsurprisingly, given the wealth disparity within the hamlet of Ratcliff, the St Dunstan’s parish registers reveal that both Mary Oswell and Elizabeth Scott resided in the hamlet’s poorer western side, in Shadwell near to Wapping Wall. 

Elizabeth Scott of Shadwell, ‘widow & pentioner’, is entered into the parish’s burial register on 8 May 1626, one year after her appointment as a searcher of the dead.[10] Mary, ‘wife of William Oswell of Shadwell[,] mariner’, followed just under a year later on 6 March 1627.[11] By tracing Mary and William Oswell through the parish registers of Stepney, Wapping, and St Katherine by the Tower, it becomes clear that Mary lost a three-year-old son a month after becoming a searcher, and left an eight-year-old daughter and two-month-old son behind after her death.[12] William, perhaps owing to his need for childcare and an imminent return to sea, remarried just three months later.[13]

The above example illustrates that although women’s names are almost entirely absent from Stepney’s vestry minutes, women did indeed perform civic office and play vital roles in the management of their communities, as has been explored in fantastic detail by the Women’s Work in Rural England, 1500-1700 project. However, in this instance, it is possible that Elizabeth Scott and Mary Oswell did not have much choice in the matter. In The Launching of the Mary by Walter Mountfort, a drama composed by the middle-ranking East India Company merchant during his 1632 return to Stepney from Persia, the hardships of mariners’ wives are extensively portrayed. The characters Mary Sparke and Isabel Nutt testify that the ‘two months paye a year’ provided by the East India Company is not ‘able to keep’ them whilst their husbands are at sea, and the character Dorotea conveys the need to ‘sitt at shopworke’ to ‘gett a liuinge by hard hand-labour’ during the ‘discontinuance of theyr husbands’.[14] Bearing in mind William Oswell’s profession, and the age of their children, it is possible that Mary Oswell found herself in a similar position. 

Civic Benefaction

So far I have argued that while the office of sexton might not have been the most desirable or respected occupation, it was nonetheless a necessary job that provided a secure position and reasonable economic stability – as long as you behaved and did as the vestry asked. While the reputation gained from performing the role of sexton might not be transferrable to another parish, and there is no evidence in Stepney of individuals advancing from sexton to a higher parochial office, the parish’s sextons seem to consistently hold positions somewhere between securely middling and of the lower-middling sort.

Stepney’s bearers and searchers of the dead also performed acts of civic benefaction that were necessary to the continued function and wellbeing of the parish community. The performance of deeds that benefitted the broader civic community was a key way in which individuals could gain public reputation for being a valuable member of the parish. The bearers and searchers acts of civic benefaction took the form of the dangerous handling of the parish’s diseased bodies, and these acts were carried out in public view and were recorded in important records kept in the parish chest. However, while this might sound like the ideal circumstances for achieving social advancement, for the bearers and searchers of the dead the reward was not favourable reputation but the monetary incentive that directly replaced – or at least supplemented – the poor relief they would otherwise receive. The wages of these workers were provided directly from affording households or from the already established overseers of the poor. Although these ‘offices’ received parochial recognition – and in the case of the bearers were even provided with uniform – just like in the case of Shadwell in my previous post, these individuals were brought into the public eye and recorded within parish documents so that they could be identified, shaped, and regulated by the parish’s central governing body.

Stepney’s parish records are full of complex narratives. These may partly be pieced together through retrospective historical study, but, far from being superimposed by scholarship, they were consciously written into these texts by early modern individuals whose representations have remained inscribed upon them ever since. 

The office of sexton is proving a particularly fascinating position to explore in the investigation of Stepney’s middling sort as, although the officeholders seem to have consistently occupied places amongst the parish’s lower-middling sort, unlike others in their social and economic position they held a secure role that was assigned to them for the length of their ‘naterall lyffe’.[15] Was it the guarantee of work and social position, but lack of hope for advancement from their office, that gave Stepney’s sextons the confidence to repeatedly act out against the vestry?  As Hamlet notes to Horatio beside the Danish sexton, ‘The hand of little employment hath the daintier sense’.[16]


[1] Adam Smyth, Autobiography in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 177.

[2] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 71v, 73r.

[3] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 106r.

[4] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 106r, 113v.

[5] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Methuen Drama, 2006), p. 420. 

[6] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 40r, 71v.

[7] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 70r.

[8] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 57v, 69r. 

[9] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 69r.

[10] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/277.

[11] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/277.

[12] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/256; P93/DUN/265; P93/DUN/277.

[13] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/265.

[14] Walter Mountfort, The Launching of the Mary, ed. by John Henry Walter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932).

[15] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 10v.

[16] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Methuen Drama, 2006), p. 414.

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. 

WFH 2: Tradesmen and Tools for Working from Home, Chapter 1

Chisel, 17th Century. Item ID: LON-4261F3

For this second instalment of ‘Working from Home’ in early modern England, I’m going to take a look at some of the tools and materials urban individuals used as part of their trade in two posts. The first looks at the wider uses of tools and the second studies joiners.

The chisel in the image above might seem fairly ordinary, but for the 17th century tradesman it would have held a specific function and purpose for the performance of their craft. In early modern towns, individuals were set up and equipped to work from home, or in the home of their employers, and would often share tools, moulds and materials with their peers. Home set-ups are also a recurring concern from our own period of social distancing where many people have difficulty accessing the necessary equipment for performing their job – e.g. an adequate internet connection, working laptop or a comfortable seat.

From 1560 onwards there was a shift in how these tradespeople’s’ working spaces developed, with open hall houses giving way to an increase in rooms with specific purposes. Jane Whittle has noted that in Kent from 1600 to 1629 there was an increase in the number of specialist service room[s] within houses (like brew houses, mills and warehouses).[1] Two of this project’s team leaders, Catherine Richardson and Tara Hamling, have shown how people in urban settings invested in locks and doors to separate ‘working space from other spaces’.[2] Artisans would craft these areas to mark their trade identities to passers-by through the tools, materials and wares on display—and they often displayed shop boards at their openings, so they were not dissimilar from our own understanding of high street retail. But these shops were spaces of production, too, and could double as the site in which a trade was performed.

Tools and Identification of Trades


A Drawing of Tools seen in Chester Shops by Randle Holme in one of his manuscripts for The Academy of Armoury (1649), Harley MS 2026. Left = butchers, Middle = bakers, coopers = Right.

Randle Holmes III’s, The Academy of Armoury, or a Storehouse of Armoury and Blazonry, published in 1688, helps explain the importance of shop tools to urban identities. In it, he describes the trades he encounters through his home town of Chester, the tools artisans use and the ‘terms of the art’ as well as providing illustrations. The above image Holmes’ workings in a manuscript compiled in 1649, and on this folio he depicts tools used in three professions (butchers, bakers and coopers) in careful detail.

Tools are considered part of symbolic identities. Individual tradesmen are tied to their craft through the material culture that surrounds it in the form of the assemblages of tools used for their work. Tools were kept with and deployed by a person. As such, they could be viewed like clothing, which conveyed signals about a person’s status, residence, societal roles, gender, wealth and occupation. [3]  A tradesman formed a close association with the equipment they shaped, repeatedly employed, and held.


Randle Holmes, Academy of Armoury, pp.364-65.

This facsimile, taken from the printed edition of Academy of Armoury, illustrates tools used in woodworking crafts like carpentry, joinery, and carving. The accompanying text is distinctly heraldic in its language with, for example, the mallet in the fourth image on the top row is elaborated with:

IV. He beareth Sanguine, a joyners mallet, Argent. By the name of Mallet. There is much difference between the masons, and the Joyners or Carpenters Mallets, the first being round and heavy, the others square both in the face and sides.

Randle Holme, The Academy of Armoury, or Storehouse of Armoury and Blazonry (1688), p.365

Holmes both describes what a woodworking mallet looks like and specifies how it should be used in a coat of arms. ‘Argent’ is the heraldic term for silver, and ‘Sanguine’ is blood red, so he also prescribes the correct colours for the mallet’s proper rendering. Holmes also uses the phrase ‘he beareth’ and ‘to bear’ has the meaning to be ‘the wearer of a garment, ornament, badge, etc.’ (3a, oed). A tool often borne in a joiner’s hand is here used as a suggestion for his coat of arms, linking his identity to the equipment he uses for his trade. Within the Academy of Armoury, Holmes paints the visual world of trade identity through tools.

Tools at Home

Inventories—lists of goods made at (relatively wealthy people’s) death—sometimes record the tools belonging to an individual, and occasionally in great detail. They are therefore a means through which we might ground the tools deployed in Holmes’ volume in specific locales.

For example, Thomas Bonner, an Ipswich blacksmith inventoried in 1583 had a variety of tools in his shop.

The shoop stuff

Item one stythe [blacksmith’s anvil] and blocke ______4 0 0

Item a paier of bellowes and appurtenances _______  0 12 0

Item a beake horne [the pike of a blacksmith’s anvil] and carnayle toole and the blockes 0 2 6

Item one vyce ___________ 0 5 0

Item nyne hammers  __________ 0 6 0

Item thre payer of tonges ________0 1 6

Item the smalle tooles _________0 1 8

Item tenn Punchins [small pointed tool which could pierce materials] ___0 1 6

Item a nayle stocke __________0 0 8

Item fyve fyles two buttres a paier of pynsons and other tooles_____0 1 4

Item a carte strake wrought _____ 1 7 6

Item fyftie six pound Iron  ________0 4 8

Item LVIIIli leaden waights________0 4 10

Item two beames and skooles_______ 0 5 0

Item one smythes troughe___________0 0 6

Item a gryndston and cranke and the troughe _____ 0 5 0

From: The Ipswich Probate Inventories 1583-1631, ed. by Michael Reed (Boydell Press, 1981). Hereafter, IPI.)

Some of these tools are specialised to the blacksmith’s craft with a ‘stythe’ being a blacksmith’s anvil:


Modern blacksmith at work using 17th century style tools at Little Woodham Museum. By David Brightmore – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Other tools, like hammers, files, weights and grindstones, are used across trades.

Archaeological examples of hammers show similar features to what we might expect today, with its flat head and prongs.

Iron Hammer, circa 1650. ID: LON-B0bD16

Bonner also has tenn ‘punchins’ which are small, sharp tools used to pierce metal. In his possession of ten of these punchins, Bonner would be able to produce piercings of various aesthetic effects, creating decorative touches to his work in ways which might make his work easily attributable to him.

Alongside his tools, Bonner has fire attending equipment, essential for the heat needed in the manipulation of metal, but also for light and warmth within the shop. Passers-by would be able to observe Bonner at work from the street, could judge his work, and make requests for wares to be made for them. The shop, in this sense, was a permeable boundary between the home and the outside world, where production and purchase happened in the same space.

The value of tools can be seen in the way they became heritable items. For example, Gilbert Mayerte, Millwright of Ipwich’s will details that:

‘I give and bequeathe unto the sayd Richard my sonne all my Tymber plancke bourd toles and all other tinges necessary belonging and Apperteyning to my science’

Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich Branch, IC/AA1/7/67.

As such, craft identity as it is expressed through tools, permeates workspaces in multi-layered ways: tools used to create items for consumption in the present may have been inherited from a family member or employer which gave them significance as memory prompts of past craftsmen in their continued use through generations. Patterns of craft could then be established in locales where these tools and techniques were passed between people through inheritance. We can see this with the distinct style of armchair that emerged from Salisbury joiners’ workshops in the seventeenth century, as seen in a past blog post.

Apart from the shop, there were many other rooms used for manufacture or for the storage of tools and materials. On a small scale, these rooms might be listed as chambers. For example, houses in Ipswich and Bristol occasionally have ‘shop chambers’, which were linked spatially and in purpose with the shop.

These chambers frequently contained tools, materials and shop wares. Stephen Grenewich, dyer of Ipswich, had a room next to his shop that held weights and scales and a skraier (a frame for layering cloth upon) for clothworking (IPI, p.55). On a larger scale, someone might have workhouses or warehouses. For example, Henry Piper of Ipswich, poldavisweaver (poldavis is a particular type of cloth common in Brittany, which was bought over to England in 1547, and Ipswich became the centre of its production in England), inventoried in 1615, has two workhouses with nine looms and various cloths ‘in makinge’ and this demonstrates a larger scale of production taking place domestically, with multiple employees—an “SME” or small “factory.”[4]

In non-inventoried houses low down the social scale, in precariously middling or poor households, tools would also have appeared. There are plenty of examples in churchwardens accounts of wool cards, timber and other tools and materials handed out in charity to enable those less fortunate to generate income.

These practices extend to women’s work.  Widows often inherited shops and responsibility for its trade and production, alongside household labour. For example, Ann Barnarde, widow of Ipswich whose inventory was taken in 1606 possesses tools for embroidery – a ‘reell and a little yarne’ – things she may have used to generate some income (IPI, p.65).  A request for a women’s service in needlework appears in an Ipswich deposition too, where Margaret Morgon remembers that one Dorothy, a servant to Mr Barker,

bought unto the house of this deponent [Margaret] one shirte wrought w[i]th blacke worke of sylke & requested her this deponent to breake the same & to make the said dorothie a neckercher thereof w[hi]ch she […] so did.

Petty Court Depositions, Suffolk Archives, Ipswich, C/2/3/8/1, 140

Margaret recognises this shirt as stolen, but does the work anyway, with this case later going to court. The fact that the material garment recycled for the neckercher was stolen, is the only reason this example of Margaret’s work (and indeed Dorothy’s time as a servant before her marriage) is recorded. Work like this, completed with small tools like needles relies on archaeological examples like this needle to understand craft practices:

Post Medieval Needle, Portable Antiquities Scheme

There are many gaps in our understanding of practice generated by tools and materials which were ephemeral, used then thrown away, or too insignificant to be frequently recorded.  But records, archaeological finds and images demonstrate how essential tools were to a trades-person’s identity within an urban setting. Next time I’ll be looking more closely at a particular kind of making setting and the tools used within it: the joiner’s workshop.

By Hannah Lilley


[1] Jane Whittle, ‘The House as a Place of Work in Early Modern Rural England’, Home Cultures, 8:2 (2011), 133-150, pp.134-136.                                                                

[2] Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson, A Day at Home in Early Modern England: Material Culture and Domestic Life, 1500-1700 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017), p.144.

[3] For more on  clothing, tools in civic ceremonies, and identity this see, Catherine Richardson, ‘Dugdale and the Material Culture of Warwickshire,’ in C. Dyer and C. Richardson eds., William Dugdale, Historian, 1605-86: His Life, His Writings and His County (Boydell and Brewer, 2009).

[4]Eric Kerridge, Textile Manufactures in Early Modern England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), p.123.

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).

How to be a Goldsmith in Elizabethan Bristol

We will be producing a series of posts and guest posts over the course of the project, including “Long Reads” (longer form (but still brief) explorations of a subject) and “Short Reads” (digestible in a brief survey). This opening Long Read explores what it was like to be a goldsmith in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Bristol, looking at provincial craftspeople’s relationship with the London company, the trendy craft hotspot of Bristol’s Wine Street, and the surprisingly varied uses of goldsmiths’ wares.


In late sixteenth-century England, a young man could do worse than become an apprentice with a goldsmith.  The trade offered reasonable financial rewards and put its best craftspeople into contact with well-off and well-connected customers. That didn’t always, unsurprisingly, guarantee financial success.  One of the most famous goldsmiths of the period was the esteemed miniaturist, Nicholas Hilliard; despite reaching acclaim in courts across Europe for his artwork and running a thriving goldsmiths’ trade from his London shop for decades, he spent much of his life in financial precarity.  Yet he accrued other forms of capital, not least through his intimate access to English and French courts.  Moreover, Pamela H. Smith has shown how artisans, in particular goldsmiths, were at the centre of a shift in the way cultural and scientific knowledge was represented in and produced through art: “early modern artisans were experts on natural processes” (7); Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin has similarly shown how individuals connected to the trade, such as assayers, “belied any purported boundaries between artisanal, mercantile and experimental worlds” (2).  It is therefore perhaps no surprise that some of the leading innovators in representing the physical world during the Northern Renaissance—such as Albrecht Dürer—were goldsmiths by trade.  

As such, the craft brings together a range of cultural, social, and financial opportunities, and the objects goldsmiths produced found their way into circulation in a variety of surprising ways.  Those familiar with early modern drama know how something as simple as a ring can take on epic significance from the forensic to the metaphorical—as in the final scene of All’s Well that Ends Well, for instance, which hinges on the evidentiary value of such an item of jewellery. Tradespeople in a host of livery companies might also recognise the business uses of rings, which could be “deposited” to bind people to oaths and price regulations, and rings hold a widespread memorial function, too, often left by bequest in wills and given at funerals.  Goldsmiths therefore represent a major “middling” trade, with practitioners coming from a variety of backgrounds, with their wares reaching key middling sections of society, and with objects such as rings and spoons representing the combination of aesthetic, emotional, and business value at the heart of “middling” men and women’s existence.

But what was it like to be a goldsmith away from the trade’s national centre among the shops and selds (a structure of several stalls set back from the street, like a small market or mall) of London’s Cheapside?  This post assays life for provincial goldsmiths in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, concentrating on the network operating in the growing port city of Bristol: here, goldsmiths find themselves everywhere from the prison to the fair; they also demonstrate the successes of family trade dynasties and early forms of “banking” and financial management, while rubbing shoulders with playhouse entrepreneurs and prosperous merchants.


The Goldsmiths’ Company

One of the prime concerns for any goldsmith is the weighing of precious metal and the attendant quality of their work or wares, and anybody looking to work in Bristol, as elsewhere, would have to be comfortable having their work assessed, deemed unworthy, and publicly destroyed by senior figures from London.  This is because the royal charter possessed by London’s Goldsmiths’ Company granted them authority over the trade nationwide, making Bristolian goldsmiths subject to scrutiny and summons to their hall on Fetter Lane by London’s Guildhall.  More intrusively, the Company could search their shops and stalls, or attend commercially-orientated fairs—notably often at Marlborough, the Bristol fairs, and Sturbridge—where they tested goods by hand and sometimes further by more detailed assay or melting (sometimes taking goods into their possession to return to the Goldsmiths’ Hall for further consideration or, when clear they’re substandard, destroying or breaking them there and then). 

While you’re in the presence of one of these searches, you may learn a little more about the range and quality of your fellow craftspeople’s work, and the court books duly list the types of goods being sold by Bristolian goldsmiths and their advertised vs their actual worth. For instance, in 1633, Thomas Northall’s wares include:

23 Thimbles half made
24 gold rings
25 bodkins half made 
12 gold ^beadrings
9 knot rings
15 enamel rings
6 deaths heads
51 gilt rings

We can imagine the presence of these goods laid out in Northall’s Bristol shop and consider, as below, the ways in which these items would have circulated amongst his local community.  These searches provide a rare occasion in which the breadth of provincial goldsmiths’ goods can be recovered and studied, and they help to build a picture of metalwork in the early modern South West.

Petrus Christus, Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449. Met Museum.

Stubborn Goldsmiths

These obligations and the searches of the regions ask questions about the relationship between regional goldsmiths and the Company.  If you worked as a goldsmith in Bristol, how much identification with the livery company might you feel—and how does being governed remotely by a London company and structure affect one’s sense of civic and craft pride?

If this seems an important question, you might turn to your colleague from Salisbury, “stubborn” George Batter, for an answer (if you can pin him down…).  Batter demonstrates what resistance to such London-centric measures might look like, given the disregard for the authority of the Company he displayed on one of its searches in 1631. He lied about being of the trade, refused to allow his items to be searched or tested, declined to show up in person when summoned, and is eventually imprisoned after the two wardens of the Company convince the Mayor of Salisbury to assist them in apprehending him and forcing him to cooperate. They had over the course of these events tested “one spoon … made by the said Batter with his mark thereupon, which being tried by the touch appeared not to be so good silver as that of 9oz fine” (Book R 1: 128).

Beyond your conversation with George Batter, you might turn to individuals in your parish to see how other trades resent intrusions from London authorities—particularly if you’re friends with any members of Bristol’s prominent Soapmakers’ Company.  They demonstrate a comparable resentment towards London intrusions into their local craft dealings a few years after Batter in 1633—just a short time after Charles I’s grant to the London Soapmakers’ of a nationwide monopoly similar to that long held by the Goldsmiths’.  The Bristolian soapmakers, perhaps taking umbrage at being “governed,” compare Bristol soap (also known as “Black Soap”) with its competitors’ through a napkin-based “whites challenge” in the presence of the London assayer:

[…] Certain Linen Napkins washed by Several Women with the same several sorts of soap […] And although the said napkins washed with Bristol Soap were altogether as white washed and as sweet, or rather sweeter, than the other, yet in the washing of the said Napkins There was not Altogether so much Soap expended of the said Bristol Soap as there was of the other Soap.

(BRS 10; 195)

The civic pride implicit in the Soapmakers’ Guild is undercut in George Batter’s unfortunate experience, as he has no recourse even to local protection, with Salisbury’s mayor assisting the wardens’ enquiries. They ultimately proved lenient towards him in levying a revised fine that took into account his “poverty” and eventual acquiescence and repentance (17 August 1631, R 1:127-9). Perhaps tellingly, two years later in 1633, Batter appears again in a Salisbury search, where he proved more compliant (Book R: 2:370).

Wine Street

Perhaps you are weighing up where to set up shop as a newcomer to Bristol—something that Giles and Edward Evenet would have done in October 1571, after they are recorded as “living, resident, and abiding [in] the country” in Bristol having left London without return “by a year and a day”–a move to the provinces that the Goldsmiths’ Company seem to regard as important and in need of regulation.

In your new home of Bristol, the prime place to continue your trade would have been the thriving neighbourhood of Wine Street in the parish of Christchurch (also known as Holy Trinity).  The street was home to a series of substantial tenements and properties, many of which were owned by the City Corporation and rented by prominent figures in the city (including aldermen and past and future mayors).  It was also home to at least two major South West goldsmiths, Humphrey Clovell and Edward Harsell.  In the mid-1570s, a new “meal market” (or corn market) was built at the end of Wine Street, which was rented out to 10-12 goldsmiths from London and other places during the most important commercial feature in any Bristolian’s calendar, the St James’ Fair, which attracted buyers and sellers from across the country (and beyond the seas).  The street therefore represents a significant destination for anybody looking to buy jewellery and other metalwork.  

If you’re interested in doing some market research or understanding the tastes and styles particular to Bristol goldsmiths and their customers, it would be wise to head to No. 8 Wine Street to speak with Humphrey Clovell.  From this property, Clovell would have sold items such as the 2 bowls, 6 gilt rings, and 3 spoons with heads for which he was assessed in 1599 (Book N 181). He was a major figure in Bristol’s metalwork industry; he did his apprenticeship under Paul Freling, and the apprentices Clovell trained include Thomas Wall and John Corsley, the latter of whom went on to marry Clovell’s daughter Elizabeth in 1592 and was the first of a long line of prolific Corsley goldsmiths working out of the south west (Kent 80).  

When you arrive to speak with Clovell, you may find him slightly preoccupied with his son-in-law, who drifts in and out of Bristol.  In 1606, nearly 15 years after his marriage with Clovell’s daughter, Corsley finds himself “lying in Prison in Newgate in London upon sundry accounts of debt.”  According to the defendant (William Walton) in a Chancery case concerning unpaid debts, Corsley was freed thanks to significant loans by Walton and others that he neglected to repay.  Walton claims to have spent years chasing Corsley, only for him to “go and lay in the North parts of this land where [the] defendant should not touch him”.  When he did return to Bristol, “it was under his father in law mr Clovell, goldsmith in Bristol.”  If you visit in the 1600s, 1610s, or 1620s in the years preceding Walton’s lawsuit, you may well find both goldsmiths in Wine Street.  

If you find Clovell unhelpful, you could always look for some financing from Corsley.  According to Walton, by the 1620s, the erstwhile debtor has returned more permanently to Bristol and “dealeth in great sums in the trade of a goldsmith” (TNA C3/341/56).  The defendant’s phrasing suggests that Corsley uses his trade to function as a financier or money trader, perhaps indicating an early example of the form of “goldsmith-banking” that formed the foundations of England’s banking sector in the late seventeenth century.  But you may wish to take into account Walton’s less-than-glowing consumer report…

You could speak instead with Edward Harsell, who lived two doors down from Clovell and who clearly knew him—well enough, at least, to witness the probate inventory after Clovell’s death in 1627 that records some of Clovell’s interior design choices, including “the wainscot, stained cloths, & pictures about the hall” (BRS Vol. 54;62-4). Harsell is also a significant figure among Bristol’s early modern metalworkers.  Work from Harsell’s shop survives, marked with his name and a small symbol (for more details on surviving marks see Timothy Kent): 

Harsell (possibly Richard or his son Edward), Spoon, “with a gilt maidenhead,” © Woolley & Wallis, Salisbury, Wiltshire, (on marks4antiques.com

The marking of this spoon with Harsell’s name suggests the advertising value tied to the craft, as this form of signature or branding seems to be unique to metalwork. Might these goldsmith-specific marks enhance or alter one’s reputation in the wider community and make one’s name more widely visible than those in other trades?

Have Connections in London

Appealing as Bristol might sound by now, it’s certainly worth fostering good connections with London and particularly the hierarchy of the Goldsmiths’ Company—perhaps, if you’re well-backed enough, by looking to serve your apprenticeship in the capital.  Timothy Kent observes how unusual it is for the Company to say anything nice about the work of provincial goldsmiths (95).  But in their search of Bristol in 1633, they made comment “upon the wares of Thomas Griffyn and Edward Griffin,” which “were found agreeable to the standards of gold and silver and redelivered them again” (Book R 2: 381). It is no coincidence that Edward Griffin (also Griffith) started his apprenticeship under John Wollaston of London—one of the wardens of the Company carrying out the search… (Kent 95).

Lost and found

Lastly, it’s important to keep your wares and your belongings safe, so that these valuable items can be kept in either personal possession or sanctioned circulation.  An entry on the 24 January 1573 in the Goldsmiths’ Company court books describes how an apprentice found in a chamber a “ring of gold with a cross and a heart in a pansy, with a “d” the one side of the cross and “M” on the other side of the same, with a G & H above it, & this date “1569” under it.” The ring was found in “The Temple wherein” Mr Fleetwood and Mr Sands have their lodging.  The wardens of the Company order that the ring be delivered to those two men “to the intent that they shall deliver it to the right owner if it be possible” (L 1:179).

Elizabethan Betrothal Signet Ring; 1stdibs.com

This minor incident represents a curious textual recording of this piece of jewellery and its accidents and circulation, but it also points to the formal structures surrounding lost jewellery in such a heavily-regulated gold market.  At the same time, it preserves the personal value of the item, delivering an ekphrastic lost and found record that announces the ring’s personalised inscription and perhaps indicates that its safe return is ordered with a nod to its likely emotional significance.  If it were central to a betrothal, it also has an added legal charge, testifying to a contract or binding. Its discovery in a chamber leaves to the imagination why the apprentice considered it lost (might it have been put aside for safe keeping?) and why it was not being worn (was it purposely discarded?).  

The entry thereby combines the financial and personal significance of jewellery, something that accords with other uses of rings in company records.  If you’re curious about how your wares might be used once you’ve established your freedom to trade in Bristol, you could start up your conversation with the Soapmakers of Bristol again.  In the seventeenth century, they begin to put rings down as deposits or forfeits for their observance of pricing agreements.  In 1612, members agreed on a price to which they “set … hands and Possites [deposits],” including (to pick a selection) Humphrey Reade’s signet ring and Thomas Burrows’ ring of gold; in 1614, Mrs Slye deposited 1 ring with a diamond and Leonard Hancock’s deposit was six silver spoons (BRS 10 95, 103-4). The symbolic qualities of these objects indicate how the deposits act as an extension of individual identity.

Tracking the varied circulation of rings in this way for middling members of livery companies suggests a broader cultural network for material objects such as jewels and in turn indicates the imbrication of commercial, personal, and domestic material culture.  The Bristol soapmakers’ rings may have had or once have had romantic or other significance for their owners, but they are (also) being put into a business network as promissory pawns.  Such rings (or silver spoons) may well have come from one of the prominent goldsmiths producing such items in Bristol across this period, perhaps from the Wine Street shops of Edward Harsell or Humphrey Clovell.  If you join the local collective of goldsmiths in Bristol, you would likewise release your work into a community where jewellery’s practical and decorative uses combine to furnish men and women of the town with status symbols—ones that represent a combination of social, cultural, and economic currency.  And, like Clovell, you may develop a deep familiarity with other cultural artefacts, from stained cloths and pictures to the plays that entertained audiences at Bristol’s Wine Street playhouse for nearly 30 years. 

Callan Davies


Bibliography:

Bristol Archives (Bristol).  Diocesan Court, Cause Books. EP/J/1/11.
Bristol Record Society. 10 (Proceedings, Minutes and Enrolments of the Company of Soapmakers, 1562-1642, H.E. Matthews) (1940)
—. 48 (The Topography of Medieval and Early Modern Bristol: Part One, Roger Leech). (1997)
—. 54 (Probate Inventories, Part I, Edwin and Stella George, assisted by Peter Fleming). (2002)
The Goldsmiths’ Company Hall, Library and Archives (London).  Court Minutes.  Books L, N, and R1 and R2.
Elizabeth Goldring, Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist (2019)
Timothy Kent, West Country Silver Spoons and their Makers, 1550-1750 (1992)
Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin. “A Place of Great Trust to be Supplied by Men of Skill and Integrity”: Assayers and Knowledge Cultures in Late Sixteenth- and Early Seventeenth-Century London.” BJHS (2019): 1-27.
Roger Leech. The Town House in Medieval and Early Modern Bristol (2014).
The National Archives (Kew).  C3/341/56. 
The National Archives (Kew).  C2/JasI/W4/59. 
Pamela H. Smith. The Body of the Artisan (2004)

Tudor Intergenerational Inequality

My father was a Yeoman, and had no lands of his own, only he had a farm of 3 or 4 pound by year at the uttermost, and hereupon he tilled so much as kept half a dozen men. He had walk for a hundred sheep, and my mother milked 30 cows. He was able, and did find the king a harness, with himself and his horse, while he came to the place that he should receiue the king’s wages. I can remember, that I buckled his harness when he went unto Blackheath field. He kept me to school, or else I had not bene able to have preached before the king’s majesty now. He married my sisters with v pound, or 20 nobles apiece; so that he brought them up in godliness, and fear of God. He kept hospitality for his poor neighbours, and some alms he gave to the poor, and all this did he of the said farm. Where he that now has it, pays 16 pound by year, or more, and is not able to do anything for his prince, for himself, nor for his children, or give a cup of drink to the pore.

27 sermons preached by the ryght Reuerende […] Maister Hugh Latimer(STC 15276; 1562), E3r [George Elwes Corrie, ed., Sermons By Hugh Latimer (Cambridge, 1844), 101]

This passage is taken from the printed version of a sermon given by Hugh Latimer (c. 1485 – university divine and bishop under Henry VIII, court preacher under Edward VI, executed as a heretic under Mary I – in 1549.  This autobiographical anecdote, dating from just a few years before the period the ‘Middling Cultures’ project investigates, highlights many of the themes and concepts that will be central in our research. It emphasises the role of identity and self-perception even as it also shows the ways in which these interacted with and were shaped by external and variable economic and social forces. It reminds us that middling status could be precarious and fleeting as individuals, across just one or two generations or even across a lifetime, might rise and fall beyond it. Latimer’s invocation of contemporary anger at a divide between rich and the ordinary – and the exploitation of the latter by the former – provides an important and central context for the lives of those trying to carve out a space in the middle of a hierarchy that to some felt increasingly hostile. It also resonates with many modern concerns about a world with a rising super-rich and a middle who wonder if they will ever have the economic security that an older generation enjoyed.

Hugh Latimer preaching before Edward VI, as imagined in an illustration in John Foxe, Acts and Monuments (1563). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

As Latimer delineates his father’s status, the intermingling of social, economic, political, moral and cultural capital is clear. His father’s position, in Latimer’s retelling, rested not just on his modest wealth, but on his charity and hospitality, his ability to serve the king (including at Blackheath: here Latimer is describing his father fighting for the king against a Cornish rebellion in 1497), and his ability to raise his children ‘in godliness’. He also provided Latimer with the means of social advancement: he was able to ‘put him to school’, the first step on a dizzying rise that saw him preach before the king. His trajectory may have been extraordinary, but many of Latimer’s contemporaries also used education to rise beyond middling origins. The contemporary social commentator Sir Thomas Smith wrote in 1583 that the universities were one of the ways that gentlemen ‘be made good cheape’ in Tudor England. But while his father’s comfortable, though not extravagant, life had given Latimer the opportunity for a life among the elite, his self-conscious, deliberate and very public evocation of it shows that his middling origins remained both important and useful to Latimer. Used here as a rhetorical tool to help spur the king to action, invoking and appropriating an ‘ordinary’ identity allowed him both to speak on behalf of the people, and to align himself with a group that he presents as the moral and social core of their communities, and the nation.

Latimer is describing, and bemoaning, a world in flux. His father’s way of living has already gone and his (perhaps hypothetical) successor at the farm lived a much more marginal and straitened life: he had slipped beyond the relative comfort and safety of the middling. The decades that followed Latimer’s sermon would see the pace of this change not slow, as he had hoped, but accelerate. It was in this crucible of economic and social change that the cultural identities of the middling were forged, contested and asserted.

Ceri Law

In search of the middle…

…it is now requisite (and, God, in justice, will so have it) that the stout, faithful, and prudent Citizens, and the men of middling Fortunes, who were heretofore scorned and oppressed, should be called into Office and employment…’

George Wither, 1646

“…most people actually still live in places like Harlesden or West Brom.”

Doreen Massey, 1994

The Cultural Lives of the Middling Sort is a project in search of the experiences of a crucial early modern demographic.  The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries saw the significant growth of a group of individuals—men, women, families, and households—who were not landed gentry or nobility, but neither were they peasants or wage-labourers.  They worked for their living, but they had some control over their labour (and sometimes that of others); they were not necessarily rich, but they had some ability to spend and borrow.  The “middling,” as this group is now often termed, encompassed a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and occupations, trades, crafts, or professions.  

Perhaps because of this diversity, historians in search of concrete class identities have sometimes characterised this group as variously elusive, tricky to define, incoherent. It’s not until the late eighteenth century that historians can detect a set more easily aligned with conventional ideas of the “middle class.”  Yet the “middling” were at the centre of a crucial shift in Elizabethan, Stuart and Interregnum England centring on social mobility: one that begins to see new forms of social, economic, and cultural capital coalesce around a group of working people who had the ability both to consume and produce a variety of cultural artefacts, from literary works to medicines to furniture.  

This project seeks to think holistically about the lived experiences of this umbrella group of people.  It will broaden studies that have hitherto focused on the social relations and economic positions of middling people, and it also turns to an earlier period than that discussed by most historians of the middling sort.  We will combine quantitative approaches with qualitative studies of language, networks, and visual and material culture, while unpicking topics ranging from religious practice to gender.  As such, we’re interested in cultural production (what did people write, make, fashion, and sell?) and cultural consumption (what and how did people read, what did they buy and how did they use purchases; what was it like to display and use particular objects?).  Our research looks around the country at different communities, as we consider the relationship between local and national experiences and identities. 

As such, our project is attuned to complications in social experience that are equally prevalent today.  The remainder of this post explores the nature of both the modern and early modern “middle” and introduces the eclectic methodologies of the project via several short case study examples (in separate pages, linked here and below; click image to visit):

Micro Case Studies:

Talking class

In 2007, the geographer Danny Dorling noted that recent sociological research into identity in modern Britain showed that “Most people think they are average when asked.” He glossed this trend in self-identification by adding, “in most things, most are not.”

Just under ten years later, the researchers behind the Great British Class Survey explored the question of the average and “middle” of society further; they, too, found that people from across the economic spectrum saw themselves as of “middling” wealth.  The researchers identify a renewed “obsession” with class in contemporary Britain, but suggest that the typical vocabulary used to describe class structures is no longer adequate.  Their study, Social Class in the 21st Century, reflected on responses to their own survey as well as on other demographic data. From this, they revised the standard division of British society into “lower,” “middle,” and “upper” classes, positing instead seven different categories. The three to four groups that lie in between the “extremes” of this new class system might be considered the “middle.”

The authors of Social Class in the 21st Century had many causes to reconsider what is meant by the “middle.” They observed numerous social, economic, and cultural developments that have changed the texture of the British class system.  Their nuanced approach was not limited to economic assessment: rather, they explored material wealth but also considered social capital (one’s networks, friends, colleagues, and social circles) and cultural capital (one’s familiarity with and uses of tastes, interests, and activities). These are, they argue, all part of the complex modern class system. While the increasing detachment of the super-rich makes them ever more distinctive a group, a model that posits a singular, catch-all “middle” class would misleadingly smooth out their essential diversity: “…we have a picture of growing cohesion at the top and bottom, but within the middle ranks—which are the majority of the population—a much more complicated picture.”

The early modern middle

A number of the social developments raised by the authors of Social Class bear uncanny resemblance to developments in early modern England, too, and their characterisation of the twenty-first century “middling” provides a useful introduction to our own concerns.  In early modern England, numerous complex factors—including a growing population, changing financial systems and cultures and the challenges of harvest failure and dearth, transformations in the objects and buildings of the physical lived environment, the religious changes and disjunctures of England’s Reformations, educational expansion and the interlinked rises of print and the vernacular—saw the formation of a distinct but variable “middling” demographic.  This group had to work for a living, unlike the landed gentry, but they often ran households, had control of some production means, and possessed social and cultural capital that distinguished them from many workpeople, wage labourers, smallholders, and tenant farmers (with farming being by far the most common profession across sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England). For instance, the rise in schooling saw a spike in what we now call first-generation university students, who left versed in both traditional scholastic as well as contemporary humanistic education; they brushed shoulders with the sons of aristocrats and mastered classical literature.  A number of these graduates went on to reshape literary and commercial forms within the emerging print market; they include writers such as Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nashe.  

Robert Greene at his writing desk and casually “shrouded in [his] winding-sheet.” Greene in Conceipt (1598).

Who cares about the middling sort?

Research into this middle group of society has been a subject for social historians since the late 1970s.  Keith Wrightson’s language of “sorts” provided a new vocabulary, one drawn from commentary of the period, that helped historians reconceive the structure of society in a period before the Marxist language of “class” can be usefully applied (that is, contentiously, before the Industrial Revolution).  Numerous studies have subsequently explored the significance of the “middling sort” for understanding major developments in early modern England: for Wrightson and Levine, they represent the gradual firming up of a tripartite class system, with the ascendant middle leaving below them a proletariat underclass and in turn ushering in the systemic exploitation and class conflict characteristic of the late eighteenth century and beyond.  For others, the group are at the centre of shifts in consumption culture: changes in household production among the middling sort, combined with increased spending power, have been linked to a rising commodification of goods, particularly household items.  Others have seen the middling sort as responsible for an increased emphasis on domesticity that helped to bring in a new concern for “gentility”—a set of manners, behaviours, and material expression that distinguished an increasingly middle-class or bourgeois existence from living standards below (and arguably also above).  Beyond these approaches, one might think more broadly about the burgeoning businesses and trades across England driven by this broad group of people, men and women alike—apothecaries, scriveners, playhouse managers, printing press owners, skilled artisans, preachers—and of their increasing participation in public administration—as aldermen, vestrymen, justices of the peace, school and hospital founders and administrators, contributors to civic entertainments and events.

On and in their own terms

Many previous studies have concentrated largely on economic and social factors: they have used, often in ingenious ways, probate inventories (the list of possessions recorded at a person’s death), parish records, apprenticeship records, and patterns of trade.  Barring several important exceptions, they have often focused on a later seventeenth-century window, often with the consequence that the “middling sort” can appear to be a transitional group, an industrial-class-in-waiting, with much discussion resting on post-Restoration evidence. In part, this might be connected to historians’ identification of the “middling” as an indistinct, incoherent grouping.  In John Smail’s words, for instance, “practice [was] particularly important as a vehicle for class identity in the early phases of the formation of a class culture because a coherent conceptualisation of class identity was still being constructed” (230).

Smail’s investment in “practice,” and by extension lived experience, recognises the problems with prioritising “class consciousness” (recognising one is within a particular class) as the essential endpoint in a history of class or of social formation.  Other studies of the middling sort have also expressed frustration, or at least resignation, about the fact that distinct expressions of self-identity are few and far between.  Henry French (author of the only book-length study of the middling sort in our period) sees middling identity as something that works within a parish—in relation to others in one’s immediate community: “This does not mean that the ‘middling’ lacked other possible forms of extra-parochial identity or identification. It merely suggests that they generally did not express these through the idiom of the ‘middle sort of people” (20).  Self-identity in the twenty-first century seems to be equally difficult to pin down, as the opening remarks of this post suggest.  While it may not be helpful to look for a narrowly self-defined group of middling people in our period, we are interested in the range of imbricated and understood identities within the umbrella grouping of the “middling sort”—much as the authors of Social Class in the 21st Century suggest for us today.  

Cultural Lives

As such, our project is going to bring together these issues through a wide-ranging focus that takes into account all aspects of individuals’ cultural experiences.  We will do this by looking at the formative period of middling identities, in the century following 1560.  It is from this date that many of the social changes described above occur or intensify. 

By applying such an interdisciplinary lens—one centred on lived experience in all its cultural manifestations—we hope to add nuance and texture to the broad grouping of the “middling sort” in this formative period.  We will explore the things, practices, and ideas produced and consumed in the household, the guildhall, and the church, such as: musical instruments, pictures, account books, books and printed materials, letters, administrative and legal records, architecture, and household and divine objects. The following case examples show brief and speculative samples of the different methodologies, items, and approaches that bring a wider cultural consideration to our understanding of a group of people who fundamentally changed the social, cultural, and economic landscape of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  

Opening Micro Case Studies:

Callan, Catherine, Ceri, Graeme, and Tara. June 2019.