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

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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. 

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

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

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

Image Two: Items lost and found.

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

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

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

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

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

Hannah Lilley


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

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

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

Mudlarking in the Thames, Part 1: An Immediate Reflection

In the second chapter of Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book, the novel’s elusive journalist imagines what would be discovered when Istanbul’s Bosphorus dries up: “Amid the doomsday chaos, among toppled wrecks of old City Line ferries, will stretch vast fields of bottle caps and seaweed. Adorning the mossy masts of American transatlantic liners that ran aground when the last of the water receded overnight, we shall find skeletons of Celts and Ligurians, their mouths gaping open in deference to the unknown gods of prehistory. As [a] new civilization grows up amid mussel-encrusted Byzantine treasures, tin and silver knives and forks, thousand-year-old wine corks and soda bottles, and the sharp-nosed wrecks of galleons, I can also imagine its denizens drawing fuel for their lamps and stoves from a dilapidated Romanian oil tanker whose propeller has become lodged in the mud. […]” (17).

Today, London’s Thames affords the mudlarkers on its banks a similar, less apocalyptic, vision.  Down on the foreshore countless shards and specks of ceramic and clay pipes roll back and forth in the wash, bearing witness to last meals and first smokes.  

Thanks to the Thames Discovery Programme, we went on a guided mudlarking expedition today in the area that Elizabethans would have known as Broken Wharf.

The north bank between Broken Wharfe and Queenhythe, from MoEML, showing the stretch of foreshore we combed.

A licence is required in order to “mudlark” (in short, to search for items), and we were covered by the TDP’s licence; they do guided Thames walks like these, if anybody is interested in joining in.  We combed the foreshore between here and the eerie, prehistoric place of Queenhithe: home to Tudor ships lading and unlading, Anglo Saxon burial mounds, and the crumbling ruins of the Roman city.  It’s a registered ancient monument (and so searching is not permitted in this stretch of shore), and it’s intriguing to think of this stretch of inclining shore as one of the most enduring structural features of London, visible and valuable across millennia. 

Queenhithe

Most astonishing about this experience was the immediacy and quantity of finds, in particular clay pipes.  We’d found four of these within minutes of descending the stairs underneath the Millennium Bridge: the expanse is littered chiefly with the stems of the pipes, ranging from bone thin to more solid, rudimentary constructions.  Among the rocks and detritus are also a number of the bowls that form the end of the pipes.  

Our finds…
Our finds…
Comparing discoveries: a makeshift foreshore museum…

Also widely scattered about are fragments of pottery from various centuries—small shards in the shadow of the Shard.  Most of what we discovered dated from between the medieval and twentieth century (with the layers of packed riverbed no doubt containing older treasures).  It included delftware from the seventeenth century, glazed border ware—that distinctive English pottery from medieval and early modern London—and varieties of transfer ceramics and mass-produced items from the nineteenth century.

A borderware example from the Portable Antiquities Scheme

As exciting as the tangible objects themselves was seeing the river swell in and out and bring with each wave of a passing Thames Clipper an eddy of floating clay pipes and flecks of ceramic.  It was a surprising vision of a river teeming with layers of history, and it prompted a reminder of the serendipity of historical investigation and the accidental gifts of an archive like the Thames.  Like an archive, the river and its holdings are curated and preserved and contain centuries of labour.  We were directed to the narrative of the river wall, for instance, which marks the different layers of flood defence built one on top of the other, concrete on brick on stone on sand; some 150 metres further back—up towards St Paul’s Cathedral—begins the Roman foreshore. All the ground beneath the tube station and the river’s edge is an expanse of ancient and ongoing embankment work, encroaching on and trying to contain the city’s principal feature. 

To the untrained eye, the experience also tests value judgements and aesthetic principles.  What assumptions underlay my guesswork about whether this shard was “old enough” or that decoration handmade or mass-produced?  Some of the more striking ceramic artefacts were the common borderware from the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, whose vivid green sheen caught the eye more than equally functional Victorian pottery or twentieth century China (or plastic margerine lids). We were rightly warned to be careful of modern sewage items—things flushed down the toilet; but the early modern privy and, for instance, the sewer infrastructure of sixteenth-century Southwark are areas of historical fascination (hopefully not just for me!).  How might we think about the layers of “ordinary” objects swilling around right now in the Thames, the dress hooks or trade tokens or drinking vessels used and exchanged by the individuals who are the focus of this project?  

When the Thames dries up, amid the doomsday chaos, alongside bottle caps and seaweed what diverse debris from the early modern everyday will we recover—and what should we be looking for in the meantime?

Callan Davies

Lucas de Heere’s Wives and Daughters

In the mid-1560s, artist and writer Lucas de Heere moved to London from Ghent in the Low Countries.  In his time in England, he produced works for leading figures at court while working with and teaching aspiring painters.  After having lived here some ten years, de Heere compiled a description of England and a run-down of its chief “wonders,” replete with brilliant sketches of contemporary figures in a manuscript (British Library Add MS 28330) that quite literally gives us a picture of life in mid-Elizabethan England.  

His images are arresting glimpses into the visual and material culture of the sixteenth century, and accordingly they represent a rich avenue of enquiry for a project such as ours—not least because they depict side-by-side the clothing, details, and practices of Elizabethans from across the social spectrum, from the Mayor and Aldermen of London to barons, MPs, and guardsmen:

British Library Add MS 28330. Lucas de Heere. Fo. 33r. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Add_MS_28330

In this sketch, de Heere brings together in four figures depictions of urban and provincial life: a wife of a citizen of London, a wife of a wealthy citizen of London, a young daughter, and a country-woman. The sketch therefore represents subtle differences in dress and comportment between degrees or sorts of people—between the wife and the rich wife, the urban citizen and the country dweller.  The country-woman is seemingly returning from the market or shops and is well dressed in frill neck and hat, though her white apron signifies a different way of navigating the social world to the city-dwellers; she holds gloves (a high-status accoutrement) in her left hand and poultry (a domestic workaday chore) in her other, perhaps distancing her from wealthier country households whose servants could take care of the shopping.  Each of these details raises questions about how we define middling status and its variability, about what qualifying words such as “rich” (‘riich’) and “citizen” (‘burgher’) do for this group, and about gender and age: where does a young daughter sit in relation to her parents (and the labour market); in what ways might a woman’s social standing rest upon her husband’s civic and economic status; and how do women’s labour and activities speak to the cultural experiences of middling people?  

Lastly, de Heere’s own activities and the social life of sketches such as these speak to other forms of middling culture.  Elizabeth Goldring has shown in her recent biography of the artist Nicholas Hilliard that de Heere had particularly close interactions with England’s goldsmiths (Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist, 79-83); indeed de Heere lived in London among an immigrant community of craftspeople that included glassblowers and stationers as well as goldsmiths (Returns of Aliens, ed. Kirk and Kirk: I, 441; II, 40).  Goldsmiths represent a particularly curious example of a group who spanned a range of middling experiences (from the JAMS, or the just-about-managing, in modern parlance, to the highly influential and well-off) and who produce a range of crafted outputs within their profession (and, in this period, including a growing a number of artists).  They are not only socially mobile but geographically mobile, trading in precious metals and, for the most successful, visiting London and the court to secure and deliver commissions. As such, they represent a group of “tastemakers” whose skills simultaneously respond to and influence elite interests but whose commercial realities remain in households and workshops in English cities.  

Our project begins its study of the “middling” in Bristol, where (as elsewhere in England) the goldsmiths, exceptionally, had no local mystery but were under the centralised management of the London guild; they are therefore a group for whom the relationship between local and national identity is especially charged.  How might the Bristolian goldsmith Humphrey Clovill’s household (which likely neighboured Nicholas Woolfe’s playhouse on Wine Street), with his moderate means and “wainescott, stayne clothes & pictures about the hall” (Bristol Probate Inventories I p.63 [1627]), fit into these experiences and representations?  More broadly, what is the relationship between craft-based skills and “middling” identities?  Behind De Heere’s sketch are the wider social networks of cultural production—one that sees goldsmiths, painters, and aristocrats conversing and collaborating, working at court while selling at home, and fundamentally pointing to the complex relationship between aesthetic creation and social status and mobility.  These are issues we’ll be pursuing over the next few years. [NB: Read about Bristol’s Audits and Goldsmiths in posts arising from this work now it has been completed.]

Callan Davies