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. 

Lettice Greene of Stratford-upon-Avon and her World

Stratford-upon-Avon Guildhall

Lettice Greene, like the majority of women in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, led a life in which her social status was determined by her male relatives. The life of her husband, Thomas Greene, was very well documented, particularly during the period 1602-1617, when he was town clerk and then steward of Stratford-upon-Avon. Lettice emerges as an important figure in documents made by or pertaining to her husband and other Stratford residents. This blog post presents a portrait of a middling woman who emerges from fragments of text.

Middling women’s activities often have to be glimpsed through snatched words, and their biographies are frequently partial. Their lives, where documented, are often written by men, though they followed very different trajectories: their educational experienced was geared towards skills that facilitated their running of a household, they very rarely gained positions of office, and their luck in marriage often determined whether they lived comfortable or difficult adult lives.[1] Their experiences, however, were varied, and many young women gained apprenticeships and positions of service before marriage and continued to have evolving careers over the course of their lives, as the Women’s Work in Rural England project has shown.[2]

Lettice began her life as the youngest daughter of a landed gentleman of West Meon in Hampshire. Here she would have had a privileged life, and she inherited 100 marks out of the profits of her father’s land. She bought this into her marriage to Thomas Greene, which took place in or around 1603, by which time she would have been in her late 20s. Thomas, although he was entitled to the title “gentleman” due to his education at the legal training centre of Middle Temple, was reliant on wages gained from his work for survival, and their early life in Stratford was spent as lodgers at New Place. Therefore, at this point in her life Lettice could be considered what we are terming “profession-al middling” status (working in or adjacent to a profession or literate role for a living), dependant on the hope that her husband would rise in status and wealth throughout his life. Although this status would have been gained through marriage, and shows a downward mobility from her landed gentry beginnings, from the evidence presented below, it seems that she may also have held this status in her own right, through the work she performed in relation to her husband’s profession as town clerk.

Lettice as a Writer and Networker

Letter from William Chandler to Thomas Greene at the Middle Temple. 26th January 1614. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, BRU15/5/151.

Lettice first caught my attention when I was exploring her husband Thomas’ cultural life through his writing. The letter in fig.1 is from William Chandler to Thomas, who was at the time of the letter, 26th January 1614, away from Stratford at the Middle Temple, where he spent a lot of his time. William asks Thomas for a subpoena out of the Star Chamber for six labourers involved in the enclosure of the common fields at Welcome, to which the Stratford Borough Corporation was opposed. He writes that:

I would intreate you if you have not the note of Remembrance that you tooke concerninge Mr Combe and other busyness at London all ready, then I would intreete you to Right downe to my mother greene that shee may send you the note up to you by the next retorne of the carrier.

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, BRU15/5/151.

This sentence tells us a lot about Lettice’s important role in her husband’s professional life. She was clearly literate enough to read her husband’s fiendishly tricky cursive handwriting (which was especially bad in any of his ‘notes’) and could navigate her husband’s working space to the point of locating a particular document. Without his wife’s household management, Thomas might have been left to make do without some important information. Lettice, then, played an important role in mediating between Thomas’ life at the Middle Temple and his Stratford business.

The second document that gives an insight into Lettice’s involvement with her husband’s professional world emerges from Thomas’ diary, which records his conversations and actions during a protracted enclosure dispute in 1614 and 1615. Lettice’s social network of Stratford women gave her information, via Margaret Reynolds, of attempts by the local Combe brothers to buy up land from nearby landladies; this insight was relayed to her in Thomas’ absence, and he then recorded it in his diary when he got back.[4] Lettice was, then, trusted as a source for town news to be written down and Thomas’ recording of the conversation he had with her after his return home demonstrates the social role she played as a gatherer of information.

The third document where Lettice’s presence is marked is on a deed of conveyance for Elizabeth and Adrian Quiney drawn up in 1611, which she signs as a witness in fluent italic hand. Here we get more of a sense of her social connections – she signs alongside her husband as well as Edmund Rawlins (another lawyer) and Judith Shakespeare, William Shakespeare’s daughter. She was, then, connected to some of the most powerful women in Stratford-upon-Avon: Elizabeth Quiney, the merchant and landowner, the Shakespeares (with whom she and Thomas also lodged at New Place in the first decade of the 17th century), and Margaret Reynolds, another female landowner. Her handwriting, present in her signature, also hints at her high level of literacy: her ink distribution is even and her hand confident (despite having to add an ‘I’ into her first name – Let^i^ce). The image of Lettice which emerges from these three documents is one of active involvement within her community and embeddedness within a network of socially and economically prominent women.

Lettice’s fluent handwriting, ability to locate and send documents to her husband, and role as a gatherer of information begs the question, just how frequently did Lettice write? Where did it all go? How typical was she of a middling woman married to a professional man who often spent time away for work? I’d been willing to imagine from her handwriting that Lettice was a regular scribe; that maybe she sent letters to her husband in his absences; that maybe she noted down information given to her. Her importance as an administrator only comes to light in a few documents, with her inevitable considerable unpaid labour towards her husband’s professional life hidden – if we had her matriarchive then #thanksfortyping might well be applicable to Lettice’s writing!

Lettice – a Businesswoman?

Although very little information survives about Lettice’s and Thomas’ home ‘St Mary’s’, it was described at its sale in 1617 as having a ‘brewing furnace’ and a brewhouse, as well as some land. This hints at the kind of activity Lettice may have participated in to enhance the household’s income. If Lena Orlin’s research into Anne Hathaway, and her speculation that Anne brewed beer at New Place is considered, it is not unlikely that Lettice, whilst lodging there, picked up this skill and continued it in her own home.[5] Her social circle of women who were economically active and successful in their own right, like Elizabeth Quiney and Margaret Reynolds, would suggest that Lettice also participated in similar enterprises within the town. Middling wives and widows conducted a range of paid and voluntary work within their homes and locales, and so it would not be unusual for Lettice to have generated produce in her brewhouse and on St Mary’s land to sell on.

After the house’s sale, Thomas and Lettice moved to St John’s Parish, Bristol, where, they largely disappear from the record.[6] Sadly, it seems Lettice’s marriage was not as economically or socially advantageous as she perhaps anticipated when she married a Middle Temple lawyer, who had secured a good position of office. In Thomas’ will (the final document in which Lettice can be found) he makes Lettice sole executrix, and bequeaths all of his remaining goods to her his ‘most deare & loving wife, being sorry that I haue noe more (than I haue to doe good a woman)’.[7] This statement is an extraordinary admission of Thomas’ failure to sustain the lifestyle Lettice was born into, but also suggests her important role as part of a team in marriage. Although, then, it is difficult to gain a full picture of Lettice’s life, these small mentions of her activities in documents pertaining to others hint at her varied work activities and the essential role she played in her household’s economic production. Perhaps, then, we might think of Lettice as having more than a supporting role, but as sharing a career with her husband, through her labours in his absence and domestic production of consumables. 

Hannah Lilley


[1] For an introduction to women’s education see: Caroline Bowen, ‘Women in Educational Spaces’ in The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing, ed. by Laura Lunger Knoppers (Cambridge: CUP, 2009).

[2] See https://earlymodernwomenswork.wordpress.com/ and Laura Gowing, ‘Girls on Forms: Apprenticing Young Women in Seventeenth-Century London’, The Journal of British Studies 55:3 (2016), 447-473.

[3] BRU15/5/151. William Chandler to Thomas Greene, Stratford the 26th January 1614. The survival of this letter within the borough archives suggests that either it was never sent, or that Thomas bought it back from London with him.

[4] BRU 15/13/29r.

[5] SBT, BRU15/7/128. Lena Cowen Orlin, ‘Anne By Indirection’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 60.4 (2014) 421-454,  p.447.

[6] BRU, 15/7/125 and BRU15/7/128.

[7] Will of Thomas Greene, National Archives PROB 11/186/420.

NB. Links in text are to Shakespeare Documented and to a Buzzfeed summary of #thanksfortyping.

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.

Humphrey Beckham, Craft, and Literacy among the Middling Sort

Section of Humphrey Beckham’s Panel

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

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

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

The Beckhams of Salisbury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At their meeting of the vestry Humphrey

Beckham brought in a note for worke

about remoueing the pulputt & some seats

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

the whole couer to 4li 15s 5d

& its appoynted that some corse be

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

as maii be.[10]

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

John Beckham’s Will

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

The Beckhams’ Cultural Awareness

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

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

Hannah Lilley


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Two: Items lost and found.

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

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

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

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

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

Hannah Lilley


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

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

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

Skill and Handwriting

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

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

What is it?

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

Speaking Skill

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

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

Handwriting

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

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

Interpreting Practice Using Image Processing

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

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

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

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

Moralising Handwriting Skill

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Dress Hooks of the Middling Sort

We are grateful to Michael Lewis, Head of Portable Antiquities & Treasure at the British Museum, for this guest post on “dress hooks.”

Identifying the ‘middling sort’ through their material culture is fraught with difficulties, not least as there is potential to interpret these items within our own, modern (21st century), perceptions of status, and any supporting evidence is largely lacking from contemporary written or art-historical sources. Indeed, often the best evidence for most material culture is the archaeological record. 

A case in point are ‘dress hooks’, commonly found through metal-detecting and reported in substantial numbers to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) – a project to record archaeological finds made by the public in England and Wales. In contrast to some other ‘detector finds’, dress-fastenings are mentioned in the written record, notably wills and inventories, and they also appear in art. That said their role and function, though studied (notably by David Gaimster et al in 2002, Antiquities Journal 82), remains somewhat enigmatic – indeed Gaimster described ‘dress-fastenings’ as ‘a crucial yet unsung element of Tudor dress’ (174). In general, it is believed that they were used to draw up garments, to keep them out of the muck of the street or display the rich fabric of the garment beneath, and may also have been used to fasten garments, or simply as decoration. Indeed, a multifunctional role, a bit like modern dress fastenings (buttons, ties etc) seems likely, and this might be reflected in the fact that they vary considerably in form and decoration.     

To date (August 2019) the PAS has recorded some 4,600 dress hooks; also – incorrectly – logged as ‘hooked tags’, which is a term for similar items of the early medieval period. If the material composition of dress hooks is any indication of the status of their owners, then it is of interest that almost 4,000 of them (so the vast majority) are constructed of copper-alloy. Thereafter, some 470 are silver, followed by 100 or so lead-alloy examples. 

It must surely be the case that the lead-alloy dress hooks are under representative of what once existed, and indeed it is of interest that their forms often mimic those found in the other metals – take for example a cast leaden example from Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire (BH-C23A16) which has a similar lozenge form to a copper-alloy example from Shalfleet, Isle of Wight (IOW-AF7846).

BH-C23A16

An assumption might be that dress hooks were being produced in lead (and maybe other ‘lesser’ materials, like bone, antler and wood) to cater for a less affluent market, though the numbers suggest otherwise. That said, there is a general recovery bias in the PAS data against lead, not least because intricately made leaden objects appear to survive less well in agricultural plough-soil (where most detected finds are recovered) than those of copper-alloy; on the Thames foreshore in London, thanks to the anaerobic conditions of the river mud, the survival of lead-alloy items is much better, though still copper-alloy dress hooks are most common.   

It must be that dress hooks made of precious metals, notably silver, were for those above middling culture, although Gaimster et al said that ‘detailed study of the iconographic and documentary record suggests that dress-hooks, as functional dress-fastenings, were not a significant part of male or female elite dress, particularly that of the royal court, in the early Tudor period’ (190). There are some fabulous examples of dress hooks within the PAS dataset. From Boxford, Berkshire (BERK-93DC8A), for example, is a silver-gilt dress hook made of several parts to form a flower-like head.

BERK-93DC8A

The central boss serves as a rivet, with its shank passing through a hole in the front plate and a silver back plate, before forking in two. Attached to the reverse is the hook. Also of composite form, is a silver-gilt dress hook of lozenge form, from Langham, Norfolk (NMS-116943). Again, the central boss serves as a rivet joining the elements of the object together, though the use of solder is noticeable. Besides these elaborate precious metal dress hooks are some humbler items, which because of their simple construction might have been more within the reach of the middling sort. Take for example a dress hook from Bletsoe, Bedfordshire (BH-B4EDCA) which is made of singly cast plate, with its hook added on after.

BH-B4EDCA

This type of dress hook – a cast plate with hook – is common amongst the copper-alloy PAS finds. It would seem from the quantity that these are the stock of dress hooks being used in Tudor and Stuart times, but by whom? It is interesting to posit whether this data is representative of all society, or just part of it. An inkling, given that their ornate designs suggest more than just a practical function, is that these would have been bought by those with some disposable income – maybe indicative of middling sort? Gaimster et al. seem to agree, suggesting that ‘pairs of decorative dress-hooks were mainly the preserve of women of the middle ranks’ (190). Some examples serve to illustrate the point. One from Asselby, East Yorkshire (YORYM-5281A5), though incomplete, is formed of an attractive openwork design, perhaps featuring a pine cone.

YORYM-5281A5

Of note is its integrally cast rectangular attachment loop and the hook, though broken. An important example from Arreton, Isle of Wight (IOW-A203D3), very much mimics a form of composite dress hook usually found in precious metal. It is formed of three bosses decorated with rope-work, likely to replicate applied filigree decoration found on some precious metal examples (including HAMP-B7066E).

Simplest in form amongst the copper-alloy dress hooks are those made of a single piece of wire, such as one from Watlington, Oxfordshire (SUR-3488DA).

SUR-3488DA

It appears that this form had a long life, and (although relatively few are recorded on the PAS database), they must have been relatively common. Surely these are below the middling sort, though we must not dismiss the use of simple, yet practical hooks, by all in society, especially if they were out of view. 

Returning to dress hooks of lead and lead-alloys. There is no doubt that these would be easier and quicker to make, so therefore (presumably) cheaper to buy. In general terms the examples recorded with the PAS are similar in form and designs to those of copper-alloy, though are normally cast in one piece; in the case of the copper-alloy examples the hook is usually soldered to the plate. For example, from Twyford, Hampshire (HAMP-48DED2) is a rectangular leaden dress hook decorated with a lattice of lozenges, within each lozenge a quatrefoil. Also, and much like examples seen in silver and copper-alloy (see above), is a dress hook from Stockton-on-the-Forest, North Yorkshire (YORYM-0D11C9). It does seem, therefore, that these dress hooks are imitating (or akin) to those of copper-alloy, with those in lead looking silver when new, and those of copper-alloy appearing golden (for gilding). Whether these lead-alloy dress hooks were popular amongst the middling sort is unclear, but it is a possibility…

Michael Lewis

Head of Portable Antiquities & Treasure, British Museum


Interrogating ‘middling culture’: a workshop report

Middling Culture held its first project workshop on Tuesday 25 June 2019. Our team was joined by around 20 experts from different disciplines, including scholars of literature, social and cultural history, archaeology and material culture from both academia and the heritage sector. These participants generously gave their time to focus on the really big questions raised by Middling Culture and to contemplate the directions that our detailed research, which is just beginning in earnest, should take. It was a lively and thought-provoking discussion, and in this post we share a few of the themes that emerged.

The day began with a visit to the Canterbury Cathedral Library and Archives, where the librarians and archivists shared with us a range of ‘things’ – maps, account books, marginalia in printed books, deeds, a beautifully decorated family Bible – that could illuminate certain aspects of middling lives and identity.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

We kept that focus on evidence when we returned to the University of Kent, where, after a brief presentation on the project and lunch, the first task was to work towards a definition of that very term, ‘the middling’. Each participant had been asked to bring along ‘evidence for an individual, object or practice’ that they considered to be 1) below ‘middling’, 2) securely ‘middling,’ and 3) above ‘middling’ for our period. These examples introduced to the room a huge variety of sources, from paint pigment to wills, from drama to dress pins. However, it was not the evidence but the selection process that provoked the most discussion: how do we know what is middling? What working definitions are we, perhaps unconsciously, deploying in our work?

This conversation continued in the final session of the day, which concentrated on practice as a mark of middling identity—particularly the concept of ‘skill’. The idea of literacy as one potential mark of middling status, as a learned and embodied skill, and as a site of cultural connection, is at the heart of the Middling Culture project; in this session, the aim was to question this by examining literacy as one of just a range of skills that could be taught, instilled and practised in culturally meaningful ways. Again, the range of evidence and examples that this audience could bring to the discussion was huge, and participants considered not just craft and formal education but horse-riding and breastfeeding as practices through which early modern people might find constitutive identities and points of connection. There was also a powerful warning for the project here, as speakers suggested the ways in which the idea of ‘skill’ itself was shaped by gendered and hierarchical assumptions in the early modern period. There was a danger, they suggested, of reflecting those prejudices and finding ‘skill’ only in certain, prescribed places.

Across the afternoon many ideas, questions and themes for future research emerged. We focus here on the following three:

  • Hidden middles and difficult groups: much of the discussion centred not just on the boundaries of the ‘middling’ as a group but on how to access and define people who don’t fall within the economic or occupational criteria often used in historical enquiry. Gender was a recurring theme in these discussions—in particular how we might consider women in a way that doesn’t assume that they derived their status wholly from men. Was there a distinctly female middling experience? How can we see the work, cultural investment and creative production of women, when our sources often render this less visible? We considered, too, other groups with attributes that make them difficult to classify within existing schema (including schema from the early modern period itself). The clergy came up repeatedly in this context, as did servants in training, and here the discussion revolved around the concepts of social, economic, and cultural capital, and how to both detect and allow for the ways in which these might not always coincide. Could you be a middling Catholic, for instance? How were disconnections between different types of power expressed and experienced?
  • Temporalities: the fluidity and vulnerability of status was a major theme of these discussions, and many participants pointed, in different ways, to changes over time. There are many different ways of conceptualising this change: perhaps most obviously across historical periods but also across the life cycle of an individual or within successive generations of a family: how long could the ‘middling’ status of a family endure before either rising up (into the gentry, for instance), dropping down, or disappearing from archival trace? “For three generations” was one (debated) answer to this question: is that the longest time span for across which successive family members might hope to dominate urban political and administrative bodies? The relationship between such individualised narratives of change and broader historical shifts is a difficult one. During our discussions, the unique nature of the 1640s and 1650s and the disruption of the ‘norms’ of status that this political upheaval created became key issues: how can the Middling Culture project capture both incremental and immediate change across the period? Things, too, have their own temporalities; how can these be understood and accounted for? How can we define and differentiate the ephemeral and the enduring and how might these categories also shape middling identity?
  • Expressions of similarity and expressions of difference: one central question here is whether there was a singular, cross-national middling identity. Was middling identity, as some have argued, inherently localised and fragmentary, or can we see any sense of a collective identity? Some participants suggested the movement of goods and people as one way of seeing middling-ness in contexts that extend from the local to the national, while others saw skill itself as one potential site for supra-parochial identity: within specialised knowledge that created both ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups. One central theme here was the necessity of considering what the middling might define themselves against. How can we understand who is above and who is below middling status in a way that recognises the fluidity and interchange between different groups while retaining an ability to differentiate? Several participants pointed out the necessity of moving beyond simplistic ideas of ‘emulation’ as a cultural practice among our demographic focus and instead emphasised appropriation and differentiation—up, down, and across the early modern social spectrum.  

We are incredibly grateful to all the participants in this workshop (and those who could not attend, but sent their representatives in the form of historical evidence and thoughts to aid our discussion) for giving us their time and knowledge to help shape this project at its formative stage. These are conversations that we will be continuing over the life of Middling Culture, and beyond; in the immediate term, we’ll be keeping this discussion alive on our website, including, in the coming weeks, blogs from some of Tuesday’s participants. We also want to hear from as wide a range of voices as possible so please do get in contact or comment below with any thoughts or questions.

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

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.