Introducing the virtual early modern parlour

Principal Investigator, Professor Catherine Richardson, introduces Middling Culture’s newest digital project – a virtual room from the 1620s.

Fireplace and replica wall paintings in the Reigate House Extension ‘parlour’ at the © Weald and Downland Living Museum.

Quite a few years ago now, at the start of a book on Domestic Life and Domestic Tragedy in Early Modern England, I tried to imagine what it was like to be present in an early modern room, situating oneself in space through the sights and sounds coming from the rest of the house. It was an exercise in a kind of creative writing, piecing together the evidence of court depositions – what people said they heard and saw. This is how part of it went:


Imagine, for a moment, what it might be like to be sitting in the hall of an early modern house. Say it is timber-framed, three storeys high, the upper floors jettied out over the street in front. What are you sitting on? Is it an old ‘turned’ chair with arms and a back ‘by the fyer sid’, or one of several stools around the table, or a bench along the wall? Are you sitting on the hard oak or, if you reach down to touch the seat, do you feel a cushion? Perhaps it is one ‘of crymson velvett, and ymbrodered with borders of greane sylke round about, saving it lackethe a lytle at one ende’. Can you be so precise because you know it very well indeed, both by sight and touch?

What is this room like? How large is it? Perhaps it has a long refectory table with stools around it. There is a court cupboard ‘under the wyndowe’, ‘an olde carpett and a lynnen cuberd cloth upon yt’, ‘a bason, ii flower potte, a cupp of tynn and ii stone pottes’ on top, and there are ‘paynted clothes over the benche’. How many doors are visible? There may well be a little buttery ‘opening to the hall’, the small cupboard off this room in which the brass and pewter is stored. There might be a ‘little place betwene the hall and the shop’ with a ‘little cupbord’ in it, one of those curious spaces which spring up in timber-framed houses when new sections are built on. There might be an entry behind the room, opening on to the back side of the house where the kitchen is. Towards the back of the house the room is darker, and here perhaps is the door to the parlour. It is open and you can see the ‘fether bedd wythe stedle standinge in the parlor furnysshed as a bedd ought to be’,  with its curtains and its tester and valance, with its bolsters and sheets and blankets and coverlets, all ‘appropriate’ to the status of this house in a way which you can judge intuitively. Then, fading from your vision in the hall, the ‘dark room behind the parlour’ which has no windows. At the other end of the hall is the window on to the street, and this casts light on the colours of the painted cloths, on the ‘olde rownde lokinge glase’, and on the ‘payre of greate andyrons’ in the chimney.

How aware are you of the rest of the house as you sit in the hall? Can you smell cooking from the back side? Can you smell onions and garlic, either in the room with you or upstairs in the chambers; perhaps the four ‘bacon hogges that are hanging in the roof’? Is it autumn? Can you smell apples in the loft above, or the oily scent of wool? Can you smell the raw materials and the processes of production going on in the shop; can you hear shears, or hammers? These routine noises must fade away in your consciousness to almost nothing, to a reassuring background which means ‘household’ to you.

How aware are you of the presence of the rest of the household? The walls are thin and there are holes, cracks, spaces in them, some there by design and others the result of wear. They complicate the division between the hall and the rooms around it. As you listen, you hear ‘one coufe [cough] in the howse’. Do you recognise the cough? If it is a stranger, you begin to listen much more carefully, to concentrate and make out sounds above your head. If there are ‘no persones in the … hall hearing’ but you ‘alone’, the disparity between the exchanges upstairs and your seclusion downstairs will make the hall seem larger and stiller. Those you hear ‘in a chamber over the hall’ are choosing their words very carefully. They are discussing issues which connect the house to the body and the soul as they ‘speake and move’ the testator ‘to be good unto his wif’…

Whether you go upstairs, or outside, and how you go, will depend upon who you are. How have you been imagining yourself?


I enjoyed writing it, based on tiny snippets from the documents that I analysed quantitatively in other places in the book, and found it a useful way into an argument about the relationship between theory, practice and theatrical representation. It was an interesting intellectual exercise, to reconstruct the records of perception and use them to explore not only the sensory qualities of lived experience, but also the social norms they revealed.

That was a long time ago, and it’s interesting to see that I was quite comfortable with experience being purely textual in form – no images, no physical objects in sight! But both scholarly practice and digital capability have moved on since then. So this blog is a first announcement that our virtual early modern room is coming!

A virtual room was always going to be a part of the impact work for this project, thanks largely to having the fabulous Graeme Earl on the team – more from him in a future blog. We wanted to present our findings in innovative ways, to engage people with those questions of how those in the middle of society, neither very rich nor in poverty, made material and cultural use of their space. We built on the Ways of Seeing network on which the team had also worked together, in which we explored questions of perception in relation to new technology and heritage outcomes.

Replica painted hanging in the hall of Bayleaf Farmhouse (c. 1540) at the Weald and Downland Living Museum. Explored through the Ways of Seeing project.

The other thing that’s happened is that, as a project, we haven’t been able to get into the archives as often or for as long as we’d intended in this phase of the work. And that’s changed the way we’ve developed our digital resources. Rather than seeing them as the vehicle via which we disseminated findings after the end of the project, we’ve started to work with them more creatively as research tools. That has meant thinking with and through them about the big questions the project explores – for instance about the experience and place of reading and writing for the middling sort – and using them to problematise our evidence, rather than to present a seamless and straightforward narrative. We’ve also thought about them together, as a group – how this room relates to Middling Culture’s Status Calculator, for instance.

Staircase and section of C17 wall painting in the ‘parlour’ from the Reigate House Extension at the Weald and Downland Living Museum. Photograph by Tara Hamling

As a result, the project’s digital outputs have become considerably more significant. We are working with our project partners – the “real-world” room (pictured above) on which our virtual room is based is at the Weald and Downland Museum – and items from various collections such as The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, The Portable Antiquities Scheme, The National Trust and a number of local authority archives. We’ve also been working with creative writers, actors, digital artists and database developers, all of whom you will hear more from in this series of blogs leading up to the launch of the room.

It has been a strikingly different experience, for me at least, in the course of which I’ve had to think in new ways about how we work with evidence, probability, typicality and patterns of cultural behaviour. More on all of that too, but for now here is a short list of the issues we wanted to explore through spending time in the room:

  1. Reading and writing in a specific location
  2. The different ways in which reading and writing were used
  3. Howa person’s identity is built up over time
  4. How cultural experience is formed and remembered
This desk box from SBT’s collections is one of many objects to feature in our virtual room. SBT 1994-22, oak; sloped lid with butterfly hinges and scrolled book rest; body with scratch mouldings to front and sides. English, about 1600 © The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Finally, I’d like to come back at the end and think through just how different this way of presenting evidence is to the example with which I started. Our next challenge will be to come back to the linear narrative form and see how we can explore what we’ve learned in that way – in other words we have to write the findings up! I’d like to think more about the relationship between writing and experience, and how we bring material environments into written forms. The practices – both early modern and modern – that have cohered around the room offer different models for us to consider, and I hope to reflect more on them once we’ve spent a little longer inside….

Accessorising in Early Modern England

A Middling Culture of Portable Antiquities

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

The ‘Middling Culture’ project seeks to understand the cultural lives of the middling sort (1560-1660), but what might survive of their ‘material culture’, specifically in the small finds record? Known by archaeologists as ‘portable antiquities’, many of these items are found by members of the public, most by metal-detectorists, and recorded (generally on a voluntary basis) with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). 

To date, the PAS has recorded over 43,874 items dating to 1560-1660 or thereabouts: many finds can only be dated to a century or more, so 1500-1600, 1550-1700 etc. The vast majority are coins (31,354), jettons (4,427) and tokens (1,174) and other sorts of numismatica which (arguably) must have crossed the palms of many in society, though invariably the rich are more likely to use the highest denominations. Putting the coins to one side, we are left with almost 6,000 items of ‘other stuff’ dating to 1560-1660, including bells (41), cloth seals (231), thimbles (16), toys (108), vessel fragments (96) etc, reflecting the diversity of items used in the Elizabethan and Stuart periods until the Restoration (1660). Identifying the ‘middling sort’ amongst this relative wealth of material culture is fraught with challenges, including presumptions about what they might have owned, especially in terms of object use and their material composition. However, it might be reasonable for us to examine objects that represent the ‘disposable wealth’ of the country’s inhabitants – items that are perfunctory or decorative, maybe even ephemeral!  

With this in mind, one ‘object category’ that might be deemed useful to consider are ‘dress accessories’, of which dress hooks have already been considered in another Middling Culture blog, and I will reflect upon them again here. Although dress accessories – such as buckles, buttons, dress hooks and finger-rings etc – are clearly functional, sometimes (often in some cases) they can be made of more costly materials or highly embellished to a level beyond what is truly necessary. Obviously, the use of precious metals and a higher level of craftsmanship or work time, including the addition of applied or complex decoration, can add to production costs. As such (in very general terms) they must have been owned by people who had more wealth than most, but not necessarily as much as the highest echelons.    

Gold ring, c.1600-1650, KENT-2CA863

Almost all the Elizabethan and early Stuart finger-rings recorded with the PAS are precious metal, most being gold. Relatively common are so-called ‘posy rings’. These include an example from Brookland, Kent (KENT-2CA863), which is formed of nine domed roundels framed with corded wire. Inside the hoop the romantic inscription, in italic letters, reads ‘love is the bonde of peace’. Another gold ringer-ring from Kent, this time from Wootton (KENT-6EAD48) and without an inscription, has its bezel in the form of a six-petalled flower, with its central cell and each petal filled with red stones – perhaps garnet, or more likely sapphire. This has been likened to rings in the Cheapside Hoard. Such well-made, though not necessarily top-end, items must have been made for those below the aristocracy, probably in the merchant classes, but perhaps also including those in the middling ranks.

Buckle frame, copper alley, c.1600-1650, SUR-2E3924

Conversely, all the buckles of this date recorded by the PAS are made of base-metals, with the vast majority being copper-alloy. By the start of the 15th century belts and girdles become larger, leading to the popularity of double-looped buckle frames – though they appear in London and elsewhere from about 1350. An early 17th century buckle frame from the Thames foreshore, found near the Tower of London (LON-4C1830), stands out because it has the bright shine of the original metal. This ‘found as lost’ look contrasts with items discovered on arable farmland, more typical of those recorded with the PAS, that usually have a green or brown patina. Perhaps indicative of items owned by the middling sort is a double-loop rectangular buckle frame found at Theale, Berkshire (SUR-2E3924). Whilst it is possible that these decorative items could have been owned by folk with more wealth than most, it is hard to be sure as casting allows for stylised pieces to be made with relative ease.

Silver dress fastener, c.1600-1700, SF-A9E705

Amongst dress fasteners on the PAS database is an interesting silver example in the shape of a fleur-de-lis. It was found in Risby, Suffolk (SF-A9E705), and dates to the 17th century. Although it is a stand-out piece amongst its companions on the PAS database, it is of relatively simple construction and (perhaps) therefore not out of reach of the middling sort. It is worth considering this one alongside a type bearing the arms of the Commonwealth, and (as such) can be tightly dated: see for instance an example from Staple Fitzpaine, Somerset (SOM-7174B4). These are all made of copper-alloy and thus more affordable (one assumes) to a wider populous, reflected by the fact they are fairly common finds. People must have owned these to make a political statement of affinity to the Parliamentarian cause, and it is of note they are seemingly more common in the south-west.

Dress hook, lead, c.1500-1600, NMS-A47F71

Dress hooks might be considered in a similar vein to these other dress fasteners and fittings, especially as they are made of both silver (some also being gilded) and base-metals. The upper end of the market might be represented by a silver-gilt example, though incomplete, which was found at Great Witcombe, Gloucestershire (GLO-D42D08). It has a trefoil plate that supports three hemispherical domes, each decorated with applied filigree and granulated ornament. Of similar form, but made of lead, is one from Barton Bendish, Norfolk (NMS-A47F71). This clearly replicates the precious metal examples, but in lesser materials and would have been easier to make, surely appealing to those with less dispensable income. Most common are base-metal dress hooks, again probably inspired by their more impressive cousins. Somewhat typical of these, in very general terms, is a piece from Shalfleet, Isle of Wight (IOW-AF7846). This has a lozenge plate with a quatrefoil at its centre. In this case, as is fairly common, the hook is broken.

Dress hook, lead, c.1550-1650, IOW-AF7846

Previously I argued that copper-alloy dress hooks were owned by those in the middle of society, but metallic composition is not a neat guide to the status of the owner. As can be seen from the other dress accessories discussed above, it is possible that a wider range of society might have invested their wealth in certain portable objects. In this sense finger-rings are not typical, since (as we know from how they are used to this very day) precious metal items are more ordinarily owned by a wider range of modern society than certain other items of jewellery, such as bracelets, earrings and necklaces, for example. Therefore, it is quite likely that some of those at the upper end of middling society in 1560-1660 could have owned precious metal dress accessories also, perhaps allowing is to dwell on the challenges of identifying the middling sort through their material culture.   

Prof Michael Lewis (British Museum)

Agility in the face of adversity

glassmakers, glaziers and the middling sort

Dr Louise Hampson from the University of York traces the fascinating, not-to-mention agile, lives of glaziers and glassmakers in early modern Northern England.


In 1503, Robert Preston, master glazier of York, a prosperous and contented man who headed a significant workshop, died. In his will, he left generous charitable bequests, gave his tools and stock of glass to his partner Thomas Ynglyshe, and bequeathed ‘suitable’ books from his library to his apprentice.1 His biggest legacy was, however, the glass he had painted and installed across the north of England in churches, abbeys, and cathedrals. They had been his workshop’s absolute bread and butter and York was a regional hub for this specialist craft. Window glass itself was not made in England at this date, it was imported from various places on the Continent, but it was here that it was painted, grozed (cut to shape), and leaded up into enormous windows of breath-taking beauty by workshops like Preston’s. In this period the biggest clients for most glass workshops like Preston’s were the thousands of churches, cathedrals and religious houses which had been such a feature of every city, town and village for over five hundred years.2

Ruins of St Mary’s Abbey York © Creative Commons

Fast forward one hundred years to 1603 and the landscape, literal and metaphorical, looked very different. The religious houses had gone, stripped of their lead, windows, and timber. The number of parish churches had been drastically reduced (in York’s case by a third) as income from the laity for prayers, masses and the accoutrements of pre-Reformation worship had stopped, and religious imagery had become a minefield of what was acceptable.3 Although windows had not been a particular target for Reformers (that would come later in the Civil War), the appetite for new figurative religious imagery in church windows had largely dried up and church patronage now took other forms.  

For Robert Thompson, master glazier and glass painter, the head of a glass workshop in York, survival depended on finding new clients, creating new designs and opening up new markets. Fortunately for him, the appetite for conspicuous display had not gone away, but simply shifted in emphasis from the public realm to the private and from the religious to the secular. Where once the wealthy would have paid for windows of saints and angels in churches with donor figures and imprecations to pray for the soul of the donor, they now paid for richly detailed coats of arms demonstrating their social credentials and generosity to the upkeep of the church fabric.4 They also took a fancy to having elaborate painted glass in their houses as windows became bigger. For those newly ennobled or enriched by the dissolution of the monasteries, coats of arms played a key role in establishing or acquiring social status and what better way to show the world your ‘aristocratic’ lineage than in shining glass?5

York Guild of Glaziers register, 1598 © Author’s own

For those lower down the social scale, the ‘middling sort’, the fashion for glazed windows (as opposed to shutters or windows covered with linen or filled in with pieces of flattened horn) began to be an achievable ambition and one which marked out your social status. Glass was still expensive but becoming cheaper as production shifted to home turf and the thicker edge and ‘crown’ (or bullseye) pieces became available, which allowed humbler domestic windows to be constructed from many small pieces leaded into a square or diamond net. The glaziers who would previously have been occupied glazing churches now moved to glazing houses for merchants, craftsmen and the rising professional classes.

Sixteenth century domestic window
© Creative Commons

At the same time as the world of the master glazier had been turned upside down, the Crown had been taking steps to break the Continental monopoly on window glass manufacture and establish glass furnaces on English soil. In 1567, Elizabeth I had brought two Continental glassmakers (Jean Carré of Antwerp and Giacomo Verzelini of Venice) to London to teach the English how to make the fine-quality glass necessary for window glazing.6 The industry took off, initially predominantly in the south of England, with furnaces fired by wood. However, there is early evidence of furnaces being set up in the north with the burial of the ‘uxor Amabie Glassman’ being recorded in Lastingham parish register on 2nd March 1593 and evidence for furnaces being discovered in excavations in Rosedale and Hutton-le-Hole.7

Woodcut of a glass furnace from Vannoccio Biringuccio ‘De la pirotechnica’ published in Venice by Venturino Roffinello, 1540.
© The Corning Museum of Glass, 2002 http://www.CMoG.org

The granting of patents, to allow taxation of the glass furnaces, was a privilege distributed to favoured courtiers: Sir Edward Zouche vied for this ‘business’ with Sir Robert Mansell and this led to the glassmakers of London being charged different rates whilst still facing the challenge of imports which were becoming cheaper in order to compete! However, by 1615, concerns were growing about the depletion of woodlands (and the potential loss of timber for the navy) which led to the ‘Proclamation touching glass’ of 1615 which prohibited the use of wood in furnaces and required the use of coal instead.8 This favoured the furnaces of the Midlands and the north where coal was easily available and encouraged the establishment of furnaces on estates such as Wentworth Woodhouse in south Yorkshire. Mansell petitioned the Earl of Stratford, Thomas Wentworth, to allow a furnace for window glass to be built on his estate because coal was so accessible, and the proximity of nearby rivers allowed easy transport of the finished product.9

1947 newspaper showing how close the open cast mining came to Wentworth Woodhouse! © Creative Commons

Sir Robert Mansell bought out Zouche’s patent rights in 1615 giving him a complete monopoly on glass production, but it appears that the glassmen were an agile bunch who could set up and dismantle furnaces in remote places, like Rosedale, allowing them to evade the taxation system and increase their profits. The whole patent taxation system became so unwieldy and created such a disadvantage for native producers that it was abandoned in 1642.10 Small, family-run furnaces then sprang up around the south Yorkshire coal field which persisted into the nineteenth century: the Bolsterstone glasshouse ran a furnace near Sheffield producing both vessel and window glass (including coloured glasses) from the mid-seventeenth century until the mid-nineteenth century when glass manufacture became industrialised and the new ‘float’ process replaced traditional methods.11 

So, what did all this mean for those of the middling sort? The Thompson family were both members of this social stratum and those who serviced its needs and desires. The Thompsons were master glaziers and glass-painters who had been at the forefront of their craft from 1568-1620 and who rode the wave of change as the appetite for new religious imagery gave way to other work and new designs. The first of the family were recorded as glaziers in 1492, but the complex structure of the craft meant the Thompson sons also trained in other workshops (like the Petty’s) to learn specialist and new skills.12 The eldest Robert Thompson had trained in the workshop of the Petty family who had produced the last of the great glass for York Minster before the Reformation, making the coats of the arms for the windows of the great lantern tower in the late fifteenth century.13 The master glazier John Petty had, uniquely, been memorialised in the glass of the south front, above the civic entrance to the Minster after his death in 1510 possibly because he was mayor of York as well as a master craftsman. This record of the depiction of a master craftsmen in stained glass (now sadly lost) is exceptionally rare and a measure of the status enjoyed by the Pettys in York.14 

Petty glass from the lantern tower of York Minster Cross keys emblem from the glazing of the lantern of the central tower (LTN1-4, LTS1-4).  Painted by the Petty family c.1471, the same device is repeated against varied coloured backgrounds.
© Photo York Glaziers’ Trust, reproduced with kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of York

The Petty family were succeeded as master glaziers to the Minster by another Robert Thompson who had trained in the Petty workshop. His workshop had specific skills in ‘stayning’ or painting, a skill which continued to be in high demand. This was a skill his workshop passed on to one Marmaduke Crosby who took over as master glazier at the Minster in 1620.15 He had been an apprentice in the Thompson workshop and used his skills to design and make glass armorials for the York mansion of Sir Thomas Ingram, a self-made man who had risen to prominence on the back of the misfortune of others – he bought his country house, Temple Newsam near Leeds, from the bankrupt and disgraced Earl of Lennox for £12,000.16 Crosby made glass for his York house, Ingram’s Mansion, which was built on the north side of the Minster and installed armorials in the nave aisle which faced his house.17

The Ingram arms in the north nave aisle (n28). The date ‘1623’ ties these to the period when Marmaduke Crosby was working in this area of the Minster and on Ingram’s York mansion, so these arms are identified as his work.
© David O’Connor

With the onset of the Civil War, one might have expected the joyless and miserly Parliamentarian Ingram to dispense with Crosby’s services, not least as the Crosby family may well have been Catholics, but on the contrary, he transferred their contract to work on transforming Temple Newsam into a statement of his status and to design and install elaborate armorials to demonstrate his landed gentry credentials.18 Crosby had trained in a workshop which had been devoted to religious imagery whose skills were honed for the prestigious ecclesiastical clients which had been the backbone of the craft, but times had changed and the Crosbys nimbly switched their focus, adapted and remarketed their skills to appeal to a new and emerging domestic market, a market which continued to grow throughout the rest of the seventeenth century. 

Supported by the growth of local furnaces producing window glass of fine quality – possibly even producing some glass themselves, although the evidence is ambiguous – the Crosbys were well-placed to capitalise on these new opportunities and to reinvent themselves as suppliers to the gentry and to the middling sort who wanted a little bit of what had previously been the preserve of the church and the aristocracy.19 Agile and quick to pick up on new trends as old markets disappeared and new ones emerged (or could be built), the glaziers and glassmen – and women – of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries didn’t merely survive, they thrived!

Dr Louise Hampson

University of York


1 Testamenta Eboracensis: A Selection of Wills from the Registry at York. Vol IV ed. James Raine, Surtees Society 53 (Durham , 1869), 216-217.

2 John Blair and Nigel Ramsay, English Mediaeval Industries: Craftsmen, Techniques, Products (London, Hambledon Press, 1991), 275.

3 https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/city-of-york/pp365-404

4 See, for example, the depictions of the Roos family in the St William window (York Minster, nVII) c.1425

5 See for example Brereton Hall, Cheshire

6 Geoffrey Lane, “A World Turned Upside Down: London Glass Painters 1600-1660in Journal of Stained Glass 29, (2005), 45-75.

7 ‘Sixteenth-Century Glass-making in Yorkshire: Excavations at Furnaces at Hutton and Rosedale, North Riding, 1968-1971’ in Post-Medieval Archaeology, 1972/01, Vol.6; Issue 1.

8 Eleanor Smith Godfrey, The Development of English Glassmaking 1560-1640 (Oxford, Clarendon, 1975), 16-28.

9 Denis Ashurst, The History of South Yorkshire Glass (Sheffield: J.R. Collins, 1992), 19-20.

10 Ibid, 9-10.

11 Ian Bailiff, “Bolsterstone Glass House, Stocksbridge, Sheffield, South Yorkshire: Luminescence Dating Report” Research Dept Report Series No.98-2010 (London: English Heritage, 2010).

12 John A. Knowles, “The Glass-Painters of York VIII: The Thompson family”, Notes and Queries S IX, no.12 (1921):163-165.

13 Knowles, “The Glass-Painters of York VII: The Petty family”, Notes and Queries S IX, no.12 (1921): 21-22.

14 David O’Connor, “John Petty, Glazier and Mayor of York: an early sixteenth-century memorial window formerly in the south transept of York Minster”, in Glas. Malerei. Forschung: Internationale Studien Zu Ehren Von Rüdiger Becksmann  ed. Ivo Rauch and Daniel Hess (Germany: Deutsche Verlag für Kunstwissenschaft, 2004), 254.

15 York Minster Archives E3/62/2

16 Anthony F. Upton, Sir Arthur Ingram, c.1565-1642: a study of the origins of and English landed family” (Oxford: OUP, 1961), 161-171.

 17 York Minster Archives E362/3

18 Upton, Sir Arthur Ingram Chapter 6.

19 Entries in the York Minster Fabric Rolls of the 1630s for purchases of turves for the glazier’s ‘furnace’ may refer to glass manufacture, but equally may be for the firing of painted glass and staining.

Jamming together: Recreating improvised seventeenth-century musical divisions

We are delighted to host this guest post from Nina Kümin, a PhD candidate in music performance and baroque improvisation at the University of York.

The pleasure of your company is requested for a seventeenth-century jam session!

One of the main forms of music making for English middling society in the seventeenth century was consort music. Small groups of families, friends or neighbours would gather to play music together in several parts. While at the beginning of the seventeenth century, viols were the most popular instrument for this, as the century progressed the violin also grew in popularity. Of this music making, one of the most elusive traditions was that of playing “divisions”. This was the practice of adding florid ornamentation to printed music and improvising variations (making them up on the spot) taking inspiration from a popular printed theme. At the middle of the century, Playford, a publisher based in London and member of the Stationers’ Company, turned to printing collections of such example “divisions” on famous tunes which is testament to the tradition’s existence and growing popularity. His attempt to materialise an essentially immaterial art represents an increased demand from the growing amateur market; the divisions he provides are teaching materials, once accustomed to the art and with some general technical ability, Playford encourages the players to improvise their own. Through improvisation, the players moved from recreating works to being the creators, in control of the emotional development of the piece, the technical difficulty and the length. These published divisions, therefore, acted as an intermediary, temporary material form. Thanks to Playford’s publications, including Christopher Simpson’s The Division Viol of 1659 and Playford’s own The Division Violin of 1685, and through practice-led research, we can begin to reconstruct what it might have sounded and felt like to play or hear improvised divisions in the early to mid-seventeenth century, making the journey from immaterial sound and oral tradition through Playford’s material representations to the immaterial nature of improvisation again.

Each theme in Playford’s division manuals is set to a bassline which repeats all the way through called a “ground bass”. Let’s take “Faronell’s Divisions on a Ground” from Playford’s Division Violin as an example:

To the improvising musician, the bassline reveals which chords occur at which time. This ultimately reduces the number of possible notes an improviser can choose from as each chord change must be accompanied by a consonant (right sounding) note at first. The task of the improviser is then to find an interesting way to get between each of these important consonant notes.  The theory of consonance and dissonance was widely discussed in composition treatises at the time (English examples include Morely 1597; Mace 1676 and Matteis 1682) and is evident in many compositions over ground basses such as passacaglias as well as all of the examples in the Division Viol, Division Violin and Division Flute (a later collection by John Walsh from 1706). For this particular set of divisions, the harmony is as follows: Dm, A, Dm, C, F, C, Dm, A, Dm, A, Dm, C, F, C, Dm A, D. To the improviser, this means that you can chose one of the follow notes to start each chord:

Dm:      D, F, A

A:         A, C#, E

C:         C, E, G

F:         F, A, C

These, however, can be anywhere on the instrument and thus there are many possibilities even if there are only three named notes available for each chord. The materiality of the instrument, therefore, comes into play here too. As the violin, for instance, has four strings, only a maximum of four notes can ever be played together at any one time. In addition, the player has to be able to technically execute their ideas. It is therefore not realistic to pick notes which are at the extremes of the violin to jump between repeatedly; music tends to move by step or in smaller jumps. This reflects the vocal tradition in which singers also find large leaps difficult. Other considerations include the timbre (sound qualities) achievable. The lack of a shoulder and chin rest on the baroque violin also makes shifting, which facilitates the comfortable execution of large leaps, difficult. For each instrument, different strings will have different timbres due to the make of the violin and the material and winding of the strings but also the player’s technique and experience, not to mention the acoustic. This all also applies to viol playing and all of these factors might have a bearing on which of the options the improviser chooses. 

Finding interesting ways to get between these notes has its roots in ornamentation. This was common practice in all music of this time. This meant that musicians would not just play what was written on the material page but add their own little flourishes and touches between printed notes. These could include trills, scales, arpeggios, repeated notes, turns, chords, vibrato and mordents, just to name a few. For example, here is the theme from the same set of Playford variations played without any ornamentation and then with:

 

The results are really quite different. This illustrates the frustration of music publishers and composers in notating their works as all printed notation only materialises a small amount of the sounds heard (Kuijken, 2013). Interestingly, contemporary writers sought to rectify this by providing lengthy treatises on composition and performance which attempted to explain these practices (some English samples include Morely, 1597; Simpson, 1659; The Burwell Lute Tutor,1660; Mace, 1676 and Matteis, 1682). The musician, therefore, has an interesting relationship with the material form of the music in that this does not represent an absolute but rather a set of guidelines or suggestions; the musician was free to follow the score or deviate from it as they saw fit. Of course, this opportunity still exists today but current common musical practice does not allow any creative licence in the form of added notes unlike the conventions of the Baroque. By reading these treatises and experimenting on period instruments, performers can attempt to ornament in a stylistic manner.

Adding to these structural harmony notes and ornamentation, each variation in the division publications is in a different character. These have their roots in the “affects” (emotions) and dances. Certain keys and intervals were viewed as evoking certain affects. While the key for divisions is already established through the ground bass, players can experiment with different intervals to create different emotional effects. In addition, English music took inspiration from the French tradition of Baroque dance using their forms and rhythmic characteristics. This use is evident in notated compositions but also in the dance melodies in Playford’s The Dancing Master (1651). For instance, this set of Playford variations is actually based on a sarabande; the opening theme contains the characteristic crotchet + dotted crotchet + quaver rhythm and is in triple time. It can actually be danced to as I demonstrate here…

Middling musicians would also have been familiar with the different dance styles and characteristics not just from playing music based on dances but also through learning to dance themselves. The rhythms and playing styles associated with each dance style aid the dancer by stimulating lift, poise, energy or impetus, all of which these musicians would have been accustomed to and internalised through the physicality of dancing. Many of Playford’s variations use these to add variety and interest as the harmony remains the same throughout. It is therefore highly likely that improvised divisions would also have included dance inspired variations. There were opportunities to escape the repeating harmony in other musical forms such as the fantasia but a characteristic of the division practice was this repeating “ground bass” so variety and interest came from creating these different characters. 

Combining research into the intermediary material printed examples by Playford along with the advice in other treatises and the study of notated compositions in Playford’s The Dancing Master and those by his contemporaries, a set of guidelines can be produced for the modern performer seeking to improvise their own stylistic divisions:

  1. Begin each chord change with a consonant note, then find interesting ways to get between these structural notes
  2. Keep in mind the technical possibilities and characteristics of your instrument and performance space
  3. Create variety and interest through adding/ considering:
    1. Ornamentation
    1. Intervals to create different affects
    1. Dance rhythms and characters

Through practicing and experimenting in this manner, it is possible to improvise some stylistic variations. Therefore, I would now like to invite you to a virtual seventeenth-century jam session by encouraging you to pick and mix from the following variations, choosing however many you like and in whatever order you like, each video plays one example improvised variation. By playing them after each other you can build your own set of improvised divisions and therefore experience the improviser’s task of making decisions between key structural points. In this way, you can orchestrate your own structure and each time will give you a different result. This in some way mimics the excitement and variety of improvisation; they would never have played the same variation twice and were in control of the development and length of the piece. These variations were taken from a longer recording of my continuous improvised divisions over the ground bass of this same Playford piece. If you would like to hear them in their original order, this is also provided below.

Playford’s attempt to materialise the immaterial tradition of improvised divisions through his published examples, whether for viol or violin, not only recognised the existence of this tradition but allowed for a greater engagement with this by amateurs, a large number of which were middling recreational musicians, transforming their domestic cultural engagements. Musical improvisation is also deeply rooted in the material, however, as the performer’s relationship with their instrument determines a large proportion of the compositional decisions as well as the limitations of the technicalities of the instrument. The variety, creativity and individuality performed by these middling musicians would have been exciting to experience but Playford’s materialisations allow modern performers to also experiment with this practice.

Nina Kümin

Nina Kümin – Improvising Violinist – YouTube

The Elizabethan Civil Service, or If at First You Don’t Succeed, Get Up and Petition Again

British bureaucracy is under constant scrutiny, from the public, the press, and even the government itself. Yet administrative paperwork and systems of protocol have a long history that underpins the growth of the modern capitalist economy and the communities who sustained it. The individuals who drove the bureaucratic revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which witnessed the significant growth of English towns, were not monarchs or famous statesmen but literate middling men who possessed the necessary skills and networks to facilitate it.

Of particular importance were civic clerks. These individuals were responsible for writing out and filing legal documents and recording the minutes of civic assemblies. Whilst the professional role of town clerk is well recorded and the individuals traceable, the lives of under-clerks are often obscure. Although their work is preserved in myriad town documents, there is often little trace of the man behind the hand. Chester’s Hugh Dod was one such clerk for whom information can be found, and as such provides an interesting case study of the life of a professional scribe and lower civic official.

Dod is traceable through a series of petitions he entered throughout his lifetime to the civic authority of Chester in pursuit of a position in one of the city’s legal courts. As the Power of Petitioning Project has shown, although early modern petitions could take a variety of forms, in essence they were handwritten documents from an individual or group to a particular authority, requesting that a specific action be granted or carried out. In short, they were a means for inferiors to appeal to superiors, seeking a positive change to their present circumstances. Petitions were usually written up by a scrivener or scribe, so as a clerk Dod would have been familiar with the form and structure of a petition. Additionally, as he worked in civic government himself, he would also have known how to get a petition heard at the assembly. Only two of Dod’s original petitions survive but accounts of the others are found in the city’s assembly books, which record the minutes of meetings of the civic officials of Chester.

The surviving petitions are written out formally and addressed to the mayor, recorder, justices of the peace, aldermen, sheriffs, sheriff peers, and common council of Chester. The language used by Dod is deferential, ‘earnestlie desiringe’ preferment and the ‘favourable consente and allowances’ of the assembly. To further his case for preferment, he emphasizes certain ‘losses’ he has sustained in ‘labouringe meanes’ to obtain letters from his friends and patrons who wrote in support of his petition, demonstrating an impressive network of influential associates. However, networks and technical skill do not guarantee that a petition will be successful. Despite being literate, skilled, and well connected, Dod’s life was characterized by precarity. His position as a clerk clearly did not afford him the lifestyle he sought and as a result he was constantly petitioning for higher, and more permanent, employment.

Cheshire Archives and Local Studies: ZML/6/57, Petition of Hugh Dod, 1611, records in the Cheshire Record Office are reproduced with the permission of Cheshire Archives & Local Studies and the owner/depositor to whom copyright is reserved.

Dod first appears in the civic records in 1592, when his petition to be an attorney in the courts of Portmote and Pentice in Chester was considered by the assembly and deferred. The petition was either not considered again or rejected, as Dod put in another petition in 1594 to be an attorney in the same courts, which was also rejected. Dod then waited 12 years before entering another petition in 1606, in which he is described as a scrivener and petitioned the city to be made an attorney in the court of records. The petition reveals that Dod had previously served as an under-clerk in the Pentice, which was the town hall and court room in Chester for the local courts, and was looking to sidestep into another career, one in which he had no formal training. Instead, he claimed to have been ‘broughte upp under mr Knight late Clarke of the Pentice’ and ‘experimented in the premisses’. Dod had served under William Knight, who was Clerk of the Pentice from 1569 to 1600, for 17 years presumably at the end of Knight’s life, which would date his service to 1583-1600. Dod appears not to have had any prior legal training or education at a university of Inn of Court; he probably had a grammar school education. However, his training or experience as a scrivener meant that he would have been familiar with a range of legal documents. Nonetheless this informal legal apprenticeship did not satisfy the assembly and Dod’s petition was denied.

Five years later Dod petitioned the city once again. The petition from 1611 survives in the Chester archives. In it Dod claims that he had ‘the experience of a Scrivernor within the said Citie’ for the past 18 years and had throughout this period been ‘wanting sufficient preferment whereby to mentaine him selfe and his femely’. According to a manuscript written by Dod himself, clerks in Chester received a set fee of 8 pence per page for drawing up and entering of every sheet containing 14 lines in the court of Pentice and Portmote where Dod worked as an under-clerk. Professional scribes like Dod regularly earnt money outside of the courts writing up documents for private individuals, who lacked either the literacy or skill to draw up documents themselves. Indeed, Dod appears as a notary on various wills, indentures, and assignments in Chester in the period 1600-1640. However, Dod clearly believed that his earnings were not enough and requested a greater and more steady wage as an attorney in the common law courts of Chester.

For his 1611 petition, Dod did not just rely on his own protestations of experience but provided letters of recommendation from Sir Rogert Aston, Sir John Salusbury, and Thomas Ireland, who all presented their ‘harty commendacions’ to the mayor on behalf of Dod. All three men were well connected lawyers and courtiers. Aston was a courtier and Master of the Great Wardrobe to King James I, Salusbury was Esquire of the Body (a personal attendant) to Elizabeth I and a lawyer, and Thomas Ireland was a lawyer who later became the vice chamberlain of the Exchequer court of Chester. The exact relationship Dod had with these three individuals is difficult to ascertain. The letters from Salusbury and Ireland are quite standard letters of recommendation and include no specific information about Dod himself. The letter by Aston, however, further recounted Dod’s qualifications stating that he had been clerk under Knight and had ‘dwelled in the saide Citty’ ever since, suggesting that Dod did not hail from Chester originally. Dod had, Aston claimed, behaved himself ‘verie honestly’ in his role as a scrivener and ‘in respecte of his saide longe tyme of service’ was able ‘to discharge the duty of an attorney at the Comon Lawe’. Aston therefore desired the city to place him as such ‘the better to maineteyne himself when hee shall growe into further yeares’. Despite the letters Dod’s petition was again thought ‘not fit to be graunted’ and ‘utterly denied unto him.’

The votes of the assembly have been jotted down by another hand at the side of his petition on the same page and show that only 1 person voted in favour of the petition against 35 rejections. The decision by the assembly appears to have rested solely on Dod’s education. However, as Christopher Brooks has shown, to be an attorney did not require formal legal training at the Inns of Court but was more commonly learnt through apprenticeship. Either the assembly’s rejection of Dod was due to the fact he had not served his ‘apprenticeship’ under an attorney, or their decision rested on a personal issue not recorded in the assembly book.

Detail of CALS: ZML/6/57

A man of habit, Hugh Dod waited another five years before petitioning the city again in 1616. This time Dod played his trump card. He produced a letter from King James himself recommending his ‘welbeloved Subject Hughe Dod’ to an office in the courts of Chester due to the ‘acceptable service’ Dod had carried out ‘in writeinge of sundrie Instructions for the Ayde due for our deereste daughter the Lady Elizabeth’. In a further letter to the mayor Dod stated that his letter from the king proved that he ‘deserveth to be admitted’ to a position in the courts or, if he ‘happen to survive’ the incumbent William Hockenhull, to have the office of Serjeant in reversion. Despite Dod having friends in high places, his petition was once again refused, and he remained in his position as an under-clerk in the Pentice.

Dod’s situation may have improved slightly in 1627 when the current Clerk of the Pentice, Robert Brerewood, was suspended from office for negligence. It was thereby ordered, on 20 February 1627, that mayor Nicholas Ince ‘put in some fitting clerke or clerkes to execute the said place and office’ whilst Brerewood was suspended and to ‘take into his Custodye the Bookes and records of the said Office and of the Severall courts within the said Citty’. The name of the chosen individual is not recorded in the assembly book, but a manuscript written by Hugh Dod reveals that it was he who was appointed. In an account of the freemen admitted in Chester in the year 1626/7 Dod recorded that he ‘was admitted by the said Nicholas Ince in the tyme of his maioralty to write in the office of Pentice during the sequestracion thereof’. Despite his lack of formal training and prior rejections of legal office, the city was clearly happy to let Dod take on this significant role, albeit not as a permanent appointment. Clerks of the Pentice were not required to have formal legal training, although the two of the previous incumbents, Robert Whitby and Robert Brerewood, were both Inns of Court men, and the post had been filled previously by William Knight, Dod’s own patron, and Thomas Whitby who had both served apprenticeships. Therefore, Dod’s experience and training meant he had the experience needed to take up the role of temporary Clerk of the Pentice but did not possess the skills necessary for a more permanent office as an attorney.

After 11 months of sequestration a new Clerk of the Pentice, Richard Littler, was appointed and Dod was once again seeking employment. He petitioned the city one final time in 1631, requesting that in light of his service to the city, which included him writing up an official list of legal fees for the city, he deserved to be admitted to a legal office. Dod was never granted an office as an attorney and next appears in the civic records in 1636 when he petitions for an almsroom – charitable accommodation for the poor – in Chester, which had recently become available and was being allocated via ‘lott or ballettinge’. Ironically, this was Dod’s only successful petition. Dod retained the room until his death in 1639.

Dod’s petitions offer an insight into the life and career of an early modern civic clerk, a position that required literacy and a specific skill set that could be acquired through a form of apprenticeship. However, similar to being self-employed or working freelance today, Dod’s work as a clerk and professional scribe also required a certain amount of self-promotion and trading on his reputation to attract business. As such, his earnings were not set or secure and he clearly did not earn enough to support himself or his family. His skills were constantly deemed ‘not fit’ by the civic council to sidestep into the career of an attorney despite his experience and letters of recommendation. This suggests that whilst education, literacy, and patronage were important for social mobility, the exact set of skills acquired and how they had been obtained also mattered. As a result, Dod’s life was characterized by petitioning and precarity, and his social mobility and career progression were hampered by his lack of specialised education.

Mabel Winter

Sources

BL: Harl MS 1944, f. 115

BL: Harl MS 2020 and 2082: A catalogue of the Harleian manuscripts, in the British Museum. With indexes of persons, places, and matters : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

CALS: ZAB/1, Assembly Book,

CALS: ZAB/2, Assembly Book,

CALS: ZM/AB/1, Apprenticeship Registers, f.27

CALS: ZML/6/57, Petition of Hugh Dod, 1611

CALS: ZML/6/58, Letter of Roger Aston, 1610

CALS: ZML/6/59, Letter of Thomas Ireland and John Salisbury

CALS: ZML/6/108, Letter from the King, 1616

CALS: ZML/6/112, Letter from Hugh Dod to Mayor Thomas Thropp, 1616

CALS: ZA/F/11/43, Petition of Hugh Dod, 1620

J. H. E. Bennett, The Rolls of the Freemen of the City of Chester, Part 1, 1392-1700, The Record Society for the Publication of Original Documents Relating to Lancashire and Cheshire Vol. 51 (1906)

Christopher Brooks, ‘Professions, Ideology and the Middling Sort in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries’, in Jonathan Barry and Christopher Brooks (eds) The Middling Sort of People: Culture, Society and Politics in England, 1550-1800 (Basingstoke, 1994)

Famarez Dabhoiwala, ‘Writing Petitions in Early Modern England’, in Michael J. Braddick and Joanna Innes (eds), Suffering and Happiness in England 1550-1850: Narratives and Representations: A collection to honour Paul Slack (2017)

Robert Tittler, Architecture and Power: The Town Hall and the English Urban Community c.1500-1640 (Oxford, 1991)

Keith Wrightson, Ralph Tailor’s Summer: A Scrivener, his City and the Plague (New Haven, 2011)

Power of Petitioning, The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England (history.ac.uk)

Blog Post: Petitions in Early Modern England: A Very Short Introduction – The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England (history.ac.uk)

History of Parliament, SALUSBURY, Sir John (c.1565-1612), of Lleweni, Denb. | History of Parliament Online

History of Parliament, IRELAND, Thomas (1560-1625), of Bewsey Hall, Warrington, Lancs and Gray’s Inn, London | History of Parliament Online

History of Parliament, ASTON, Sir Roger (-d.1612), of Edinburgh and Cranfold, Mdx. | History of Parliament Online

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.

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.