A Walk through Hythe in 1600 – Part 3

Make your way now back into the close. The beercart has been freed and is now being loaded with barrels of beer for an inn at New Romney. The rat has mercifully died, although the boys are squirming around in the dust on their stomachs and shrieking, pretending to be dying rodents.  It is time to go back to the street and continue on your way westward along the main street.

Many of the sideways houses still function as shops as well as dwelling places.  Some are selling goods made on the premises; others sell finished goods, small wares or food. You can buy fabric from Michael Sprott (French kersey only three shillings and sixpence the yard) or James Fordred (tawny baize at two shillings and sixpence) and have it made into an outfit by Joseph Gibbons, the tailor. You can get shoes from John Martin for two shillings.  If you are very up-to-date, you can also buy new-fangled buttons to fasten your clothes from Mr Fordred.  If you still prefer to use points, in leather, thread or silk, you can get them from Alice Robyns, the enterprising widow of a miller who keeps a haberdashery shop with her daughters Margaret and Mary. She also has jersey stockings, in red and green mixed, for five shillings and green silk garters for two shillings and fourpence.

Just now, Widow Robyns is looking askance at the packhorse tethered a little way off. It belongs to a chapman, the door-to-door salesman of the seventeenth century, who also sells stockings and points and a great deal else besides. He is trying to sell his merry-books to a young matron who has bought from him before. Her little son, still in frocks, clings to her apron and you realise that what at first you took for a stiff doll under her arm is, in fact, her tightly swaddled baby. She cannot write, but she can read a little and would like something amusing to share with her gossips. The books she looks at are either quite crudely bawdy, or, to your twenty-first century sensibilities, distasteful. For the seventeenth century reader, Welshmen are funny per se, so are ‘simpletons’. Shit is particularly funny and emptying a chamber pot over a passer-by, uproarious. Wee is pretty hilarious too, especially if, say, a barmaid pisses in a difficult customer’s ale. You are reminded uncomfortably of the humour at your primary school, and move on.

The market is in full swing, having started earlier this morning when the market bell was rung after the court sessions. The town sergeant has finished crying the latest news from the corporation, which today was only a repetition of the order banning people from letting their pigs wander the streets. They will have to pay a fine of sixteen pence if convicted. This is, as it always has been, generally ignored.  Here you can buy what you cannot grow or produce yourself: eggs, poultry, cheese, milk, meat, maybe some early cherries, or small wares not sold locally or available here more cheaply.

The market is strictly controlled and local shopkeepers, alert to any opportunity to frustrate competition, are quick to bring to the attention of the corporation any contravention of the rules, such as staying beyond the closing time of four o’clock. The corporation employs market searchers, who will weigh the stallholders’ loaves to ensure that they are thirteen ounces or twenty-six ounces exactly and are sold at the regulation price.  Flesh searchers check that meat is exactly as it is claimed to be.

Visiting yeomen and husbandmen are arriving on horseback, their wives riding pillion behind them. They gather to drink beer, now more popular than ale, at the ‘White Hart’ or the ‘George’, while the women make their purchases.  Others who cannot afford the inns’ prices drink at one of the many alehouses, licensed and unlicensed, in the town. Some of those in the back lanes are no more than a couple of tables and some stools in a labourer’s cottage, where his wife serves homebrew of formidable strength and illegal gaming takes place, but the premises of Thomas Stroghill, the churchwarden, are as respectable as one would hope for from a pillar of the community.

Take a look at what is for sale at the market, apart from foodstuffs. You may purchase a pair of gloves, a comb, pins, needles and knitting needles, handkerchiefs and hatbands, thread of all sorts, capes, neckcloths and hoods, a looking-glass to check that they suit you, ink and inkhorns, necklaces, bracelets and brooches, napkins and tablecloths, soap and starch, tobacco pipes, spectacles, scissors, whistles, spurs, thimbles, shoe buckles and slippers. These things are not essentials. Money will always be spent first on feeding the family and secondly on decently clothing its members, but the market stall holders are there to provide for the wants of those with a little disposable income.

You spend some time considering this mass of people. The respectable women are wearing tight, rather low cut bodices over chemises, and skirts draped over bum rolls, padded rolls like ring doughnuts which fit round their waists and which are homely substitutes for wire farthingales.  At their necks are ruffs, carefully starched and pleated. From the market they can buy poking sticks to keep the ruffs in good shape. Their menfolk are in doublet and hose – a long-sleeved short jacket fitted at the waist, short wide breeches – padded if they can afford it – with knitted stockings underneath. They too wear ruffs, or wide falling collars, and large broad brimmed hats, even indoors. The etiquette of when to wear one’s hat and when to uncover is ignored at one’s peril. Poorer people don’t affect bum rolls or farthingales, or padded breeches or ruffs, but the general style is the same.

The very poorest don’t affect any style at all, but wear what they can lay hands on. The woman you have just noticed sitting on the kerb stone with a wooden bowl in front of her is one such. She appears to be wearing a bundle of rags tied together with tape. She has the milky eyes of the sightless. A small child has led her to this place by the market – perhaps a favourite ‘pitch’ – and now stands dumbly by her. The child is filthy, scabby and shoeless. It could be a boy or girl, but you really don’t want to get any closer to find out. The woman once had a name, when she was a girl, and when she married and had her children.  Her man and the children are dead now and she is left with a grandchild, and has no name. She is just Mother Casement. There is no room for her at the almshouse, though she gets ‘outdoor relief’ from the town, but it is not enough. So she begs here at the market, and citizens give her farthings and halfpennies, not enough to buy a whole loaf of bread, but enough to buy a bread roll for the child from the baker, who will fleece her because the weight and price of bread rolls is not regulated and he can charge what he likes.

The woman and child smell pretty bad, and people do not approach them more closely than is necessary. This is through more than fastidiousness. They believe that foul odours, or ‘miasma’, carry diseases. Wherever possible, people keep themselves and their surroundings as clean and fragrant as possible.

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