The Middling Sort – Part One

The majority of people who lived in English towns in the seventeenth century were neither particularly poor nor especially rich, and the term ‘the middling sort’ to describe them first came into use in this century. It meant those with adequate wealth, but at the time had connotations of mediocrity and meanness as well as being neither one thing nor the other. People of the middling sort worked for their income, and traded using the products of their labours or knowledge. They were a town’s main consumers, and it was they who filled the civic and church offices which kept the town running: jurats, mayors, churchwardens, overseers of the poor, constables, market searchers, town sergeants, and criers.

Their lives were tied, in one way or another, to commerce, and the whole family was involved in making the business pay to ensure their survival. Failure could be a disaster. If a man had borrowed and subsequently became ill, unable to work, and could not repay his debt, there were no bankruptcy laws to mitigate the blow: his bones would be picked bare and he would probably thrown into prison, and friends and kin who had co-signed on loans would suffer the same fate.  If he had extended too much credit and died and his creditors could not repay his widow, she would be pitched into poverty. It was a precarious existence.

Hythe supported all the trades essential to maintain life in a small town. Provisions for the kitchen could be bought from the butchers, the poulterer, the bakers, the vintners, and the rippiers (fish-sellers); other household wants were supplied by the tailors, drapers, mercers, tallow-chandlers, cutlers, haberdashers, grocers, glovers and shoemakers. Then there were the manufacturers: blacksmiths, coopers, brewers, joiners, ropemakers,  gunsmiths, saddlers, wheelwrights; and those who supplied the manufacturers: tanners, fellmongers, malsters, millers, woolcombers, weavers, physick gardeners, and malsters.

Other men and women provided services. There were barber-surgeons, physicians and midwives; painters, carpenters, glaziers, and pavers; thatchers and chimney-sweeps; schoolmasters and scriveners and innkeepers and licensed victuallers.

Finally, there were those who made their living from the land or the sea: yeomen and husbandmen (as a very rough rule of thumb, the former owned the land they worked, the latter leased it) and the fishermen.

Not all these occupations were present at one time in Hythe, but there was a profitable hinterland in the towns of the Romney Marsh with whom trade was possible. In 1623, Robert Smith, a weaver and woollen draper got his fleeces from a fellmonger in New Romney. James Pashley and John Oldfield, both brewers, supplied inns in New Romney as did George Thurbane later in the century.

Very often, a family had more than one source of income.  A man called Bridgman was both a thatcher and a chimney-sweep, presumably because he had the longest ladders.  Richard Clarke, a saddler, opened an alehouse in 1615, but overlooked getting a licence and was fined. Elizabeth Turner, wife of Richard, supplemented the family income by working as a midwife. In 1622, Phillip Van De Walle, a woolcomber, also kept ‘a shop of small wares’ and grazed a few sheep. Towards the end of the century, Vicesimus Gibson augmented his takings as a grocer by writing letters and legal documents for townspeople who could not write themselves.

At the beginning of the century, at least, fishermen did not generally need to diversify in this way, as there were opportunities for employment and trade all year round.  It was the single most populous occupation in the town.

As a buffer against financial ruin, some members of the middling sort used their savings to invest in land or property, becoming as rich, if not richer than the ‘gentlemen’ of the town who did not engage in trade.  Men in relatively humble occupations, such as William Gatley, a Hythe blacksmith or John Lambe, a carpenter bought land.  Gately bought land in Saltwood and Bilsington. The Saltwood holding passed to his niece Susan on his death in 1652. She almost immediately sold it and it eventually became part of Weller’s Gift. Susan meanwhile lived off the profits until they were spent and then applied for parish relief in her home town of Ashford. Instead she was prosecuted for not following a lawful occupation. Not all of the middling sort espoused the protestant work ethic. Lambe bought an acre of pasture land to the west of the town in 1657. The next year he bought an adjoining cottage and sold both as one lot to John Bassett, a grocer, who then rented it out.

Very often, property in Hythe was bought from, or sold to, outsiders. George Thurbane, the brewer, bought his premises from a man in Canterbury and Ferdinando Bassett, inn keeper of the White Hart, paid £360 to a vicar in Norfolk for seven acres of fresh marsh.  William Deedes, a mercer, bought two houses and stables from Thomas White of Wapping for £100. The middling sort were not only enterprising, they were mobile and had a wide network of acquaintance outside of the immediate environs of the town.

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