The Middling Sort – Part Six

Increased literacy should have meant, for those who could afford it, increased book ownership, and we do see in the probate inventories more books making an appearance. John Gately, the blacksmith had a bible and ‘four small books’ when he died in 1625. John Barnes, a carpenter, and Richard Beane, a yeoman had two bibles apiece when they died in 1668, and Beane had other books besides. Almost at the end of the century, Peter Johnson, a baker, also had a bible and some small books.  Book ownership, on the evidence of probate inventories, was not yet common. Rather worryingly, the physician brothers, Richard and James Arthur, did not own one book between them. Nor did the successful businessmen siblings Elias and Ferdinando Bassett.

The bible is the most frequently mentioned book in inventories, and Protestants made a point of publishing cheap editions so that the scriptures could be available to as many as possible. Before 1640, monopolies kept prices high, but when they collapsed a small bible which would fit in a pocket could be bought for two shillings and fourpence. Despite the exhortations of the church, owning a bible was not the same as reading it, and for some at least it must have had a purely talismanic or display purpose. However, there were some good stories in the bible, and it has been suggested that the painted cloths used to cover walls in the houses of the middling sort and in inns would have had biblical scenes depicted. Since none of them survive, we don’t know for sure, but Shakespeare describes Falstaff’s room in the ‘Garter’ as ‘painted about with a story of the prodigal’ (The Merry Wives of Windsor).

Other books are mentioned in Hythe inventories, but never named. The most widely available to the public were chapbooks, bought from travelling chapmen, or at fairs. These could be the broadly humorous merry-books, instruction manuals on family life or running a household, or Godly books, which tended to be terrifying tracts about the imminent arrival of the Grim Reaper and eternal damnation for the sinner.  No wonder the youthful John Bunyan, preferred the merry-books:

‘ give me a Ballad, a News-book, George  on Horseback or Bevis of Southampton,  give me some book that teaches curious Arts, that tells of old Fables; but for the Holy Scriptures I cared not’.

For many boys of the middling sort, an apprenticeship followed classroom education.  This generally started when a boy was fourteen, and lasted for seven years, although tradesmen in a craft requiring manual labour, such as tanners, bakers, blacksmiths or bricklayers might prefer a lad of fifteen or sixteen. It was usual to send one’s son away to be trained in a trade or profession, even when he was following in his father’s footsteps. John Gately apprenticed his son William to a blacksmith outside Hythe, possibly in Wye, about sixteen miles away, since William eventually married a Wye girl. William himself later took on an  apprentice from Lyminge, about six miles distant..

Some occupations were determined by family tradition, notably medicine and fishing.  James Arthur and his brother Richard both practiced as surgeons and physicians in Hythe in mid-century and James’s sons, also Richard and James, followed suit.  The Hutson and Wallop families produced generations of Hythe fishermen.

The choice of trade or profession was not always that of the father, but could depend on the boy’s aptitude and on the family’s resources. It cost money to set up in a trade. Blacksmiths and tanners needed large premises. Mercers, selling cloth wholesale and retail, needed a large stock to start out. Shoemakers, on the other hand, could work at home, and, though poorly paid, would always be in work. Sometimes a boy was just not cut out for his father’s work and followed another trade entirely.

Some men never stuck to a single trade at all, but seemed to live, and thrive, on their wits. Ferdinando Bassett was one such. Arriving in the town from Sandwich in the 1620s, when his sister Michele married into the Hutson family, Ferdinando turned his hand to anything which would make him a living, and started by making himself useful to the corporation by doing odd jobs.  He then worked consecutively, but not exclusively, as town drummer, town gunner, town sergeant, haberdasher, yeoman and innkeeper. This seemingly erratic career was a success. By 1648 he could afford to buy the ‘White Hart’, the inn favoured by the corporation for post-sessions feasting, would later be able to lend considerable sums to the corporation and eventually became mayor himself.  His probate inventory of 1663 described him as ‘gentleman’. Not bad for the man who had started out by mending a drum for the corporation.

The White Hart in Hythe
The White Hart in Hythe

His younger brother Elias took a more conventional, but equally successful route to wealth. He became a fisherman, got his own boat, then later bought collier ships and ran coal down the coast to Hythe. By 1649, he was landlord of the White Hart’s main rival, the ‘George’, and he, too became mayor and a significant landowner.

Ferdinando and Elias were both married three times.  Elias’s third wife was Joan, the widow of Richard Pashley, which made Elias the step-father of James Pashley, the cousin by marriage of Henry Oxinden of Denton. Both Bassett and Pashley were jurats. James Pashley’s daughter married Edward Rucke, another jurat. He also wrote to Oxinden and addressed him as ‘cousin’. Historians have noted that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the rise in towns of the oligarchy, government by the few, in which members of the ruling group were interconnected and often interrelated. This was certainly the case in Hythe.

To give just one more example:

Alice March, the daughter of  William March, three times  mayor of Hythe,  married  in 1619 John Knight, by whom she had three daughters and two sons.  John died in 1634 and six years later, Alice married Edmund Bedingfield a widower and the brother of Thomas Bedingfield, twice mayor of Hythe. Edmund’s son by his first marriage, Thomas, became Hythe’s town clerk who on his death was succeeded by his son, another Edmund. Meanwhile, Alice’s daughter by her first husband, Alice Knight, married Michael Lushington, who was, inevitably, also twice mayor of Hythe.

‘Cousin’ was a very useful word to describe such complicated relationships, and indeed the town was run by a cousinship. They married each other, witnessed each others wills, acted as overseers and executors of wills, sold each other land and property and, until the conflict-ridden years of the civil war, generally acted as a united body to run the town as co-operatively as possible.

In the next few posts I will look at how the sea affected the lives of the people of Hythe

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