A Radical Blacksmith?

Beneath a yew tree in St Leonard’s churchyard, lies a rather battered table tomb, long buried under landslip. Rediscovered in October 2013, part of the inscription, protected from the elements for generations, could still be seen: ‘liam Ga…who was Bay… and Mayor for the Yeare 1650 … Ancie … he… Yeare is….. departed this mortall life on the LORDS day the 23 of February 165…being of the age of 52 yeares’.

This is the tomb of William Gately

William Gately was born in late 1599 or early 1600, the son of John Gately and Phillice, nee Possingham. His father had a house and smithy backing onto Hythe Green, which he leased from St Bartholomew’s Hosptial. His mother died when he was six, and his father married three times more, having two more sons, before dying himself at Rye in 1624, making his fourth wife, Alice, a widow. She went to live in New Romney, leaving the business and domestic premises to William, who had also become a blacksmith.

A seventeenth century smithy

Now in charge of his own business, and with his stepmother living elsewhere, William was in need of a wife to run his house, which included a hall, with two chambers over, an entry room, garret, kitchen, buttery, stables and outside storage.  He married Ann Dryland on 2 October 1627 in Wye. Their first child, John, was baptised in Hythe on 31 August 1628, but is not mentioned in his father’s will, so presumably died young. Their second and third sons, both called William, and the fourth, Samuel born in 1642 also had short lives. Their only daughter, Elizabeth, to whom William eventually left most of his estate, was baptised in Hythe on 11 Jul 1630.

Unlike his father, who had carefully avoided any form of civic duty,  William embraced civic life with some enthusiasm. In February 1633, the Corporation charged him with collecting contributions towards cutting out the haven, one of several, ultimately futile, attempts the town made to save its harbour. He evidently performed this task satisfactorily, and in August was made freeman and jurat. He still had to pay £1.3.0d for the privilege. Tax collecting seems to have been his forte, as he was appointed on several occasions to this task, including the collection of the generally unpopular Ship Money  imposed on the country by Charles I in1634.

He also served as churchwarden at St Leonard’s in 1639 and 1641. This post was not necessarily eagerly sought after. It involved attending the bishop’s visitation to present the parish registers; keeping records of those who did not attend church, as required by law; collecting the subsequent non-attendance fines; maintaining charitable bequest; keeping church accounts and keeping the church in good repair. The vicar of Hythe, William Kingsley, was unlikely to have been often in the town to offer advice. He was also Rector of Saltwood, Rector of Ickham and Archdeacon of Canterbury Cathedral. Parliament removed him from all his livings in 1644 for pluralism.

From 1640, William often attended the Brotherhood and Guestling, the annual meeting of the Cinque Ports, with the Mayor and in 1649 he was appointed one of their Bailiffs to Yarmouth. This was an ancient post which had in the past produced confrontation, and even violence between the people of Yarmouth and the Bailiffs. The role of the latter was to be present in the town during the herring fair, to attend court sessions daily and pass judgement. There were also visits to church and a certain amount of feasting. It was another post which some avoided if at all possible. It entailed a long journey and several weeks spent away from home and from one’s trade or business.  William Gately was selected because a Mr Bachellor from another of the Cinque Ports had refused to go – and was fined the huge sum of £50 by the Brotherhood for his transgression.

See the source image

The Brotherhood and Guestling still meets in the 21st Century

William’s experience as Bailiff seems to have been an unfortunate one. On his return, the Corporation gave him £25 in recognition of the dangers and ‘travail’ he had endured during his journey. This was quite unprecedented. The trip may have had a salutary effect: the next month he made his will, unlike many at the time who waited until death was imminent.

In 1650 he was chosen to be Mayor. It was a difficult time – the Corporation was nearly bankrupt and started the year with a deficit. They were unable to pay for the timber bought to repair the haven and were being threatened with legal action, while further expenses were incurred placing guns on the Mount and re-glazing the Town Hall. William may have been relieved when his term of office ended, as all Mayoralities did, at Candlemas, 2 February the next year. Eighteen days later, on Sunday 20 February 1651 ‘at four of the clock in the afternoon’, he died.

William had been quite acquisitive during his lifetime and left his family well provided for. He had bought land in Bilsington in 1640 and in Saltwood in 1648, and owned silver plate and a ‘feather bedd, well furnish’d’ (a feather bed was a mattress, but rather superior to a lumpy flock one; the furnishings were the bedstead, posts, drapes and linen). His acquisitiveness, however, had led to court cases, including with his own mother’s family, where he was shown to have appropriated goods to which he was not entitled, and in 1649, when Bailiff to Yarmouth, and despite the generous gratuity he received, he overlooked paying his clerk his allowance. The man had to beg the Brotherhood for it after William’s death. For all that, William was generous in his bequests, remembering his apprentices past and present, his half-brothers John and David, an aged aunt, his god-daughter and the new minister of Hythe, William Wallace, who received forty shillings.

This last bequest is interesting. Wallace, who hailed from Aberdeen, was a Calvinist Presbyterian of particularly radical views.  His clerical duties were confined to baptisms and communion: marriage for him was not a sacrament and he said no prayers at burials. That William Gately thought highly enough of him to leave him money tends to suggest that the blacksmith shared his radicalism in religious matters. He was, now that the Church of England was effectively dis-established, able to express his views without fear and worship as he wished. And since he supported a radical minister, did he also support the parliamentary forces that had enabled him to preach freely? Probably.

William Gately’s signature (produced by permission of Canterbury Cathedral Archives)

It seems he was not long survived by his daughter or wife. The land in Saltwood was to pass to his niece Susan Gately, if they both died. It was sold by Susan in 1660, so Ann’s and Elizabeth’s deaths must be assumed.  Susan, the daughter of William’s brother John and only known surviving grandchild of John Gately senior, married in 1675, and had children.

The minster, William Wallace, was ejected from his Hythe living at the Restoration and went to preach (illegally,now that the Church of England and its bishops were also restored) ) to dissenting communities in Hove.

 

Politics, Politicians and People – Part Four

The installation of the Lord Warden, however, was small-time when compared to the opportunity to attend the coronation of the monarch. ‘Barons’ of the Cinque Ports had been called upon to carry the canopy over the king or queen at the coronation since time immemorial (the right was called ‘ancient’ at the time of Richard I).

Elizabeth I died in March 1603, and by May, the Lord Warden was writing to his ports that they should take great care in their choice of representative. He must be ‘fit for the service’ although whether this meant physically capable of carrying the canopy or of pleasing appearance was not clear. He was more specific in July: ‘I wish you to be very cautious and wary that they may be men of the meetest and comliest personage amongst you’ and also that they should be fit and well. The coronation was not to be marred by the ugly, the old or the lame.

The Brotherhood and Guestling decreed that every baron returned to the coronation should wear ‘one scarlet gown down to the ankle, citizens fashion, faced with crimson satin, gascaine hose (a sort of loose breeches), crimson silk stockings and crimson silk shoes and black velvet caps’. They would also be responsible for their own travel and accommodation costs for the occasion, so anyone without a healthy disposable income was also excluded.

Elizabeth had reigned for over forty years, and the fact was that no-one now alive remembered how a coronation worked. Francis Raworth, the town clerk of Dover, was despatched to London to consult the Lord High Steward and the livery books to try to find out what should be done. He made some enquiries about the cost of scarlet and crimson satin and silk while he was there, and was horrified to report that ‘scarlet is valued at £3.10s. the yard at least and crimson satin at 15s. the yard’.

The corporation of Hythe chose Thomas Sprott to be their representative. No doubt he was comely, fit and reasonably well-off, but the deciding factor must have been that he was a draper and therefore able to buy cloth wholesale, not retail.

In the event, the coronation was a muted affair, as plague had visited London.  Sprott, though, was proud enough of the part he played to have it recorded on a stone placed over his grave in St Leonard’s church

The memorial stone of Thomas Sprott (or Spratt) which is now on the Vestry wall in St Leonard's Church, Hythe
The memorial stone of Thomas Sprott (or Spratt) which is now on the Vestry wall in St Leonard’s Church, Hythe

‘ Here lieth the bodi of Thomas Sprotte Juratt and Susan his first wife who whilst he lived was thris Mayor and Baylif to Yarmoth and on of those that did cary the cannopye over the King at his Cronation who died 21 January 1619′

The honour of carrying the canopy had some additional perks to make up for the outlay on crimson and scarlet cloth and the expenses of getting to London and overnight accommodation. The Cinque Ports barons were invited to the ceremonial banquet after the coronation and were given part of the cloth of gold of which the canopy was made, together with a share in the silver staves which supported it and the silver bells with which it was decorated. The silver was usually melted down and made into other objects, some of which are in the Victoria and Albert museum today. Perhaps coronation silver was the origin of the silverware seized by the corporation from Thomas Sprott.

Thomas Browning (gentleman) of Hythe was chosen to carry the canopy at the coronation of Charles II in 1626. A Mr Monings of Dover was rejected by the Lord Warden, Buckingham, because he was ‘too low of stature’ and also because he had stopped Buckingham’s parliamentary nomination at Dover from being elected. Buckingham was by this time careless of whether anyone knew of his petty vengefulness or not. He believed he was untouchable.

In 1661, at the Restoration coronation, Elias Bassett, jurat and landlord of the ‘George’ inn was chosen to carry the canopy, an unlikely choice given his previous commitment to parliamentary rule, but the country was full of such ‘reformed’ characters.

The coronation was marred by an unseemly tussle recorded by Samuel Pepys:

but only the King’s Footmen had got hold of the Canopy and would keep it from the barons of the Cinque ports; which they endeavoured to force from them again but could not do it till my Lord Duke of Albermarle caused it to be put into Sir R Pye’s hand till tomorrow to be decided’.

The barons got their silver the next day, but in the melee they had lost their places at the banqueting table. The king had the footmen imprisoned and dismissed.

In 1685, for the coronation of James II, Julius Deedes was chosen by the corporation, but rejected by the Lord High Steward as his behaviour in the recent parliamentary had been questionable, to say the least of it.  Julius responded by getting his son, William, elected as a Hythe freeman, and immediately placed at the top of the ‘reserve list’ for the Cinque Ports in case anyone should be unable to perform the service.  There is no other recorded instance in the seventeenth century of a father and son being freemen in Hythe at the same time. There were obvious implications for the impartiality of the voting system. In the event, Julius’s ploy did not work, and no member of the Deedes family attended the 1685 coronation.

James fled into exile in 1688, and his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange were invited to take the throne as joint monarchs. At last Julius achieved his ambition and carried the canopy at their 1689 coronation. It was not an entirely happy event as the Archbishop of Canterbury refused to participate and the new king himself thought the ceremony was ‘a popish mockery’.

The coronation procession of William and Mary. One of the canopy bearers was Julius Deedes
The coronation procession of William and Mary. One of the canopy bearers was Julius Deedes of Hythe

Politics, Politicians and People – Part Three

The position of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports was pivotal in Kent local government. Elizabethan policy in the sixteenth century had removed much of the remaining power of the Brotherhood & Guestling and concentrated it instead in the hands of the Lord Warden, a royal appointee, giving the crown a stake in local decision making. His powers were considerable. He held the office of Constable of Dover Castle  and had Admiralty jurisdiction from Dungeness to the Naze.  As well as nominating candidates for parliament in each of the Cinque Ports, the Lord Warden was the mouthpiece for the crown, who communicated through him rather than through the county lieutenant of Kent or Sussex.

Each new Lord Warden had to swear to uphold the liberties of the Ports at a ceremony at the Court of Shepway and in return the ports made a gift of money. In 1629, when the Earl of Suffolk replaced the late Duke of Buckingham as Lord Warden, the ports clubbed together to provide a hundred pieces of gold and a purse, emblazoned with the Earl’s arms and the arms of the Cinque Ports. Hythe’s contribution was £11.5.0.

The ports were very clear that their rights and liberties meant that the county government held no sway over them, and that they would accept no writ or decree from the Crown unless it was delivered through the Lord Warden, and they managed to hang on to this position until the very end of the seventeenth century.  They even claimed exemption from Charles I’s fund-raising knighthood fines, and the government capitulated, though it did not let them off Ship Money.

Confederation with other Cinque Ports separated Hythe from the rest of the county, and helped give it a strong sense of civic identity. Every legal document produced during the seventeenth century, including wills, which mentions Hythe also adds the words ‘The ancient town and port’.

Politics apart, membership of the Confederation provided some golden opportunities for ceremonial and dressing up.  The installation of a new Lord Warden was one of these.

In 1615, it was announced that the new Lord Warden, Edward Zouche, would stop, briefly, at Hythe on his way to the Court of Shepway for his big ceremony. A flurry of activity followed. The notorious lane leading to the Mount was sluiced out.  Householders were ordered to clean the street in front of their property and to get rid of ‘manure, sullage (general filth), blocks, logs, stocks, barrels, tubs and anything else’.  People were ordered to keep their pigs off the street. The corporation erected a platform on which the Lord Warden could sit, to see and be seen. A stool, tables, cushions and carpets (mostly borrowed) were provided and the whole edifice was covered in decorated hangings. Two ash trees in the High Street were cut down as they would impede his view of the newly-immaculate town.

Edward Zouche, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, 1615-1624
Edward Zouche, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, 1615-1624

On the day itself, the great man arrived with an entourage, including his secretary, his coachman and the county muster-master. They were served with wine sweetened with sugar, trumpets were sounded, the party went on its way, and the platform was taken down again. The setting up and pulling down took eight days, and the materials, three wagon-loads full, were stored in St Leonard’s Church until 1629 when they were recycled for the Earl of Suffolk’s installation.  The bill that Hythe corporation presented to the Brotherhood and Guestling included gratuities for the secretary and coachman, hay and oats for their horses, and a sum paid to the muster-master so that he did not call a muster of the trained bands while he was in town, as was technically his right.

 

In Sickness and in Health – Part Five

Maypoles and Christmas apart, the one activity which really aggravated the pious Puritan was theatre-going. The characters in plays were almost always ungodly, and included such sinners as necromancers, adulterers, infidels, papists, Jews, loose women, drunks, witches, thieves, murderers, and cheats, not all of whom were seen to get their just desserts.  One spittle-flecked preacher denounced plays as being ‘sucked out of the Devil’s teats to nourish us in idolatry, heathenry and sin’.

Theatre was not confined to London or big towns. When Shakespeare introduced a troupe of travelling players to the stage in Hamlet, he was writing about his own experience as an actor.  Both London-based and provincial companies toured the country, playing in town halls, inns, or inn-yards, churches, churchyards and country houses.  Stages were often improvised, furniture and props borrowed and if necessary the play itself adapted to fit the environment. ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ is not easy to achieve on the London stage, let alone in a provincial town hall.

Trumpets and drums heralded the arrival of the troupe in the town. The peace was disturbed. The plays were strange, exotic and sometimes erotic. Apprentice boys stayed up late and could not get up for work next morning. Quite often, the players were not sufficiently respectful of the town’s dignitaries, and quite often too the plays mocked their sort.  All-in-all, the theatre was dangerously subversive.

The Cinque Ports were on one of the companies’ main travelling routes, from London via Canterbury, and Hythe had its fair share of visits.  Most companies had a royal or noble patron, which was important to avoid being accused of vagrancy, with all the undesirable consequences that entailed.  The King’s Players, the Queen’s players, the Earl of Sussex’s players, Lady Elizabeth’s players and Palsgrave’s men all visited Hythe in the early years of the seventeenth century, by arrangement with the corporation, who usually paid them twenty shillings for each visit.

Something happened in 1615 to upset these arrangements. In December the corporation issued a decree concerning players, which strictly limited when they could perform. They had, in the past, been limited to a specific number of plays, but ‘they disobeyed and have bearded and opposed themselves against the mayor’. Henceforward, they could only perform two or three plays a day, ending before 8pm in winter and 9pm in summer, and none on the Sabbath. If they disobeyed again they would  be completely banned and any inhabitants allowing their houses to be used contrary to this would be fined.  Next year, the Palsgrave company, which had already been contracted to visit were paid, but told to leave the town without performing.

There are two ways of interpreting this turn of events. It may be that the corporation were influenced by Puritan dogma and wished to limit the amount of damage caused to the morals of the townsfolk. Puritan corporations across the country were making similar decrees. In Dorchester in 1607, Lord Berkeley’s Men were banned after playing on the Sabbath, and later the Prince’s Players, even with a warrant from the King’s Master of Revels, were turned away. Or it may be that the Hythe mayor had taken exception to being ‘bearded’ was getting his own back.  In any event, the ban did not last long. In 1618, four different troupes performed in the town.

The repertoire of these companies had something for every taste. Robert Greene’s hit Friar Bungay and Friar Bacon was a complicated story of seduction, love lost and found and a talking brass head.  Thomas Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is an even more convoluted tale of the adventures of Moll Yellowhammer, her intended husband Sir Walter Whorehound and her true love Touchwood which involves several cuckolded men, love potions, elopement and a duel, before the main characters are all happily married off. This was a standard of Lady Elizabeth’s Men. The King’s Men, of course, had the whole of Shakespeare’s canon to work with.

Which brings us to the question of whether Shakespeare visited Hythe.  Shakespeare acted with and wrote for the King’s Men (formerly the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) for much of his career. Hythe corporation paid the King’s Men twenty shillings for  performances in 1609, but on many other occasions they played in Dover, most notably in 1605, when Shakespeare was writing King Lear and described the cliff on the outskirts of town which now bears his name. Was Shakespeare with the players in 1609? Unlikely – he was by then a successful playwright and part owner of the Blackfriars Theatre. Were there other, unrecorded visits of the company to Hythe – very likely, the records are far from complete. Did he ever make the journey from Dover to Hythe – possibly: he certainly wandered or rode out into ‘the country near Dover’. The answer to the original question – maybe. If he did, then he did not see any feature in Hythe’s flat landscape worth recording, but maybe, just maybe, one of Hythe’s men or women is immortalised in one of the many wonderful minor characters which populate the works of England’s finest playwright.

In Sickness and in Heath – Part Four

The ever-present spectre of the Grim Reaper did not mean that people were any less willing to enjoy themselves than people in the twenty-first century. The six-day working week, together with long working days of around fourteen hours (and longer for apprentices) meant that holidays were to be made the most of.  Shrove Tuesday was the traditional holiday for young people and apprentices, perhaps with games and races in the town. Mothering Sunday was the day young servants and apprentices could visit their homes, if they were near enough. Easter and Whitsuntide were also celebrated, but it was May Day that was the most important spring holiday. There was dancing, especially round the maypole and gathering branches and flowers to make May garlands; there might be hobbyhorses, Morris dancers, baiting, and wrestling.  It was second only to Christmas as a time of festivities.

Lest a picture of bucolic innocence be conjured up by this description, it must be added that the authorities, secular and religious, were generally uneasy about holiday merrymaking, which invariably also involved alcohol, foul language, fighting and sex. The Puritan government of the Commonwealth years was particularly disapproving of these excesses.

The Puritans latched onto the maypole as the paramount symbol of wickedness and depravity. It was, they said, a ‘heathenish vanity’ and should be removed wherever it was found. Hythe corporation was ahead of the game here, and had removed their maypole in 1615. Removing the maypole did not however remove all ungodly jollifications. In 1655 Thomas Kelsey, then the Major-General in charge of Kent issued an edict to all local magistrates, telling them to ban the traditional Whitsun celebrations which ‘produced no other fruits but drunkenness, swearing and all other kinds of lowness and debauchery’. Christmas was targeted, too, as it was ‘superstitious’ and ‘unbiblical’. Predictably this was unpopular. There were riots in Canterbury in 1647, when the mayor tried to enforce the ban.

There had been a time, under James I and his son Charles I when having some good, clean, fun after church on Sunday had been positively encouraged. The Book of Sports, first issued in 1617 and re-promulgated in 1634 set out what sports were acceptable and included Morris-dancing, archery, dancing and ‘leaping and vaulting’. Bowling, for reasons unknown, was excluded. By the time of the 1634 declaration, the Puritans were in the ascendant, and there was widespread antipathy towards the book, culminating in an order in 1643 that it should be publicly burned. By 1650, the attitude had hardened into a ban on having any sort of fun at all on Sundays: ’No person or persons shall without reasonable cause for the same, travel, carry burthens, or do any worldly labours or work whatsoever on that Day’ and there was ‘a prohibition against wrestling, shooting, bowling, ringing of bells for pleasure or pastime, masque, wake, otherwise called feasts, Church ale, dancing, games, sport, or pastime whatsover’.

Local magistrates had no option but to follow these laws. In 1655 Hythe corporation fined two people for travelling on the Lord’s Day and put one of them in the stocks for six hours. The stocks were probably not often used, as they had to obtain a new lock to secure the miscreant in place.

Bowling might have been banned on Sundays, but it continued to flourish in Hythe on other days of the week. The bowling green was a true civic amenity, owned by the corporation and maintained by a keeper appointed and paid by them. It was situated off the modern day Stade Street, in approximately the position where ‘Oaklands’ now stands, and was conveniently placed next to a horse pond, where players could rest their mounts during the game.  Its demise started in 1687, when the corporation, strapped for cash, agreed to sell part of it off.

Feasting was also banned on Sundays but could be enjoyed on other days. St John’s and St Bartholomew’s hospitals both had feasts to celebrate the small occasions of institutional life. Ordinary people of all stations in life had feasts to celebrate baptisms and marriages. Feasts were held after musters of the Trained Bands. The Bailiffs to Yarmouth were expected both to attend and to host feasts. The corporation had a big annual feast after the election of the mayor and smaller ones after each quarter sessions, usually held in the ‘White Hart’ inn. This was conveniently owned from 1648 by Ferdinando Bassett, a jurat, although the corporation also had an account at the ‘George’ (now the ‘King’s Head’) which was owned by the other Bassett brother, Elias, another jurat.

This is not to suggest that Hythe corporation was particularly greedy or profligate with rate-payers’ money.  Feasting and food gifts were a legitimate form of expenditure for corporations as well as individuals. Wine, sugar and marzipan were often given to notables on their visits to towns, and food changed hands in the form of gifts, bribes and fines at all levels. The Lord Warden, on his brief visit to Hythe in 1615 was served with sugared wine and in 1650 Hythe corporation sent fish to the M.P. Henry Heyman. He reciprocated with a side of venison. Thomas Browning in 1620 wooed the freemen and jurats of the town with dinners in his mayoral election campaign, and towards the end of the century William Honeywood did the same for the electors of Canterbury.

Feasts always included two essentials: a lot of meat and a lot of alcohol. A typical bill from the ’White Hart’ for a corporation supper in 1677 included roast beef, a leg of mutton, three chickens and some bread. No vegetables were served, and dessert was a dish of damsons. Beer and wine together cost nearly as much as the food, and by this time it had become the norm for tobacco to be provided as well. The final item on the bill was hay and oats for the gentlemen’s horses.

Given the quantities of wine and beer consumed, some high spirits were inevitable. In 1626, the corporation, noting the disorder at muster feasts directed the Chamberlain to take note of the wine and beer brought into the rooms, and to allow no ‘superfluyitie’. The boot was on the other foot in 1678 when they were themselves penalised: after a feast at the ‘White Hart, the landlady charged them two shillings and sixpence extra for ‘glasses broke’.

The excessive consumption of alcohol concerned the government and local authorities in the seventeenth century every bit as much as it does in the twenty-first. Alehouses, where beer was cheap, and, until it was banned in 1637, home-brewed, were anathema to the respectable classes, and there were repeated attempts by parliament in early years of the seventeenth century to limit them. In 1608 the king issued orders that licences should be more judiciously issued and strictly monitored.  Old licences were to be repealed and new ones issued, with stringent conditions as to illegal gaming and good order attached. To solemnise this undertaking, each licence was to be ‘sealed with a common seal, ingraven in brass with a rose, and the inscription of the county, city or town-corporate’.

The sting in the tail was that these impressive seals were only to be had from one man, the king’s engraver, who had premises near Goldsmith’s Hall in London. He charged twenty shillings for each seal, and as he said himself, he had been ‘promised the 20s for every county, city, and town’ in England.  James I loved to give money to his favourites, and if that money belonged to other people, so much the better.

 

In Sickness and in Health – Part One

The theory and practice of seventeenth century medicine is as foreign to us now as antibiotics and chemotherapy would have been to people then. Although scientific advances were made during this time, medical practice still relied largely on the teachings of the Greek physician Galen, who had died 1500 years earlier.  He taught that there were four humours in the body: blood, phlegm, choler (or yellow bile) and black bile and that their balance in the body determined healthIf there was an excess of one humour, disease could result, so, for example, too much black bile caused fever. Surplus humours could accumulate in the body and cause putrefaction. Blood-letting and purging were the only ways to treat these excesses.

Galen also developed miasma theory, which held that a polluted atmosphere, that is to say bad smells, carried disease such as plague.  Miasma could be carried in clothes or bedding, and domestic animals, especially dogs, cats and pigs might carry it on their bodies from house to house.

Both these theories ran alongside a belief in divine intervention in the affairs of man. God could, and did, send plague and other epidemics to punish men for their sins. And to confuse matters further there was some understanding of contagion, that a disease could be passed somehow from person to person.

Miasma’ was a particular problem in parts of Hythe, as it would have been in any town.  For reasons unknown, perhaps because it was private and not overlooked, the inhabitants used the lane leading to the Mount (now Mount Street) as an unofficial public convenience, or, as the corporation euphemistically put it ‘for easement of their bodies’. Naturally, it stank.  The corporation introduced a fine of a shilling for anyone caught in the act, but it was not until the visit of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1615 that the place was properly cleaned out.  It must not be thought that the people of Hythe were exceptionally coarse in their habits: Samuel Pepys, on finding that no chamber pot had been provided in his lodgings, instead used the fireplace, twice, and Mrs Pepys was not embarrassed to use the corner of a street in London when caught short at the theatre.

Dangerous miasmas were also produced by people washing inappropriate things in the public water conduit, rather than carrying the water home with them and doing it there.  In 1668 the corporation complained that ‘People are using the conduit to wash fish, innards, and clouts (probably babies’ diapers), whereby unwholesome savours do arise to the great prejudice and danger of the Inhabitants’. They imposed the usual fine, and people carried on just as before.

There were regular outbreaks of infectious diseases in every town. Smallpox became more prevalent during the seventeenth century. It killed about 15% of its victims, and often left survivors blind or scarred. The young were particularly at risk from measles, scarlet fever, whooping cough, influenza, and a multitude of now unidentifiable diseases.  Locally, malaria was prevalent on the Romney Marsh, which was known as a ‘sickly and contagious place’ and ‘very aguish’ with high mortality from the disease.

It was, however, bubonic plague which, though relatively infrequent, was most devastating in its effects and most feared.  The major outbreaks in England were in 1603, 1625, 1636, and 1665.

Hythe escaped the first bout, but was hit badly in 1625 when ninety-one people died, as against an annual average of about forty. In 1638, at the tail-end of the 1636 outbreak, there were eighty deaths.

In 1578 the government had issued Plague Orders, which with some modifications were in effect until 1666. Local magistrates were to raise a tax for the relief of the sick, order the burning of the clothes and bedding of victims, and funerals were to take place at dusk to deter onlookers. Houses where there was suspected infection  were to be shut up for six weeks with all the members of the family, sick or healthy, locked inside.

The patterns of deaths seen in Hythe during outbreaks of plague tend to confirm that these orders were followed. In both 1625 and 1638 multiple deaths from single families are recorded, presumably because they had been quarantined. In a small town, this was a tough decision for the corporation to make. They were incarcerating their neighbours, friends and kinsfolk in the knowledge that this would almost certainly lead to agonising death.

The limited understanding of contagion led to other measures to protect the town. During the 1625 outbreak, the Cinque Ports Brotherhood and Guestling due to be held at New Romney in July was cancelled ‘by reason it pleased God to visit this kingdom with a great plague’.  People took their own precautions, too. One Folkestone couple got a licence to marry in Hythe in December 1625, because the plague had run its course there whereas it was still ‘very hot’ in Folkestone, and ‘people are very fearful to meet together’.  The Cinque Ports meeting was cancelled again in 1637 when the plague had reached New Romney. The burial records for Hythe for 1665, the year in which plague killed one-sixth of London’s population, are not extant so we do not know how badly it affected the town, but we do know that the corporation put the Plague Orders into effect.  The fair was cancelled, and any innkeeper or other person accommodating someone from a plague area would be fined.  The Mayor or a jurat was to approve bills of health for visitors to the town. Alexander Ames was shut up in his house as he exhibited signs of the sickness. He was one of the lucky ones, and survived another three years.

The haven in Hythe was another potential source of infection, as it brought in foreigners from infected areas. In 1629, the town was ordered to be especially careful as plague had broken out in Holland and France. Any vessel arriving from these areas was to be quarantined and all its goods to be thoroughly aired for as long as it took to ‘give hope and likelihood they are free from danger and infection’. As an additional precaution, one of the annual fairs in 1630 was cancelled.

Plague was often attributed to God’s judgement on a sinful nation, and towns wereL supposed to be particularly sinful. Since epidemic plague was concentrated in towns, the theory held water. The concentration of people and rats in towns was coincidental.

Remedies for plague included repentance and prayer, shutting south facing windows to keep out the injurious south wind, and burning the bedding of the sick (which may have helped).  Theriac, commonly called ‘treacle’, was often prescribed. It contained opium (which also may have helped, at least with the pain) and viper’s flesh to destroy the poison of plague.  A roasted onion stuffed with ‘treacle’ was the medicine most often recommended for the infected.  If the patient did not respond, it was God’s will: medicines only worked by the grace of God, and as God has made us to die, medicines would do no good if the time had come.  For the physician this was a splendid get-out clause.

A Tide in the Affairs of Men – Part Five

The government had set up the national Customs Board in 1671 to try to combat smuggling more effectively. Two sloops patrolled the south coast in search of the smugglers, but then fell foul of some seventeenth century austerity measures and were replaced by eight locally-employed riding officers, thus saving a thousand pounds a year. The result was that smuggling increased.

The lot of Customs officers in Hythe seems not to have been a happy one. In 1676 John Johnson, the Collector at Hythe, asked rather plaintively ‘to be removed to some better place in another port’, or to have his salary increased.  He did not get his wish until four years later, when in April 1680, John Brewer was appointed in his place. In July that year Brewer was assaulted by a gang of smugglers and was paid compensation by the Board. Two years after that, he got permission to go and live in New Romney, and the Board psupplied him with a horse so that he could commute.

By the end of the century, the smuggling situation in Hythe was worse, not better, than it had been a hundred years earlier. Troops of dragoons were deployed to the town, and in desperation the government passed the Wool Act in 1698, forbidding anyone living within fifteen miles of the coast from selling wool without a certificate from the Customs House. This desperate piece of legislation was as ineffective as all the other efforts had been, and the smuggling problem was to persist into the next century and beyond.

There is some suggestion that the privileges of membership of the Cinque Ports federation were an encouragement for smuggling.

The organisation had its origins in a royal charter of 1155 which established the five ports which would maintain ships ready for the Crown in case of need – Hythe, New Romney, Dover, Sandwich and Hastings. The chief obligation laid upon the ports was to provide fifty seven ships for fifteen days’ service to the crown annually, each port fulfilling a proportion of the whole duty.

In return, they received significant privileges, including exemption from tax and tolls; self-government; permission to levy tolls; and the power punish offences and detain and execute criminals both inside and outside the port’s jurisdiction, and punish breaches of the peace; and possession of lost goods that remain unclaimed after a year, goods thrown overboard, and floating wreckage.

The arms of the Cinque Ports

The freedom for a port to apprehend and punish its own offenders probably meant that a blind eye was often turned to what was regarded as a legitimate means of supplementing a meagre income when times were hard (which they often were).  If the choice for the authorities was to be between ignoring the fact that a man was a smuggler, and having him and his family as a charge on the parish, then pragmatism would surely win the day.

Over the years the original five ports gained an accretion of Ancient Towns and Limbs, so that by the seventeenth century there were thirty eight towns involved in the Confederation, which was headed by the Lord Warden, and his deputy the Constable of Dover Castle. As one of the five original ports, Hythe could send two ’barons’ to parliament, but New Romney was considered to be the central port and it was here that the annual meetings of the ports, the Brotherhood and Guestling, took place. These had originally been separate meetings, but by the seventeenth century were amalgamated. The Court of Shepway, another ancient court, was apparently held near Hythe, and there is a modern cross there marking the supposed spot.

The Shepway Cross near Hythe

The towns became rich on the spoils of war, but by the time of Elizabeth I, the Cinque Ports were no longer of any real significance. New Romney had long since silted up; Hythe and Sandwich were going the same way, as was Dover, so it seemed then. Hastings had been washed away by the sea, invaded by the French and battered by storms. Other ports such as Bristol and Liverpool were in the ascendant.

Whatever the reality of the situation, the Cinque Ports clung to their privileges and rights, and took considerable pride in them. These included the right to carry the canopy over the monarch at the coronation and authority over Yarmouth fare, with the right to try criminal and commercial cases in the town during the time of the fare, when the court sat daily.

The Yarmouth men generally resented the Cinque Ports bailiffs, and their reluctant toleration sometimes erupted into quarrelsome, if not violent, outbursts. In the late thirteenth century, the Yarmouth and Cinque Ports contingents of a royal fleet set to fighting each other, with the loss of at least twenty five Yarmouth ships resulting.

As late as 1657, a farcical stand-off between the Yarmouth and Cinque Ports men resulted in a special Brotherhood and Guestling being held in Hythe. John Finch, a Hythe jurat and Alexander Bennett had been elected as bailiffs. They went to Yarmouth, and as usual presented the papers of their written commission to the Yarmouth magistrates. They had taken off their hats while doing so, and then replaced them. The Yarmouth men took immediate offence, and insisted they take their hats off again while the commission was read out loud. Finch and Bennett refused.  The Yarmouth men then left the hall en masse and refused to recognise them as Bailiffs.

After kicking their heels for three days but making no progress in the impasse, Finch and Bennett went home and complained that they had been insulted.  The meeting agreed, but said they should have stuck it out and fined them ten pounds each.

It is small wonder, given the potential pitfalls that the honour of being the Cinque Ports Bailiff to Yarmouth was not eagerly sought after.  In 1619, the Brotherhood and Guestling, which appointed the Bailiff, searched in vain for their nominees. Mr Beadle, of New Romney had lived outside the town for a month before to make himself ineligible. The second choice, Mr Brett was simply ‘gone from home’.

Three years later, when Hythe should have provided a Bailiff, no-one wanted to go, so the corporation asked a former mayor, living in Canterbury. He said he was ill. John Benbricke of Rye was chosen instead, but said he had resigned as a jurat so was not eligible. His colleagues said they had refused his resignation and he must go. Reluctantly, he set off on the long journey.

Quite from the chilly reception, the length of the trip must have been a I’mdeterrent. The Bailiff was expected to stay in Yarmouth from towards the end of September until early November. That was a long time away from earning ones livelihood, and probably time that most of the jurats could ill-afford. By the end of the century the tradition had been allowed to fall into abeyance.

 

A Tide in the Affairs of Men – Part Three

It was not only fishermen who used the haven. It had been an important site for export and import of goods and for cross-channel travel until it started to silt up.  This undoubtedly affected the wealth of the town, as it did in all the Cinque Ports. In 1618, they joined together to write to the Lord warden, pleading poverty and claiming that between them only one small ship now belonged to a Cinque Ports owner  and

‘all the residue of the ships of the Ports are of small burthen and only trade to Newcastle and the west of England with malt; some few are “passage boates,” and employed for France, Holland, and Flanders’

All the owners of larger ships had gone off to London, where the merchants had an unfair advantage, the Cinque Ports said, because they were incorporated into the Company of Merchant Adventurers. As the Company held a monopoly at the time on the exportation of cloth, the Cinque Ports men had a good point, but no chance of winning the argument.

Exactly what and how much was imported and exported through the haven in the seventeenth century is unknown. The Customs papers for the period, which recorded all this information are held at the National Archive, but are now too fragile to be viewed. Some information, however, can be pieced together from other sources.

We know that horses were exported through the haven. In the seventeenth century, the reputation of the British horse was so good that dealers could make three times more by selling abroad rather than in the domestic market. Cromwell had banned the export of horses during the civil war (they were needed for the cavalry) but the ban was lifted in 1656, and the corporation of Hythe evidently saw an opportunity to replenish the town chest, and slapped a fee on horse traders using the haven.

At the same time they voted to charge for other goods transported from the port  -wheat, beans, barley, malt, rye,  and pease.  Coal from Newcastle was a regular import. It was still being brought  into the haven in 1618, but by 1640 Elias Bassett, a local merchant, was bringing the stuff to the town in carts from the stade, suggesting his boats were drawn up there rather than anchoring in the haven.

Dealing in coal was not without its pitfalls. In 1644, Robert Curtis took his barque ‘Porpoise’ up to Sunderland to fetch coal, but on his way back home he and the vessel were seized by the navy, acting under the authority of Parliament, who believed he was  going to supply the enemy. The enemy in this case was the King, Charles I.  Curtis was held for a month before persuading the Admiralty of his ‘affection for Parliament’.

The Hythe Customs books do reveal one thing, even though they cannot be viewed. Their catalogue descriptions show that from 1685 onwards they are blank. No entries were made, and  it must be assumed that from then on, Hythe haven was closed for business.

Alongside legitimate trade existed the murkier world of smuggling. On the Kent coast in the seventeenth century, the focus of the smugglers was getting wool out of the country, rather than importing goods, although that could be an attractive sideline. For centuries England’s chief raw material was wool. It was exported, after payment of duty, particularly to Flanders where it fetched a good price, and was prized for its texture and length of staple. It was used in the manufacture of the very best quality cloth. Then, in 1614, James I issued a proclamation restraining the export of wool. This was repeated in 1617, and again by the Commonwealth and was finally enshrined in law in 1660. The measures were intended to halt the growth of the Flemish textile industries and promote the growth of domestic, especially Irish, enterprises.

During the first half of the seventeenth century, sheep farming on the Romney Marsh had developed until huge tracts of the area were converted to grazing land. Everyone kept sheep, from husbandmen and yeomen, to small and great landowners who employed ‘lookers’ to keep an eye on the beasts and never visited their holdings.  The ban on export was a disaster. The loss of revenue could not be made up by sales to the domestic market. In 1703, it was reckoned that wool in its raw state was worth fourpence a pound in Ireland, and combed wool, tenpence. In France a seller could get two shillings and sixpence for raw wool and up to six shillings a pound for combed wool.  Apart from the inconvenient fact that it was against the law, the argument for smuggling was very persuasive.

Even before the ban, wool smuggling, known as ‘owling’ had taken place to avoid paying the export duty. The word owling is variously explained as coming from the hooting noise the smugglers used to warn of danger (which sounds, frankly, unlikely) or as being a corruption of ‘wooling’.  Or perhaps it was because the smugglers worked at night.

The owlers’ enemies were the customs men. Until 1671, the normal method of customs duty collecting was ‘farming’. An individual, the farmer, would pay a fixed sum to the Crown, and then collect customs duties in a given area and keep them. Farmers appointed their own officials at ports.  Alas, neither the farmers nor the officials were always honest men.

Arranging a ship, and men, to smuggle wool overseas involved a large financial outlay, with the possibility of great returns, and the men who bankrolled this were not averse to using violence if their plans were threatened. Punishment for smuggling was death if the culprit resisted; if not, he could expect to be transported or sent for navy service, none of which was a desirable outcome.  Threats were an effective way of ensuring silence. Smugglers were not dashing rogues with Robin Hood tendencies, whatever the romantic novelists might have you believe.

Not a picture of a Hythe smuggler

 

The Perils of Public Office

Life might have provided some luxuries for the middling sort, but the other side of the coin was that it fell upon them to provide most of the composition of the corporation and its various offices.  Gentlemen, too, played a part, but there were far fewer of them.  Hythe corporation  had a mayor and deputy mayor, up to twelve jurats; up to twenty-four commoners, a chamberlain (treasurer),  a town clerk, the warden of St Bartholomew’s Hospital;  a constable; two leather searchers; two market searchers, two flesh searchers,  the town sergeant, the mayor’s sergeant; the chamberlain and an attorney. The mayor was chosen annually from the jurats, who were themselves chosen from the common council composed of the freemen. Men became freemen either because their father was a freeman, or because they had married the eldest daughter of a freeman or by invitation and paying the asking price, usually about twenty shillings. The other posts were filled by the jurats and freemen, except that of attorney, who was legally qualified and employed on a retainer. Acting as a jurat was a double-edged sword.  Prestige was the principal reward, especially if one became mayor, but a reputation could be forever sullied if it became known or was believed that one had abused that authority. The jurats were amateurs at government, with many temptations to take advantage of their situation and little in the way of guidance to avoid pitfalls. It could be an explosive combination.

Honour and reputation were important and dismissal could mean ruin. In the early 1620s an ugly situation developed between Thomas Browning and David Gorham, both jurats, but of very different backgrounds. The Brownings were gentlemen; Thomas’s uncles had been mayors, his sister had married into the influential Tournay family of Saltwood, and in 1620 Thomas started his own campaign to become mayor by wining and dining his colleagues, an unsubtle tactic which did not go unnoticed by his opponents. Nevertheless, it proved successful, and he became mayor in 1621, and again in 1625. In the meantime, David Gorham, a fisherman, had been made mayor in 1623. He was the Cinque Ports Bailiff to Yarmouth in the year of Browning’s second term of office and created mayor again himself in 1626. However, that year Browning trumped him by being selected to be one of the Cinque Ports ‘barons’ to carry the canopy at the coronation of Charles 1 in March.

The beginning of 1627 saw Browning’s downfall. He was dismissed as jurat ‘for divers misdemeanours and for telling the secrets especially about the election and choosing our burgesses to Parliament and telling lies about them many times in a gross and ill manner’. This was uncompromising language, and Browning had no intention of letting it pass.  He petitioned anyone and everyone he knew, starting with the Lieutenant of Dover Castle, Sir John Hippisley, who passed the matter up to the Duke of Buckingham. The corporation were required to explain themselves. While awaiting a decision, Browning took his case to the Cinque Ports’ Brotherhood and Guestling – and won his suit. They judged that the case against him was ‘weak and feeble’ and ordered that the corporation and Browning ‘reconcile themselves’ and reinstate him.  However, in 1628, the Lord Warden concluded that the real reason for Browning’s dismissal was ‘his contemptuous behaviour towards Mr Gorham’.

That has the ring of truth. Twenty five years earlier, another gentleman, Ambrose Warde (later mayor of Hythe himself) had taken a similarly arrogant attitude towards the mayor of New Romney, a tradesman. During a court hearing he deliberately jostled him and commented ‘in skoffynge wise’ and loud enough for all to hear that any pedlar or butcher could be mayor of New Romney.

Whatever their station in life, jurats were expected to maintain high standards in their personal lives. In 1662, Peter Philpott was dismissed as a Hythe jurat.  for ‘begetting a bastard child and other misdemeanours well known to this assembly’. Since the facts of this case were incontrovertible, Philpott stayed dismissed.

The jurats’ amateurism could also land them in hot water. As a Cinque Port, Hythe had, among other privileges, the right to any vessel, goods or fish washed ashore within the port’s jurisdiction. In February 1656, when the corporation was flat broke, it seemed that fortune had smiled on them by providing just such a gift: a Dunkerque sloop, on a mission to seize English ships, was driven onshore by the English navy and its captain and crew arrested. The fleet sailed off westward, leaving the prisoners in Hythe, where, almost inevitably, given the town’s record in this area, they escaped. They were recaptured and sent to Dover Castle (where the Lieutenant had no idea what to do with them). Not missing a trick, Hythe corporation asked the Lord Warden to reimburse them for the cost of keeping the prisoners and then seized the sloop, which had been abandoned on the beach, for the town.

A couple of months later, they sold the sloop to some of the jurats, on condition that they did not sell it on to any ‘foreigners’ ie anyone who did not live in Hythe. The jurats failed to find a local buyer, so the corporation gave them permission to offer it to all comers, which resulted in a sale a few months later. The jurats had promised to give any profits to the town, but found that after their expenses in the matter were taken into account that the total profit was exactly two pounds, fifteen shillings and tuppence

Even this slender profit was to be challenged when the sale came to the attention of the naval authorities, who were of the opinion that the sloop did not belong to Hythe at all, presumably because it was not, strictly speaking, a wreck. An emergency conference was held at the home of the mayor, Michael Lushington, attended by everyone who had been involved in the sale, and the hapless mayor was despatched to London to plead with Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, on the town’s behalf. Cromwell may have listened, as no action was taken immediately, but the navy was not so easily discouraged, and in 1661 Hythe corporation paid to the Commander of the Navy an undisclosed sum in compensation.

It was a hard lesson, but one well learned. The next time a ship washed up on the beach, in 1692, the town clerk, Thomas Tournay, prudently went to Dover to the Admiralty Court to check the situation. The ship, the Dorothea of Stockholm, was wrecked above the low water mark and Tournay asserted the town’s right to it but the court considered it was not a wreck at all, as its crew had been saved. Another disaster for the corporation was, however, averted.

‘Not alms but his legal due’ – Part Four

Men and women were also moved to pity when they came to make their wills. Charitable donations took two forms. The funeral dole was a medieval habit, the last chance a soul had to fulfil the church’s commandment to feed the hungry. Although the Church of England no longer taught that these sorts of actions could impact on whether a soul would be saved or not, the tradition lingered on, and money, food or clothes were handed out to the poor at the funeral.  In 1601 George Baker of Hythe asked that a shilling be given to six poor people ‘who have most need’ and William Grigson, a fisherman, left five shillings. Even as late as 1653, Thomas Hooker, a Hythe butcher left instructions for twenty shillings to be shared out.

The second way was a charitable bequest, large or small. Arthur Blechinden and Thomas Browning,   gentlemen who both died in 1612, left money to the poor of Hythe, Canterbury, Dymchurch and Postling between them;  in 1653 William Gately, a blacksmith, left three pounds to the poorest of Hythe who were not  in receipt of parish relief, recognising that relative poverty co-existed with destitution.  Other bequests were in the form of goods. Richard Knight, a gentleman, in 1639 left to Thomas Boykin, a servant at the George inn a suit of clothes.

The largest and most enduring charitable bequest was left by Lawrence Weller, a tanner, jurat and former mayor of Hythe. In 1663 he left eighty pounds and land, the income from which was to pay for apprenticeships and tools for fatherless children in Hythe. The charity was to be administered by the churchwardens and overseers of the poor with the advice of the mayor and jurats. The bequest was so important to the town that in 1830  extracts from Weller’s will were painted on a board and displayed in the church (the charity, still known as Weller’s Gift,  continues to function in the twenty-first century although the objects of its benevolence have changed).  One of the first to take up the scheme was Stephen Keeler, a butcher, whose apprentice William Baker was recorded as being able to support himself after his term ended.

The board bearing details of Weller's Gift to the people of Hythe, which used to hang in the parish church (courtesy of St Leonard's Church, Hythe)
The board bearing details of Weller’s Gift to the people of Hythe.(courtesy of St Leonard’s Church, Hythe)

The poor, lacking savings, were particularly vulnerable to economic downturn. James I  was  extravagant with money. He gave lands, monopolies, offices, jewels and houses to his favourites; he held elaborate masques and banquets. His spending was twice that of Elizabeth. Within seven years of his accession he was flat broke, and by 1617 the country was sliding into depression, although to be fair to James, he was not entirely to blame as Europe was also affected. However, the Crown’s restraints on economic activity did not help. 1622 was the worst year of the depression. Over-abundant harvests in 1619-20 had lowered the price of grain but cut back agricultural purchasing power, while the atrocious harvest of 1621 was to result in rocketing grain prices and severe hardship among workers. There was widespread unemployment and malnutrition.

The weather was the other unpredictable factor in the lives of the poor.  The seventeenth century was generally cold, so cold that the last serious and widespread famine on mainland Britain occurred in the 1690s, mainly in highland communities in Scotland.  Atlantic storms tracked consistently further south than today and deep depressions passed eastwards right across the British Isles, giving rise to severe winters. This is now thought to have been caused by a marked absence of sunspot activity, suggesting a reduction in solar energy received on earth. The Northern Lights became so rare that they hardly ever appeared.  Dust veils were also reported during the period, resulting from twelve known volcanic eruptions round the Pacific from 1638 to 1644.

But at the time, people generally blamed the visitation of divine displeasure for the sins of mankind. These were many and various and included swearing, negligence in attending church, play-going, covetousness, and extravagant female fashion. Bad weather was also attributed to Catholic, Protestant or Laudian changes in religion, or to the sins of Parliamentarians or Royalists, depending on your loyalties. Alternatively comets were to blame (there were three in 1618 alone), or eclipses of the sun.

The winter of 1607/8 was one of several in the century known as ‘The Great Winter’. Trees died due to the severity and length of the frost and ships were stranded by ice several miles out into the North Sea. This was a disaster, as much commerce was done via coastal shipping. Ice formed on the Thames in London, thick enough to bear all sorts of sports and perambulations and even cooking. The frost lasted overall for some two months and many more hard winters were to follow.

Summers seem to have been either too dry or too wet. Drought is reported as frequently as flooding caused by storms. In 1636 in the South-East, it was reported that there was ‘not a drop of rain from March to August’. Although there were occasional hot spells, summers were generally cooler than those of the twenty-first century, In 1674 and 1675, it has been estimated that the mean temperature for June, July and August was 13.7 degrees centigrade.

The affect on crops was disastrous. Winter-sown crops perished in a really bad winter; spring-sown crops could not thrive in drought or were ruined by flood.  Shortages meant that grain prices rocketed, as did the cost of bread, the staple food of the poor.  1630 saw a particularly bad harvest, and the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports issued edicts forbidding the export of grain.  Having already banned the export of corn in May 1630, by July he was writing:

Notwithstanding the order forbidding the export of corn I am informed that divers persons daily ship and export great quantities of wheat and barley, that the store of corn in those parts is so far exhausted, and the prices so much enhanced that without some speedy remedy a great dearth is likely to ensue.

The harvest of 1631 was poor again, and the ban remained in force, although the Lord Warden made an order for ‘the quiet sufferance of one hundred quarters of wheat lately bought by Sir Sampson Darrell in Sussex, for the supply of his Majesty’s navy, to pass without interruption’.  Mutinies in the Navy were not to be risked again.

There were three successive bad harvests in 1647, 1648 and 1649, and the winter of 1657/8 was brutal. Crows were allegedly found with their feet frozen to branches. Trade all but stopped and grain prices soared. The 1660s saw another cycle of poor harvests, trade depression, and subsequent high unemployment.

The effect on the poorest can only be imagined. To be hungry is one thing; to be ill-clothed and freezing or ill-housed and wet as well, with no hope of employment or improvement, is true destitution. The new Poor Laws were stretched to their limits.

The next few posts will be about ‘the middling sort’ about whom there is much more information, and how they lived their lives