The Middling Sort – Part Five

The middling sort was often able to give their sons, and occasionally their daughters, some sort of formal education.  A degree of prosperity was required to release a child from the necessity of working to put bread on the table as soon as he could and to send him to school instead.   Nationally, there had been a huge expansion of education after the 1550s. Religious and more secular concerns had both played a role in this. Protestantism encouraged the devout to read and learn from their bibles.  The concurrent expansion of internal trade meant that by the seventeenth century tradesmen needed basic literacy, the ability to read a bill and sign a contract, in order to benefit from the growth in trade in foodstuffs and other goods.  There was also an increase in job opportunities open to the literate, in the church, in medicine and particularly in the law – there had been a big expansion in litigation towards the end of the sixteenth century.

Schoolmasters in Kent were licensed by the Diocese of Canterbury and Hythe had a licensed schoolmaster throughout the period. Often it was the curate, who usually had a university degree. Sometimes a man who was judged to be literate enough was given the post, as were Edward Grawnte in 1602, John Crumpe in 1620, and Matthew Mantell in 1640. All were also jurats, and Mantell described himself as a gentleman, although that was wishful thinking on his part as his family’s fortunes had collapsed when his great-grandfather was executed for his part in Wyatt’s rebellion.

It is likely that teaching was carried out in the church, as it was in other towns, and St Leonard’s church had the perfect schoolroom in the Parvise, a commodious chamber over the south porch. Reading and writing were taught separately, reading first, and then, at about the age of seven or eight, writing. By that age, children were becoming useful in the workplace, and many would not have learnt to write beyond a signature or just an initial. Many of Hythe’s tradesmen could sign, however, more or less legibly, and produce written bills.

The signature of William Gately, Blacksmith (Canterbury Cathedral Archives)
The signature of William Gately, blacksmith (Canterbury Cathedral Archives)
The bill of John Banbury, carpenter, for work done at the alms house barn (John Osbourne)

For the well-off there were grammar schools after elementary education. One of Hythe’s M.P.s, Norton Knatchbull, endowed a ‘free’ grammar school in Ashford, and there was another one in Canterbury. This latter cost twelve pounds a year, to which a parent would have to add the cost of the loss of a son’s labour. It was a big investment, and beyond the means of most.

Only very occasionally does anything more complex than bills and accounts survive as evidence of literacy, although James Pashley’s letters of 1658 are one example. This was because they were written to Henry Oxinden of Denton, a member of the minor gentry, to whom Pashley, a yeoman and Hythe jurat,  had become related through marriage, and who was a man who kept all his correspondence.  A grammar school education was a possibility for a yeoman’s son, and Pashley’s turn of phrase suggests an education beyond the elementary schoolroom:

‘Cousin, I hope there will be no doubt but you shall effect your desire, for I find Mr Lushington and Mr Arthur and all their party very constant for you, and my friends stand fast and do promise me to their utmost power; therefore I think you need not make any doubt’

Oxinden was standing for election as one of Hythe’s representatives in Parliament and his ‘cousin’ Pashley was canvassing for him. Oxinden lost, and the relationship rather fizzled out after that.

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.

‘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

‘Like prison, with the possibility of being drowned’ – impressment to the navy

If you were poor in the seventeenth century, it was hard to imagine life getting any worse, but it could, when the press men arrived. In January 1603 the Lord Warden ordered a muster of all Hythe’s mariners and seafaring men between the ages of sixteen and sixty, ‘out of which there shall be choice made and impressed’.  Impressment was the way the navy crewed its warships and the burden fell most heavily, if not exclusively, on the poor and the young.  The choice of who was impressed was largely determined by corruption, bribes and influence, and no man who could avoid impressment for himself or his son through these channels hesitated to use them. The other factor in the decision-making process was the health and strength of the men, qualities more likely to be found among the youth of the town. The requirement for ‘seafaring men’ did not narrow the field very much, as in a port and fishing town, most of the young men would have some experience of the sea.

Life in the navy was dangerous and often short. Conditions on board were notoriously tough: the food was poor, insufficient and frequently mouldy; there was no  heating and wet clothes sometimes did not dry out for weeks; sleep, especially unbroken sleep, was always at a premium.  Disease was rife; in fact ships were deliberately overmanned to allow for a high death rate, thus contributing to the problem. Commanders regularly complained that their vessels were ‘infested and noisome’, their men unfed, unpaid and unclothed and if put ashore sick were likely to be left to die by the inhabitants of the recipient port. One wrote of his crew that ‘their toes and feet miserably rot and fall away piecemeal’, which was probably the result of complications of advanced scurvy. The worst of it as far as their home town was concerned, was that the navy very often failed in its duty to support families left behind, so that they became a charge on the town.

In the end, five Hythe men were chosen to meet the complement of one hundred which the Cinque Ports had to provide.  They were told to make their way to Chatham, about forty miles distant, and given twelve pence each for imprest money and a halfpenny for each mile to Chatham. The Admiralty, exasperated by reports of pressed men arriving unsuitably dressed and unarmed, stipulated that their family and friends should, if necessary, provide them with good clothing, a sword and a dagger. This betrays either complete ignorance of the means of the average poor family, or more likely a cynical attitude: by issuing the order the Admiralty could tell its commanders it had done its best to ensure the men were well-equipped.How many of the five Hythe men got to Chatham and joined a ship is not known. The desertion rate was high, but presented dangers for the deserter. He could not return to his home town, and unless he could find work very quickly became a vagrant, with all that entailed. There was an alternative. The towns of the Elizabethan era were frequently terrorised by reports of gangs of deserters marauding their way through the countryside.

In 1627, after another impressment exercise in the Cinque Ports, the Lord Warden went himself to Chatham to check on the situation. Of two hundred men pressed, only a hundred and forty had reported to their ships, and many of these subsequently deserted. The Lord Warden hoped that they would be found and made an example of. A year later Hythe was required to provide another six men, this time for Buckingham’s bungled attempt to help save the French Huguenots from persecution by their own government by landing on the Île de Ré.  By this time the navy had been neglected for years by the king, who preferred to spend money elsewhere (on his favourite, Buckingham, for example), so ships were even more insanitary and unpleasant places to be for the two hundred Kentish men who were pressed. Hythe’s former M.P., Edward Clarke, warned Buckingham that the men were so disaffected they were ‘more apt to run into a mutiny at sea than perform their duties’, and he was proved right.

File:Invasion of Re1627.jpg

Map of the landing, siege and retreat by Buckingham’s ships at the  Île de Ré. He was unable to take the citadel as his scaling ladders were too short.

Impressment continued throughout the century and on into the Commonwealth. In 1653 when the country was at war with the Dutch, John Carter, in charge of impressments in the south, wrote frantically to the Navy Commission:

‘I have pressed 114 men in the places I was sent to, but those at Hastings have not pressed a man, and I could only press 2 there; so you may judge of their love to you…There are 33 vessels at Brighton and they have but 10 men in the service..I. have received 10 sick men from the fleet, and orders from Major Bourne to provide for them. I want to know what is to be allowed for them. There are five private men-of-war here, three from Dover and two from Rye, who receive and hide the seamen as long as there is any press in the town…. What shall I give soldiers and seamen discharged for sickness, but without certificates for relief?

I put in prison at Hythe two men whom I had pressed at Rye and sent to Chatham, but I met them again going for Dover, and put them in prison there. I wish you to ask the Mayor of Hythe how theycame be set at liberty’

The response of Austen Grenland, then mayor of Hythe, is not recorded. He was a Puritan who had always conformed to Parliamentary authority, and had shown ‘much affection’ to Parliament’s cause, so it is not likely that he was trying to undermine the government.  Perhaps someone with the keys to the gaol was moved to pity.

‘An idle sluttish and noisome people’

The vagrants who most troubled the authorities were the Irish, who as well as being poor were foreign and catholic too, a combination guaranteed to outrage the sensibilities of most respectable Englishmen.  In 1605, the Lord Warden passed on to the Cinque Ports a message from the Privy Council which described an apparent invasion of Irish beggars, the ‘swarming of this idle and sluttish and noisome people‘, who having tried their luck in France and been ejected, were gathering in Calais and making their way across the channel. There was, according to the Council, no reason why the Irish could not live comfortably in their own country (ignoring the fact of terrible English depredations there).   If they were found at a channel port, they should be immediately sent back to France or, if they had some money, made to pay for their own transportation back to Ireland.  Plus ça change….

Seventeenth Century Beggars

All newcomers to Hythe who lacked any visible means of support were regarded with great suspicion. In 1683, William Goldridge, a woolcomber of Charlton near Dover came to the town with his wife and four children because work was hard to find at home. He was required to get two men to supply a bond that he and his family  would not be a charge on the parish. They swore that he was ‘a diligent and pain-taking man labouring to his utmost for the maintenance of his family’.

Another strand of the Poor Law legislation was the apprenticing of poor children to local men. Apprenticeship was a normal rite of passage for many young people, and the theory behind this practice was sound – the young people would learn a trade and not, in future, fall back into poverty.  In ideal circumstances this was the case. However, Poor Law apprenticeships could be seen as a way of off-loading the parish’s responsibility, with little attention paid to the quality of the training provided and no chance of a job at the end of it.

This was particularly the case for girls, who were usually indentured to housewifry. In 1657, Elizabeth the twelve-year-old orphaned daughter of John Dyer, a Hythe sadler, was apprenticed to Henry Reade, a tanner, and his wife until she was twenty-one. The overseers of the poor agreed they would take her back if Henry died, and ‘his heirs had no use for her, providing she was not lame or maimed’.  The comparison here with  horse trading is unavoidable. Nearly thirty years later, Elizabeth Crumpe, after the death of her widowed mother, was indentured to her own half-brother Simon Crumpe and his wife, which, since they were paid a premium to take her, seems to be a very liberal interpretation indeed of the Poor Law.  However, the boys all do seem to have been apprenticed to trades where there was a real possibility of employment in later life – coopering, tanning, fishing and saddlery.

Jurats like Henry Reade, David Gorham and Austen Grenland were prominent among those taking on poor law apprentices, perhaps to try to set an example.  Poor law apprentices were often not very attractive specimens: underdeveloped, skinny and lousy , they would not be the first choice of prospective employee.

The corporation generally did its duty by the poor. It paid for funerals, provided fuel, and gave cotton and kersey to poor women to make clothes.  They were pragmatic: when John Glover died owing the corporation seven pounds in rent, they waived the debt so that his son and heir could afford to maintain his sister and not make her a charge on the parish.

In 1611, to supplement the poor rate, they passed a decree that all victuallers should pay for the maintenance of a poor child or pay an extra fourpence a barrel tax on beer. This proved unworkable, but is indicative of some imaginative thinking about social policy.  Excessive drinking was regarded as a particular problem, and this would have been a way of discouraging it, since the tax would have been passed on to the customer, while at the same time reducing the town’s financial liability to the poor.

Poverty could strike a family suddenly if the breadwinner was taken ill, injured or died. In the first two instances, a return to prosperity was possible, and might be achieved through the help of family and friends and without resort to parish relief, but the death of a working husband could leave a woman and her children destitute, as she was unlikely to have any means of supporting the family.  It has been estimated that whereas vagrants were predominantly male, women householders outnumbered men two to one as recipients of relief.

Some Hythe women did manage to fend for themselves, though. Women like  Alice Robyns, widowed in 1599, who set up a haberdashery and then acquired the land on which her late husband’s mill stood, thus ensuring her daughters’ future security ;  or  Phillice Oldfield and Elizabeth Hall, both widows, who were licensed as midwives in 1617; or two more widows, Thomasine Lee and Thomasine Sladden who succeeded them in 1629; the widow of William Kitchen who kept his mill working after his death in 1659; the woman who provided the rushes for the floor of the town hall (perhaps she also gathered them: a cold and miserable job); John Lacy’s mother who when she was widowed carried on selling brooms to support her small son; and Catherine Littlewood who ran her husband Philip’s stables after his death and maintained her four small children.

To be poor was not always to be totally destitute. There was in all towns a substantial body of wage-labourers whose income was precarious and barely sustained life. For them, employment was uncertain, usually short-term and badly paid. In mid-century, a labourer in the building trade might get tenpence or a shilling a day, subsistence wages or slightly below. By way of comparison, a building craftsman made about one shilling and fourpence a day, 33% to 60% more.

Then there were the servants, slightly more secure in their jobs, but still poorly-paid, and subject to the good-nature of their master. One Hythe servant, John Bean, giving evidence in 1601, testified that in sixteen months’ service, his master had beaten him only once. He was giving evidence as to the man’s good character.  By law, all those between fifteen and forty five who were unmarried and without estates of their own were required to be in service. Such people could be forced into service, sent to gaol or punished as vagabonds. The law was enforced only sporadically, and there is no evidence that it was in Hythe, although the authorities in other Kent towns such as Ashford were more rigorous.

Woman servant, seventeenth century

There could be some perks to a life in service, however. A good master would ensure a servant was decently fed and had a bed and clothes. A long-standing servant might even be remembered in the master’s will. In 1647, John Banbury, a Hythe carpenter, lacking sons, left his servant John Williams ‘all my tools and materials to work with (and may it please God to restore him to his former health)’; John Warde who died in 1602 left forty shillings to each of his four servants.

It has been estimated that about a fifth of the population of any town in the seventeenth century could be classified as poor. They were generally nameless, powerless and silent. Taking into account paupers and the low-paid, between a third and a half of all households were excluded from any say in the operation of the community. A great deal was talked about the poor, but they are rarely heard themselves. We simply do not know enough about their housing, diet, health care, dress or religion

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.

A Walk Through Hythe in 1600 – Part Two

Take a closer look at one of the bigger houses. It is of timber frame construction, with walls infilled with wattle and daub, but boasts a tall brick chimney stack. It has small leaded windows with glass.  This one is still thatched, using the water reed phragmites communis which grows abundantly on the neighbouring Romney Marsh. It is ideal thatching material, being naturally waterproof and thermally efficient and withstanding high winds better than tiles.  The roof is steeply pitched to allow gravity to take rain, sleet, and snow down and off the roof, forcing water down the stems of the reeds to run off at the eaves. There is no need for guttering or drainpipes, and below the top few centimetres the roof stays as dry as a bone in even the worst weather.  Water reed thatch can last up to sixty years, so, fire risk apart, there is no great incentive for the owner to replace it with tiles.

The owner is John Oldfield, a prosperous beer brewer who also keeps horses for hire. Walk down the alley at the side of the house. This leads to the ‘close’.  Besides the house itself, this area contains a hotchpotch of buildings: the kitchen, which is separate from the main house, the stables, a barn, the brewhouse with its furnace, the privy, a pigsty, a midden, and a hen house. It is a busy, noisy place and the sharp aroma of fermentation hangs over it all. A customer haggles with John Oldfield over the cost of horse hire for a handsome black gelding;  a servant mucks out the stables; Phillis, John’s wife, and a servant girl prepare  dinner in the kitchen; an apprentice is sweeping in a desultory manner, but he has been  working since before five o’clock this morning and is tired and hungry; Christopher Argar, a day labourer and his boy are shifting full beer barrels;  a servant is trying to back the beercart  into the close to collect the barrels, but has become wedged in the narrow opening; he is now blocking the street outside and several men are offering their advice as to how he can best extricate himself; some small boys stone a rat which they have cornered near the kitchen – they have managed to break its back but it still desperately drags itself about on its front paws while the boys watch gleefully.

Be bold, step inside the house. It is quieter here, and darker. The small windows let in limited light, even in summer. You see that although they are now glazed, they still have sliding shutters to cover them. Window curtains are not yet in vogue. When the house was built, over a century ago, it was a hall house, with a central hearth open to the roof. The smoke rose and seeped out through the thatch. The hall was divided to create a private ‘parlour’ which was primarily a sleeping room. Over the parlour another chamber was created, with stairs provided. Cooking arrangements were separate from the hall, at the end of the house.  During the sixteenth century, an age of home improvement on a grand scale, the central hall was ceiled over by having a whole first floor inserted. Then a central chimney stack was put in incorporating two back-to-back fireplaces, and heating the hall, the parlour and the rooms above. The chimney stack is of brick, although this is still not commonly used as a walling material.

Today the dinner table in the hall is being set by a servant girl. Dinner is eaten at midday. The tableware in this house is pewter, although for very special occasions, Phillis might bring out her silver spoons and salt dish. Each place has a plate, a knife and a spoon. Forks are not in common use, and indeed are regarded with some suspicion, either as being too effete to be used by real men, or as vulgar, like hay forks for tossing food into mouths. Each place is provided with a napkin, an essential when fingers are used for eating greasy food. Today Phillis is serving mutton baked in a pastry ‘coffin’. There are baked onions, too, for those who care for vegetables. Phillis grew them herself in the garden plot at the back of the house.  There are separate eating arrangements for the servants and apprentice, who will make do with bread and leftovers in the kitchen, although in this place they are always assured of a mug of beer.

You notice that the family will sit at the table on stools. Chairs are not often found in houses of the middling sort. The other furniture in the hall comprises a cupboard, where the tableware and napkins are kept. The walls are covered with painted cloths. These are the seventeenth century equivalent of wallpaper and also act as draught excluders. Richer folk hang carpets on the wall, but this is beyond the means of the Oldfields. By the great fireplace there are fire tongs and a pair of bellows ready for the fires of autumn.

Walk through to the parlour, and then upstairs to the other chambers on the first floor. Each contains a bedstead of some sort – quite a grand one for John and Phillis, with posts and curtains, plainer ones for junior members of the family and truckle beds which slide under the bedsteads for the servants – yet none of these rooms could be, or indeed is, called a bedroom. They are general storage rooms in which people also happen to sleep. John and Phillis have a feather mattress, a luxury item which is not available to other members of the household, who sleep on lumpy flock, made of waste wool. Similarly, the master and mistress have a feather pillow each, but a flock bolster is provided for everyone else.

Look inside the cupboards and chests in these rooms. They contain household linen – tablecloths, sheets, towels, blankets, coverlets, – and clothing – linen shirts and chemises, stockings, collars and ruffs, scarves, handkerchiefs, men’s drawers (women do not wear them), nightgowns and nightcaps. Scattered about the rooms are tables and benches, candlesticks, chamber pots, looking glasses, boxes of correspondence and legal documents,  a sewing basket and piles of mending, bundles of bills and receipts, and oddly, John’s muskets. He needs them for his service in the Trained Band, a local militia, which is compulsory for every able-bodied man between sixteen and sixty. Perhaps this is as good a place as any to keep them dry.

Finally climb a ladder from one of the chambers to the garret under the roof. This, like every attic in every age, is full of things which might come in useful one day: broken furniture, old tools, and, as the men who will one day come to take a probate inventory of John’s goods will record ‘old lumber and things forgotten’.