Probate inventories are fascinating documents. Unlike more ‘literary’ documents, such as contemporary novels, they let you see the eighteenth-century world as it was, warts and all. By listing everything owned by someone who had recently died, down to broken pots and pans and worn-out linens, they open a window on the daily lives of the ‘middling sort’ that you can get in no other way, not even in contemporary diaries.
Take this inventory of the goods of a local butcher in Kent, one Thomas Burwash, who died in 1705, when Queen Anne was on the throne. It begins like this:
Ane Inventary of all and singular the goods & chattels and credits of Thomas Burwash, late of the parish of Gillingham in the County of Kent, Butcher, deceased taken & appraised the 24th day of Aprill Anno Domini 1705 by Mathew Tilden of Gillingham aforesaid, yeoman, and John King of the same yeoman as ffolloweth vizt:
These are two local tenant farmers and were presumably either the executors of the butcher’s will or friends. They are going to go through Thomas Burwash’s house, room by room, listing what they find and assigning it a value for the purpose of obtaining probate from the consistory court of the diocese.
The first thing that strikes you is that none of the main rooms seem to have a single use. Beds are mixed in with chairs, tables and the rest.
Inpri[mi]s (First) in the Best Chamber
his wearing apparel, purse with money: xx li (£20.00)
Item one ffeather Bedd and all its ffurniture: v li (£5.00)
Item 3 Chests and a base of drawers: i s vj d (1s 6d)
Item ½ a doz. of Leather Chaires: ix s (9s)
Item One looking glass and some Earthen ware: v s (5s)
Item 20 pair of sheets and 10 paire of pillow Coates: iv li xv s (£4 15s)
Item three Dozen of Napkins and Towells: i li ix s (£1 9s)
It’s hard to turn these into precise modern values, but if you work on the basis of likely purchasing power, one pound in 1705 would be equivalent to some £200–250.00 today, one shilling about £10.00 and one penny (1d) around £1.75p. If you work on the basis of equivalent earnings, you could multiply by about ten again.
This is quite a list. Apparently his clothes and the money in his purse are worth £20.00, while no fewer than “three chests and a base of drawers”, presumably to hold them, are so old, battered or of such poor quality that they’re appraised at only 1/6! Note also that he has no fewer than 20 pairs of sheets, ten pairs of pillow cases and thirty-six assorted napkins and towels. Why so many? Because, as I noted in an earlier post, washing days came around only every month or six weeks. If you and your family wanted to sleep in clean sheets most of the time, you needed lots of bed linen.
Item in the second Chamber over the Ffire Roome
one ffeather Bedd with all its ffurniture: iij li (£3.00)
Item One Trunke One Chest and one looking glass: viij s (8s)
Item in the Little Chamber
one fflock Bed one Chest one little Table: i li xv s (£1 15s)
These do seem to be just bedrooms, but the furniture in them is scanty and worth very little, other than the beds. The ‘furniture’ of the beds means the bed hangings (these would be tester/four-poster beds), mattress and bolster/pillows.
These three rooms seem to be the entirety of the living quarters. All the other rooms noted are either servants’ quarters, domestic offices or connected with food storage and preparation. Presumably, the family spent their time either in a bedroom or in the kitchen.
Item in the Brewhouse Chamber
two fflock Bedds and their ffurniture One Chest: ij li (£2.00)
Item in ye Corne Chamber
two Seames and a halfe of Wheate: iij li ij s vj d (£3 2s 6d)
Item six Leather Chaires: xv s (15s)
Item a palate Bedds and Eight joint stooles: xv s (15s)
Item one fflock Bedd and its ffurniture: xv s (15s)
Item one Table andirons fire shovell and tonges i li vj s vj d (£1 6s 6d)
What all this furniture is doing in the ‘Corne Chamber’, along with 20 bushels of wheat, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it was simply being stored in case it was needed for visitors or guests. The items may have been old as well, since altogether they are only worth £3 11s 6d.
Item in the Kitchen
hafe a dozen of pewter dishes one doz: of plates: i li v s vj d (£1 6s 6d)
Item one paire of Cole Racks and ffender fire shovels and tongs: v li (£5.00) <br /.>
Item one Jack and Clock: ij li (£2.00) [a clockwork turnspit]
Item one paire of Brass candle-sticks & brass mortar and pestle one dripping pan one Gridiron two box Irons three spits two Candle Boxes: x s vj d (10s 6d)
Item one Cubbord one little Table halfe a dozen of Chaires and Earthen Ware: vij s x d (7s 10d)
Item two ffeather Bedds and their ffurniture: ij li x s (£2 10s)
Two beds in the kitchen!
Item in the Seller [cellar]
one dozen of Caskes two brine Tubbs four Bowles and other Lumber: ij li x s (£2 10s)
Item in the Buttery
one brass kettle four skillets a dripping pan a ffrying pan a warming pan: xiv s vj d (14 6d)
Item in the Brewhouse
foure porridge potts eight Tubbs an Iron Kettle and two ffurnaces: iv s vj d (4s 6d)
Item two Bucketts and Rope & two pailes xv s (15s)
Item for goods in the shop: x li (£10.00)
It may be that the shop was somewhere else. A butcher’s shop was a messy and smelly place, so you might well not want to live too close to it.
Item in the Barne
one [?]scuppett one sive one ffan: x s (10s)
These look like items for winnowing grain. Then follow the livestock and farming goods. Even a butcher in Queen Anne’s time farmed a little land as well. The move to a purely market economy hadn’t progressed so far as to rule out the need for producing at least some of your own food.
Item one Mare [illegible] ,br />
Item for two Hoggs: i li (£2.00)
Item for ffour Cowes: x li (£10.00)
Item One Court and two Harrowes: ij li (£2.00)
Item for nineteene acres of Corne on ye Land: xxv li (£25.00)
Item for ffifteene sheep and lambs: v li (£5.00)
Finally the debts, including ‘desperate’ ones, and anything missed out or overlooked.
Item debts Desperate due & oweing to the said dece[ase]d amounting to ye sume of: vj li (£6.00)
Item for things unseen and forgotten: x s (10s)
Suma Totalis: Cxxviij li (£128.00)
All in all a fairly prosperous local tradesman. His clothes and ready money alone come to £20.00, which was about a year’s income for an ordinary working man. His stock, crops and livestock were valued at £53 2s 6d, or around the annual tithe income of a country parson. In comparison, all his other possessions came to only £55.00, of which £6 3s is for bed linen and about £7 10s for cooking utensils.
Compare that with the wealth of the most meagre landed gentry, at around £200 p.a., and you can see the huge gulf that existed between them and the middling sort at the start of the century. By the end of it, the gap would have closed almost completely, with a good many merchants, manufacturers and professionals commanding greater wealth than the gentry who supposedly outranked them.