A 17th-century nobody

From Natalie of Philobiblon, the news that upstairs in the English department there’s a new colleague who is working on the biographies of Renaissance ‘nobodies’. (Yes, I am mildly entertained to get Aber news first from a blogger in London, but no doubt I’d have bumped into her sooner or later…)

Sometimes amongst early modern court records, you find autobiographical material. This is most common in what are known as ‘settlement examinations’ or in the petitions of paupers for poor relief: in both cases the life of the petitioner or examinant is being set out to establish the case (or lack of it) for eligibility for parish-based support. But there are a few others, confessions to crimes that (for less immediately obvious reasons) reach back into the personal history of the offender.

And so here is one, from Denbighshire in 1665. It’s the story of Robert Jones, described as a labourer of Eglwys-fach (or Eglwys-bach). I’m going to put it into the first person and (mostly) modern English. (It’s a bit repetitive at times, but bear with it.)

I am the son of John Lewis of Eglwys-fach, yeoman. I served as a hired servant to Robert Halland of Eglwys-fach for about four years, and about three years ago I left his employment for that of John ap Evan Griffith of Eglwys-fach, where I stayed for a quarter of a year for 8 shillings wages. From there I hired myself to a drover to drive livestock to Kent, and returned to Eglwys-fach; from there I went to Cheshire to work for James Dod for 3 pence a day, for about 9 weeks. From there I went to work for Griffith Pierce in Llanferres (Denbighshire) for 3 pence a day, and worked at reaping for 5 days. Then I spent a further week reaping at 4 pence a day for Griffith Pierce’s neighbour, ‘John by name’.

Then I came to the town of Ruthin where I spent 6 pence at Margaret Williams’s house [probably an alehouse, but possibly for lodgings], and at Robert Griffith’s house I pawned my shirt for 1 shilling which I ‘called for in ale’ [presumably that means this was both an alehouse and a pawnshop, and he used the shilling to pay for drink].

Next I went during the night to the aforesaid Griffith Pierce’s house in Llanferres and stole a bedcovering, which I sold in Denbigh town for 4 shillings, and a frieze [very coarse wool] coat, which I sold to ‘a shoemaker a quaker servant’ for 18 pence and I spent the money in Margaret Hughes’s house in Denbigh. From there I went to Llanrwst where I stayed 2 nights at the house of Dorothy ferch John Thomas, and 2 nights more. I was sent to deliver a message and was paid 6 pence.

I went to Morris Burchinshaw’s house in Llansannan during the night and stole from an outhouse a shirt and a flannel waistcoat which I’m now wearing. In the same night I went to the ‘oxen house’ at the same place and took from there some ‘small pieces of linen’ [things like caps, handkerchiefs and neck cloths and possibly underwear], which I sold to 2 women in Henllan for 18 pence, and some small linen, which I sold for 8 pence to Grace Salesbury in Llanrhaeadr.

I also confess that at about Candlemas 2 years ago in the night time I stole a suit of frieze clothes from an outhouse of the aforesaid Morris Burchinshawe, and I wore these clothes out in my ‘travaile’ [labour].

There’s so much I could say, and so many questions I could ask, about Robert’s confession. (Did he offer it freely or did the magistrate decide to ask him about his past? To get this sort of detail in a confession is unusual, which seems to me to suggest that it was more likely to be Robert’s own initiative. But there’s no way to be sure.) His account is obviously highly selective (as are all autobiographies, of course), and I think that it’s pitched to make him look a rather sad and pitiful figure, deserving mercy rather than severity – not least the pathos at the very end of stealing (extremely poor-quality) clothes which he then wore out to rags.

He certainly glosses over why he left his service with John ap Evan Griffith after just three months (servants were usually hired by a year) and went off all the way to Kent, and focuses instead on his slide first into insecure, seasonal day-labour and pawning his clothes and occasional errands for a few pence here and there – and thieving. That slide is the context and explanation for his turn to crime. The story he tells is one of necessity, poverty and desperation. Additionally, he admits only to entering outhouses and barns, not people’s homes (and does not mention whether there was any forcible entry: these things did matter).

There are other notable things: we have glimpses into the thriving secondhand clothing trade, the ubiquitous presence of pawning and credit, the versatility of people’s economic activities – common features of theft depositions generally (they are a rich but I think under-used source for early modern economic life). Robert’s mobility is also striking: apart from his forays into Kent and Cheshire, a quick glance at a map will show you that he was roaming right round central and northern Denbighshire. The word vagrant doesn’t appear here, but that was in effect what he had become.

So what became of Robert? He was tried on two indictments for burglary, from Griffith Pierce and Morris Burchinshaw respectively: in both cases the jury found him guilty of ‘felony’ only. This dismissal of the burglary part of the charge meant that he could claim benefit of clergy and escape being hanged. So it looks as though the jury did decide to give him the benefit of the doubt. Still, the judge ordered that he should also be sent to the house of correction rather than simply being released. That was an uncommon move in Denbighshire in the 1660s; it may have been because Robert was simply too poor to find sureties for bail, but it may have been to ensure some extra punishment besides branding (and houses of correction were often used for vagrants and vagabonds).

But in any case, the entry in the gaol calendar ordering him to the house of correction is the last I saw of Robert. Maybe after they let him out he returned to his family and climbed back on the straight and narrow; maybe he carried on tramping around the county getting occasional work (and drinking away much of the money), probably begging and sometimes thieving, but he never got caught and prosecuted again; or maybe he left Denbighshire for good, and perhaps would turn up in some other county’s records somewhere.

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4 Responses to A 17th-century nobody

  1. Fascinating tale – glad if I in any way contributed to its posting.

    A couple of thoughts/questions: he’s called a son of a yeoman, which I would have thought implied a certain social (and economic) standing? So could this be a young man going astray – I guess there’s no way of estimating his age? Whereas if he were older, that suggests to me a bloke on a steady downward slide. (No sign of a wife.)

    I also thought the geographical mobility is fascinating – in this narrative anyway, it is made to sound easy.

  2. Sharon says:

    The use of the term ‘yeoman’ in the Denbighshire records was, I think, a bit different from what you might expect in most English counties. Welsh yeomen (and gentry, too) tended to be poorer than their English counterparts, plus the term seems to be used more broadly. I strongly suspect that many Denbighshire ‘yeomen’ would in England (even next door in Cheshire) have been accorded the lower status of ‘husbandman’. On the other hand, it was perhaps easier to set up as a small farmer in the Welsh uplands (plenty of cheap land available). I’d need to look this up in the Big Fat University of Wales dictionaries, but I have an idea that in the Welsh language the yeoman/husbandman distinction was much less clear too (my dictionary gives ‘amaeth’ for husbandman and ‘amaethwr’ for yeoman). Nonetheless, being described as a yeoman did carry some indications of social/economic status: a good reason for Robert to want to draw attention to his family background. As for his age, I’d imagine that he was fairly young; he probably wasn’t very old if he’d been sent out to service in his teens (perhaps he was a younger son and the family land wasn’t large enough to support him), so he’d be in his early 20s at the time of the examination. But that’s just a presumption really. If the relevant parish records have survived I could probably find out… but I don’t really have time.

  3. The Ordinary of Newgate’s accounts also contain biographical information about the condemned. The trouble is that all the stories end the same way.

  4. Sharon says:

    Neil: I have deleted your comment and if you leave another one like it I’ll ban you altogether.

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