We are starved of sources for Birmingham’s early history. The lack of information has encouraged strange myths, such as Conrad Gill’s assertion that Birmingham was a village until the sixteenth century. Part of the problem is that not enough records are available in print. Wills are documents that everywhere become plentiful after about 1540, and provide valuable information about religious beliefs, support for charities, and family members receiving bequests. The value of wills increases greatly when accompanied by an inventory of goods which enables us to assess the will-makers’ wealth and possessions, and investigate how they made their living. Transcripts of some sixteenth-century wills and inventories of Birmingham people appeared in the 1890s, and better quality versions of a selection of inventories were published by Richard Holt in the 1980s. Now Jacqueline Geater has produced a volume with all known wills and inventories, totalling 156, from Birmingham and its dependent settlements dating between 1511 and 1603.
The occupations of the people recorded show that Birmingham provided a living for the wide range of artisans and traders that we expect to find in a flourishing town. Prominent among them were the 22 smiths, cutlers and makers of scythe blades demonstrating Birmingham’s reputation as a centre of the iron industry, and 16 tanners and 8 workers in leather representing its other well-known specialism, but also people making and selling cloth and clothing, traders in food, brickmakers and building workers, and ten other trades and professions. Some people pursued more than one trade: a draper dealt in cheese for example. We get some idea of the town’s buildings because most inventories listed the contents of each room. Half of the houses had between 3 and 6 rooms, and one in ten of them were provided with 9 or 10. Often a shop or working space was situated in the house or next to it. Many Birmingham people had crops or animals, often said to be in the field or on the pasture, so that we can visualise the town surrounded by a countryside used by the townspeople. The inclusion in this volume of wills made by people in hamlets and suburbs attached to Birmingham remind us that it was a complicated place. Two will makers came from Winson Green, a rural hamlet in the parish, and others from Bordesley and Deritend across the river Rea in the parish of Aston. Birmingham had connections beyond the town, with surrounding villages such as King’s Norton and Yardley, but also with Chester, Reading and London, arising from migrations and commercial contacts.
Wills expressed feelings, loyalties and people’s sense of duty. They were anxious to put their affairs in order at the end of their lives. They may have made a will when they were fit and well, but when they were near to death they made their last will, dictating to a clerk their wishes for the distribution of their goods and money. They thought about their relatives and made provision for the next generation, but they also remembered to leave something for the poor.
An example is the will of Richard Neale, a shoemaker, who died in July 1596, evidently after more than a month of illness as he made his will in late May when he was ‘sick in body’. After an expression of religious faith, he bequeathed his best clothes (cloak, doublet and shirt) to his son John with his books and ‘working tools in the shop’. The books would have been volumes of accounts with details of customers. Neale insisted that his debts to others should be paid out of the sale of goods and chattels. Once these obligations were met, the other goods and chattels were to be divided between John and Mary, ‘my beloved wife’, and she was made the sole executrix. John was to get the first pick of his ‘household stuff’, and if Mary remarried her share would immediately go to him. At the end of his will Richard listed debts owed to 8 people totalling more than £20.
This tells us about Richard’s religion and about his family, including some potential tensions between mother and son. But his trade is not revealed, nor how large a hole the burden of debts would make in the family’s fortunes. All is revealed when three appraisers, local men known to the family, came to move through the 8-room house noting the goods and their values. They began in the main room, the hall, and then progressed through the ground floor parlour, kitchen, service rooms (including buttery), and then went upstairs through three chambers. In the shop, which was a ground floor room in the house, they found shoes (84 of them), leather and lasts: Neale is revealed to have been a shoemaker. We get a picture of the house, which also served as business premises, and from the furnishings we can see how the rooms were used, the hall for eating and keeping warm at the fire, more eating (judging from the table, stools and benches) in the parlour, food preparation and brewing in the kitchen. The buttery was used to keep drink and drinking vessels (including cups from Wednesbury), and the chambers were rooms for sleeping and storage. In addition to his craft, like many Birmingham people (and townspeople generally) Neale was involved in small scale agriculture, and ‘in the fields’ the appraisers found 2 cows and their offspring, a few sheep, oats and rye.
An unwelcome discovery for the family was another list of debts which were presumably disclosed as neighbours and business associates heard that an appraisal was in progress. The new claims brought the total amount owed to others to about £28, while the value of furniture, utensils, shoes and equipment in the shop, and farming assets came to about £27. Fortunately the deceased had not bequeathed any money, and one hopes for the sake of his wife and son that the ‘books’ contained evidence of cash owed to him, and that some of the creditors were willing to accept delayed payment. Inventories clearly tell us about a complicated web of credit.
Birmingham Wills and Inventories 1512-1603, edited by Jacqueline B, Geater,
Published by the Dugdale Society. £30.
To order a copy visit the Society’s website, www.dugdale-society.org.uk