Alan Greening

Those who restrict their interest in History to great events and prominent people miss  out on a lot. Readers of this Newsletter will be well aware of my own deep interest in trying to discover all I can about the lives of “ordinary” folk; those dismissed in the past as “the common people”, whose lives turn out, upon examination, to be far from prosaic. In my reseraches into the history of seventeenth century Hertford it has been my good fortune to discover not a little in this direction, so that more and more of Hertford’s citizens of the period are no longer just names, but stand up three-dimensionally as people, and – misbehave.

Nowhere is this more true than when trawling through the pages of the Borough Quarter and Petty Sessions records, which are to be found in Volumes 9 and 17 respectively of the Hertford Corporation Records in the County Record Office. A liberal helping of my discoveries there will be retailed to you when I speak to the Society in the Autumn on “Law and Disorder in Seventeenth Century Hertford”. The examples which follow are just a brief selection which will not prejudice the content of that talk nor of my forthcoming paper” A Window on Seventeenth Century Hertford”.

They are in themselves trivial, quite unconnected and are not intended to point any moral, unless, perhaps, it be that the people of Stuart Hertford were, by and large, a pretty stroppy, quarrelsome lot! Covered are neighbour trouble, a family quarrel, threatening behaviour, a teenage dispute, wife-beating and a practical joke that went wrong. Parallels might, no doubt, be drawn with today, by those so inclined.

The Troubles of Widow Clifford

Let us begin with the troubles of Widow Clifford. In 1621 Anne Clifford complained to the Hertford Bench about the behaviour of her neighbour Alice Finch, who, it appears, was already bound over to be of good behaviour. If only half of what Anne said was true, then Alice must surely have been a candidate for the cucking stool1. “Scold” is about the kindest word applicable to her. According to Anne, “Shee hath reported that I …. would have poysoned her when shee lay sick”; had accused her (Anne) of perjury for swearing that she had used a false measure in the market, “whereas it was true”; “of her malice hath reported that John Clifford (long since deceased) which was my husband was in his lifetime a Cozener and many other scandalous words … “; and “doth dayly soe spitefully pursue mee the said Anne with threatinge and disgracefull speeches both of mee and myne. in towne Citty and Country that I live in geat feare of her mortall mallice”. There is more, much more, about “the said Alice ffynche” and her behaviour towards others.

What are we to make of all this? It looks as though it all started with the accusation that Alice Finch used a “false Elle”in the market. Now, dodgy measures, short weight and dubious quality were common coin in the market place,and kept the appropriate local officers busy. When found out, most offenders seem to have paid up their fines cheerfully enough and went away, no doubt to sin another day. But Alice was clearly a vindictive charcter who bore malice. Did the “poisoning” allegation arise from that? It seems most unlikely that she would have accepted any sort of remedy from Anne’s hands. Are we looking at an attempt to impute witchcraft? As a widow, Anne Clifford would have been a vulnerable target. All we know about her is what we read in her deposition; we know nothing of her looks, her disposition or her past history. We just don’t know the whole story – nor, unfortunately, how it all turned out: whether, in fact, the unpleasant Alice did get the ducking at the bridge she would seem to have richly deserved.

A Family Quarrel

The second story concerns a family quarrel, and family quarrels, like neighbour disputes, are always with us. They are seldom improved by outsiders interfering. At ten o’clock at night on 25 November 1640 Thomas Haynes, Cordwainer2, was at home, as, indeed, all good citizens were expected to be at such an hour, when, to quote his statement, he “heard a great outcrie in the wydow Gyls house” – presumably next door. Rushing in where angels fear to tread he found “John Gyll and John Barkmaker his unckle fightinge ….. and this Examinate offeringe to part them the said John Gyll up with his Rule to stryke this Examinate and seeing this Examinate would take away his Rule swore wounds you Roague wheres my knyfe and drew his knyfe and said he would run it into hym”. Whereupon Haynes ran out of the house, one imagines with a fair turn of speed, and called up William Gardiner the constable.

Gill’s (the name is variously spelt) version of events was limited to the initial fracas. He said that when he got home from work his mother and sisters began to quarrel with him and he, “speaking in his own defence”, his mother “fell a-beatinge of hym”. Whereupon his uncle, John Barkmaker, who was also in the house, came and seized him by the throat, “and almost stopped his wynd”. “And this Examinate hovinge his Rule in his hand did stryke the said” John Barkmaker and broke his hedde”.

Barkmaker’s version is, needless to soy, rather different. He said that on coming downstairs he found Gill beating his lame sister and thereupon “tooke hold of his Coller to part them [and] the said John Gyll getting loose from hym strooke at hym with his Rule and broke his Hedde”.

Again, I do not know the outcome. What, I wonder, was the initial argument all about? One suspects that Gill was being nagged more for what he had not done than for what he had. But his mother certainly had her share of troubles. Former landlady of the Chequer Inn, she had lost goods in the 1637 fire there, and the Corporation subsequently distrained on what was left for non-payment of rent.

A Little Cameo

And now for a little cameo. The date is 16 October 1691. Robert Warner, Grocer and an Assistant on the Corporation, is standing on his doorstep twirling his cane – a bit of a dandy, perhaps? – preparatory to walking to Ware on business, when up comes William Archer, labourer, the alcohol on his breath almost perceptible after an interval of three centuries, and accosts him thus: “You rogue, what do you shake your cone for?” To which Warner replies, as well he might, ‘What’s that to you, go about your business and don’t meddle with me”. Archer’s response is “God damn ye, I could find in my heart to give you a slap on the face and beat you!” At this point two of Warner’s “neighbours “prevail” (sic) upon Archer to go away.

No doubt still clutching the offending cane, Warner sets off for Ware. By the time he reaches the Sun Inn, Archer overtakes him and repeats his threats, “and soe did continue following and threatening this informant as far as the Stile in Mid[d]le feild, whereupon his informant fearing sum mischief or bodyly hurt was forced to come back again beinge also persuaded by sume of his neighbours that if he went forward he the said Archer would do him a mischief.”

“Tlie said Archer” was bound over in the sum of £20 to appear at the next Borough Quarter Sessions.

Unruely Apprentices

The next case involves one very scared teenager, a gang of his peers – one can scarcely call them “mates” – and a rather less than diligent constable. William Nash the younger, apprentice to John Clark, Woolcomber, gave evidence on oath that on Thursday, 14 January 1691 (1692 by our reckoning), “betwixt nine and ten in the forenoone”, there came to his master’s house in Castle Street John Rumball and Ralph Stamford, apprentices to William Smart, Humphrey Packer, apprentice and Daniel Webb, journeyman3 to Jonathan Smart the Elder, and Samuel King, apprentice to John Bennett – all woolcombers – and “did riottly (sic) and disorderly call to him the said Wm: Nash to come out to them, threatening with many menaces and provoking words that they wud hors him and throw him into the river; and that if he …. refused to come they swore damn ‘am and sinck’am [that] where and whensoever they cud light of him they wudd doe his buisness: and if they cud light of him in no other place they wudd fetch him out of the Church and doe his buisness: and …. that he is in fear they will take away his life or doe him some bodyly hurt”. There are no prizes for guessing that Nash did not go out to them; but his master did manage to send for the constable. That worthy was William Hawkins, pattenmaker4. He came, he says in his evidence, “as soon as conveniently he might”: not ‘immediately”, or “as soon’ os he was able”, but “as soon as convenient”. The trade of pattenmaker – making a type of wooden clog to keep ladies’ dainty shoes out of the mud – does not suggest great urgency of business, and one is left with the strong impression that Hawkins had no great desire to embroil himself with a gang of unruly apprentices; an impression fortified by his remark to them when he eventually did arrive: “I was a-coming to keep good order amongst you”. To this, Rumball replied, “If you had come your staff would ‘a’ served to hors him upon”, and, further “wherever they mett [Nash] they wudd doe his buisness’. Everyone was duly bound to appear at the next Sessions.

This is curious incident in more ways than one, quite apart from the behaviour of the constable. We may well wonder about the state of trade – and discipline – in the woolcombing business when four apprentices and a journeyman could wander off “betwixt nine and ten” on such an errand. But what had young Nash been up to?

Clearly he had transgressed in some way. There is a marginal note to his evidence “aged about 19 years”, which suggest that there may well have been a girl involved somewhere. Had he been playing fast and loose with one of the others’ girlfriends? But note, too, that all concerned are woolcombers. His would-be assailants ore plainly in earnest. This is no joke, although there can be no doubt that, if successful, they will enjoy every moment. “Horseing” has echoes of “skimmington riding”, usually directed at cuckolded husbands and their wives, although in such instances neighbours usually acted the parts and were not ducked of course.

Wife Abuse

Next, a sordid little case of wife abuse. Incidentally, whoever wrote down the evidence – apparently the same man who wrote down that in the Nash case – well merited the booby prize for even seventeenth century spelling. At least in this instance action was taken fairly quickly. “Samewell”(sic) Randall testified on oath that on 9 April 1696 ‘William Bunker did strike his wife and cnoc hur downe and frighted hur so and that with the blow and being frited together she was so sick that she cud not cum before [the Justice)”. Bunker was bound over in the sum of £10 to be of good behaviour and appear at the next Sessions. He was also fined three shillings for swearing two oaths …. ‘and I gave it to Robard Hockley churchwardun of the parrish of Snt Andrews Hartford and he gave it to the pore of the said parrish”.

The Practical Joke that Misfired

Lastly, the practical joke that misfired. This is best given verbatim, not least because of the confusion caused by the additional business of the (probably) scurrilous “writing” and the involvement of William Burges, which I confess I do not fully understand:-

” Examinations taken before Mr Maior 9 die May 1624 of Daniell How Mychaell Larkyn & John Reo

Daniell upon examination confessed that there was a wryiinge thrust under his Myll doore upon Ascension day beinge the sixte of May obovewritten but by whom he knoweth not. And further this examinate saieth that he carried this wrytinge unto James Gaodman in Chawkleyes house & there it was read by him the said James Goodman who wished the said Daniell How to burne the same or rend it.

Afterwards this Examinate confessed that he did read & publish the some wrytinge before Mr Carde one of the Burgesses & one William Burges (& the said Burges perceyvinge the some to be made & wrytten of & by hym) did take the same wrytinge & brought the some unto Mr Maior.

Michaell Larkyn servant to Thomas Smyth the wheeler beinge examined saith that he bought a half pennyworth of figges & did entreate with William Burges to give him some Virginia Nutts who gave him some of them and thereupon this examinate put those Nutts into the figges intendinge to give them unto one Elizabeth Bolton his fellow servant to make some sport with her for tellinge of tales. And this examinate havinge told his Dome of his intent gaves these figges unto the said Elizabeth who receyvinge them did not eate them but gave two of the figges unto John Rea her fellow servant.

John Rea upon examination saith that he gave these two figges unto Rich: Rolfe the younger at his earnest intreatie & request & that the said Richard Rolfe with the eatinge of the two said figges was much distempered in body by purginge upward & downward.

Michaell Larkyn & John Reo doe affirme that those figges came to Richard Rolfes hand without any privitie of the said William Burges.”

Poor Richard! He obviously was very partial to figs – what a nice picture is summoned up by that phrase “at his earnest intreatie ….”! But what on earth were Virginia nuts? I have drawn a complete blank on this one.  Clearly their effect was potent stuff: stuffing them inside figs seems like gilding the lily with a vengence!  But perhaps the original unkind intent was merely towards Elizabeth Bolton’s teeth.


  1. ‘Cucking stool’ or ‘ducking stool’ was a way of punishing disorderly women. The woman was sat in the stool and ducked in the river!
  2. Cordwainer was originally term used for one who worked with Cordovan (a special leather from Spain) but later term used for shoemaker, cf. list of Old English Occupations – http://www.worldthroughthelens.com/family-history/old-occupations.php
  3. A master craftsman. One who served his apprenticeship and mastered his craft; properly, one who no longer is bound to serve for years but is hired day to day (Often self employed) cf. list of Old English Occupations – http://www.worldthroughthelens.com/family-history/old-occupations.php
  4. A clog or shoemaker. cf. list of Old English Occupations – http://www.worldthroughthelens.com/family-history/old-occupations.php
This page was added on 26/04/2018.

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