The Woolcomber’s World, Part I: A life scribbled in the margins of almanacs

Brodie Waddell

On 8 August 1716, Joseph Bufton sat down to take stock of his little archive.

For about forty years, he had been filling the margins and blank pages of old almanacs with notes. He now had quite a collection and his terse list hints at their contents.

‘I reckon I have here 22 almanacks’, he wrote…

  • Seven volumes were ‘filled up chiefly with things taken out of other books’, including ‘out of a dictionary’.
  • Five were account books, some ‘of household stuff, &c.’, but others probably related to his work.
  • Three volumes were ‘out of Irish letters, &c.’, that is to say, copies of letters between Joseph and his brother John, who had removed to Ireland in 1678.
  • Two were ‘filled up with notes of sermons’ and ‘an account of funerall sermons’.
  • One was ‘filled chiefly with buriall and marriage’, chronicling the vital events of his family members and neighbours.
  • Another ‘I keep on my board and write in dayly’, though its precise contents remain a mystery.
  • One he ‘fill’d great part with Bellman’s verses’, short poems celebrating the chief annual religious and civic festivals such as Christmastide and the royal birthday.
  • A final volume recorded the rules of his trade in the form of ‘the orders in Comber’s book, &c.’

This extraordinary little library has only partly survived the ensuing centuries. Only eleven volumes – half the total noted by Bufton in 1716 – are known to remain. Eight of these are held in his native county at the Essex Record Office and another three can be found at the Brotherton Library in Leeds. Still, the fact that any escaped the rubbish heap is surely a sign of providential favour – most personal jottings of this sort were long ago destroyed by unfortunate fires, spring cleanings or damp basements.

One of Bufton's almanacs, including a scrawl of notes in every available margin.

One of Bufton’s almanacs, including his scrawl of notes in every available margin.

This brings me to the question that I suspect most readers’ are now asking themselves: Who was Joseph Bufton and why should anyone care?

I would love to be able to include a portrait here of Bufton, showing you what he looked like posing in his prime. However, unlike Laura’s current hobby-horse Thoresby, Bufton never achieved the sort of wealth or notoriety necessary for a pictorial acknowledgement of his existence. Even his biographical details are too sketchy for a detailed pen-portrait, and I am still trying to fill in some of the gaps.

Coggeshall, Essex, c1700

Coggeshall, between Braintree and Cochester (c.1700).

What we do know is that Joseph Bufton was born in 1650 to John and Elizabeth, a clothier and his wife. He grew up and lived most of his life in Coggeshall in Essex, a small town dominated by the woollen industry, and he found employment there as a woolcomber. I have not found any evidence that he married or had children, but he did have an older brother, John, and three older sisters, Mary, Elizabeth and Rebecca.

In 1699, he left Coggeshall, and he made few notes after that date. It is not clear where he lived out the rest of his life, though it may have been London or Colchester as he lists two account books as ‘1 for Lon., 1 for Colc.’. Similarly obscure is his death. All that is certain is that he survived until at least 1716, when he would have been sixty-six years old.

In subsequent posts, I’ll attempt to shine some light on this ill-defined silhouette. By looking at his eleven volumes of surviving notes from several different angles, we can begin to illuminate a well-rounded individual with eclectic tastes, surrounded by a diverse crowd of family, friends, co-workers and neighbours. My hope is that I’ll convince you that Bufton’s scribblings are not only interesting and sometimes amusing. They can, in fact, allow us to get some sense of how life was lived – God worshipped, money made, communities peopled – by people who far too rarely wrote anything down.

Acknowledgements

I owe a considerable debt to Henry French for both information and ideas about Bufton, some of which he has published in The Middle Sort of People in Provincial England, 1600-1750 (2007), pp. 244-50. I’ve also drawn on G.F. Beaumont, A History of Coggeshall (1890), pp. 219-29. I previously discussed Bufton in God, Duty and Community in English Economic Life (2012), pp. 199-202. The title of these posts is borrowed from Paul Seaver, Wallington’s World: A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London (1985). Bufton’s surviving notebooks can be found at the Essex Record Office, D/DBm Z7-Z14, and the Brotherton Library, MS 8-10.

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12 thoughts on “The Woolcomber’s World, Part I: A life scribbled in the margins of almanacs

  1. Thanks Brodie – I’m really looking forward to hearing more about Bufton too. Intriguing about the abrupt end to his incredibly prolific note taking – Thoresby only stopped writing after the severe stroke that preceded his death. Can you tell us anything more about when exactly Bufton started making notes? I get the impression that it was a well established, long term habit, which makes it all the more surprising that he would suddenly hang up his quill. Given that it coincided with his move, I suppose the most plausible explanation is a dramatic change in life circumstances, meaning that he no longer had the will/ time/ energy to devote to writing.

    • Yes, the abrupt shift confuses me too. In his last volume of sermon notes, he writes: ‘I left Coxall Jan.1 1699 and so kept no further sermons’, but he doesn’t explain why.

      I think four of the surviving volumes include a few short post-1699 notes and his stock-taking in 1716 implies he is still writing regularly (i.e. one volume ‘I keep on my board and write in dayly’), so he clearly didn’t abandon it. Yet the later entries are so brief and rare that it makes it impossible to reconstruct his later life. I’m still far from having read them all, so perhaps if I’m lucky I’ll find some further clues as I go.

    • The hazard of blogging about the early stages on an on-going research project is that it is very easy to show of your ignorance! Thanks to a tip from Henry French, I discovered that we actually do have one very important piece of evidence about his later life: his will! The catalogue says it is dated 21 April 1718, and lists him as Joseph Bufton of Castle Hedingham, clothier. So presumably he moved there, a village about 12 miles from Coggeshall, in 1699. I’ll need to check out the ms next time I get the chance to make a trip to the ERO.

      • I rather think that we should consider this an advertisement of the myriad benefits of early research blogging – as a means to share research expertise and uncover things that you might take a while to find, or perhaps never find! Let’s hope the will has some juicy nuggets for you.

  2. Hi Brodie. What an amazing find! really enjoyed reading about the Woolcomber’s scribblings.

    You probably know this book but in case not, reading your post reminded me of Carolyn Steedman’s latest fascinating book ‘Everyday Life of the English Working Class’ and diaries -or chronicles – of stocking maker Joseph Woolley, in early 19th century Nottinghamshire. Here’s quick blog interview with Carolyn about her book.

    – See more at: http://www.cambridgeblog.org/2013/11/carolyn-steedman-interview-everyday-life-of-english-working-class/#sthash.wHy2VIcb.dpuf

    Looking forward to next instalment!

    Helen

    • Thanks, Helen. I’m a huge fan of Steedman’s work, but I haven’t had a chance to read her latest yet. I’ll definitely move it to the top of my reading list as it sounds captivating and certainly highly relevant to how I deal with Bufton. Thanks for the link to the interview.

      It’s very interesting that she mentions that Woolley was unmarried, just like Bufton seems to be. Henry French reminded me of this a little while ago and got me thinking: I wonder how much his lack of wife and children explains the motivation and energy he has for chronicling the world around him?

  3. Pingback: The Woolcomber’s World, Part II: Finding God in seventeenth-century Essex | the many-headed monster

  4. Pingback: The Woolcomber’s World, Part III: Rich clothiers, poor combers and the obscurity of early modern occupations | the many-headed monster

  5. Pingback: The Woolcomber’s World, Part IV: Births, deaths, marriages and fighting cocks | the many-headed monster

  6. Pingback: The Woolcomber’s World, Part V: A defence of microhistory | the many-headed monster

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