Whether you’re a historian, a hairdresser or a helicopter pilot, you may well define yourself by your occupation. The same was true in the early modern period, as when legal scribes added ‘labourer’, ‘weaver’ or ‘yeoman’ after each and every name in their records.
Joseph Bufton, the Essex diarist and sermon-goer, was no different in some ways. His father, John, was listed as a ‘clothier’ in at least four documents between 1645 and 1692. His brother, also John, was likewise a ‘clothier’ in 1671 and 1695. Joseph himself was described as a ‘clothier’ when he served as a trustee for a local charity in 1695 and again when he made up his will in 1718. He was, then, a clothier in a family of clothiers.
So why have I titled this series ‘The Woolcomber’s World’? I’ve used that label because Joseph Bufton was – I think – a woolcomber for most of his life, closely linked with the trades of fulling and combing throughout his time at Coggeshall.
The evidence for this comes from yet another almanac-turned-notebook, a Goldsmith’s Almanack of 1686, which Bufton later described as the one which ‘has the orders in Comber’s book, &c.’. In it he recorded the ordinances of his guild, warrants from magistrates to protect the craft, the articles of the journeymen’s ‘purse’, and of course several lengthy poems lauding the glories of the trade.
His guild was officially ‘the whole Company of the occupation trade & mistery of the Clothiers Fullers Baymakers, & new Drapers in the towne of Coggeshall’. However, both Bufton and Essex magistrates usually simply called them ‘the Company of Fullers’. Bufton recorded the names of the two ‘Wardens’ that they elected each year from 1659 to 1698 and also noted the eleven ‘orders’ that served as a sort of constitution for the craft. The orders, probably dating from 1659 if not earlier, decreed the strict enforcement of seven-year apprenticeships, the exclusion of ‘strangers’ and the annual celebration of ‘their Feast & Guild day’. The guild was still active in 1710, when the local authorities confirmed its by-laws, but the severe depression in the Essex woollen trade in the early eighteenth century may have brought it to an end as I haven’t found any subsequent references.
The Company of Fullers was a broad institution that probably included essentially all the men active in the wool and cloth industry in Coggeshall, from the journeymen fullers and combers who cleansed and prepared the wool to the prosperous traders who sold the finished product to London merchants. Joseph Bufton’s father was likely in the latter group as he was listed as a ‘clothier’ and had a large house with five hearths by the 1670s. Joseph, by contrast, seems to have been an apprentice and then presumably a journeyman until perhaps 1694 when his father died and Joseph may have taken over the higher position at the ripe age of forty-four.
Indeed, we can see Bufton’s close association with woolcombing most clearly in the late 1680s, when he was already nearing forty, for it was then that he was involved in establishing the ‘Combers Purse’, a sort of insurance scheme for journeymen ‘for the help of such of us as may by sickness lameness or the want of work fall into decay’. The combers described themselves as ‘we poor labouring men’ and hoped for encouragement from ‘our good masters’, so they were clearly skilled manual workers rather than prosperous middling traders. Bufton, as was his want, not only recorded their eighteen ‘rules & orders’, but also some verses apparently of his own creation:
Come on brave noble hearts
Behold & take a view
Lets bravely act our parts
In what doth here insue
For now we do intend
A purs there shall be made
On purpose to defend
And help the Combing trade
When men grow poor & low
And into want do fall
By sickness as you know
Or have no work at all
From our kind Charity
Such help there shall be found
As may their want Supply
And more & more abound
The Combers’ Purse did not last long. In April 1690, wrote Bufton, ‘the Combers Broke up their Purse’ because one of their members was ‘being so unreasonable’. Whereas the Company of Fullers lasted at least fifty years, this journeymen’s club survived for only two. Still, Bufton and his brethren clearly took great pride in their craft and had worked hard to organise themselves ‘to defend And help the Combing trade’.
The specific language used by Bufton in both this poem and some other verses on the wool trade is very revealing, especially when seen alongside the practical implications of the various ‘orders’ and ‘rules’ created by these men to govern their working lives. As I discuss elsewhere, we can see in this little notebook the importance of manliness and fraternal loyalty, of protecting privileges and mutual charity, and of regular sociability within the craft.
However, I think these notes are equally important for what they say about the ambiguous nature of work and occupational identity in this period. Just as Bufton moved easily between the religious spheres of ‘Anglican’ and ‘Dissenter’, so too he shifted between the worlds of the prosperous middling clothier and the poor labouring comber. His father and later Bufton himself were firmly in the former, but much of his adult life was apparently spent as a humble journeyman. It is notable, for instance, that – unlike his father – Bufton never served in a parish office such as overseer of the poor.
Indeed, the distinction between ‘middling’ and ‘plebeian’ occupations should not be overdrawn. Mark Hailwood, in a forthcoming article in TRHS (now here), shows that ‘tradesman’ could be an identity that encompassed both traders and workers. Likewise, although most early modern historians probably think of ‘clothiers’ as wealthy employers or merchants, it could also mean simply ‘a maker of woollen cloth’. The OED notes several writers referring to clothiers combing (1377), carding (1575) or fulling (1828, U.S.) wool. In other words, the working lives of clothiers, fullers and combers may have overlapped in seventeenth-century Essex.
So, what does Bufton and his notebook tell us about work in this period?
Well, Bufton was part of both a well-established fraternity based on prosperous master tradesmen and a short-lived sub-fraternity – a sort of guild within a guild – of poorer manual workers. Moreover, Bufton was more than just a passive member. He seems to have been their unofficial record-keeper and contributed to their identity by copying and composing numerous ‘verses’.
Bufton, then, was closely integrated into the broader ‘fellowship’ of the wool trade, which included the ‘middling’ and respectable, but also the ‘poor’ and precarious. Was Bufton an exceptional case, an amphibian who moved between two very different worlds of work? Or was he a typical early modern worker, a tradesman with strong ties to the craft as a whole despite its obvious diversity?