The Woolcomber’s World, Part IV: Births, deaths, marriages and fighting cocks

Brodie Waddell

On 22 March 1697, ‘there were a great many fighting Cocks carried through Coxall on horsback in linen baggs’. So wrote Joseph Bufton in one of his eleven surviving notebooks.

Watching to cocks tear eachother apart: not as much fun as you might imagine

Watching two birds tear each other apart: not as much fun as you might imagine

But this odd little memorandum was not an isolated scribbling. It was, in fact, just one of about 180 entries in his Coggeshall chronicle, which he began in February 1678 and continued to May 1697. In it, we find festive celebrations, church business, unusual weather, family injuries, highway robberies and much else besides.

The entries from 1693, a fairly typical year, give a sense of the whole:

  • 11 Jan. 1693, John Bufton went to combing.
  • 4 Feb. 1693, my cousin Sparhawk was carried to prison.
  • 15 Feb. 1693, there was a bonfire made by the Crown for the joy that Squire Honeywood got the day of Sir Eliab Harvey and was not cast out of the Parliament and when he came home from Chelmsford through Coxall the night after he was chosen abundance of candles were lighted for joy.
  • 24 Mar. 1693, King William went through Kelvedon and went back again through Kelvedon 28 Mar.
  • early 1693, the new king’s arms and the 10 commandments new writ were set up in the church.
  • 1693, the Quakers made a new burying place in Crouches
  • 1 May 1693, the soldiers set up a Maypole at the Woolpack door
  • 18 May 1693, the poor did rise because the Bakers would not bake, because some of their bread was cut out the day before for being too light.
  • May 1693, my cousin Sparhawk came home.
  • beginning of May 1693 Francis Clark broke.
  • end of May 1693 the same month the Poor had Badges given them to weare which tis said were made of Pewter and Coggeshall Poor 1693 set upon them.
  • 1693, Mr Mayhew sold Coxall Lordship to Mr Nehemiah Lyde of London. 11 May he came first for his rent and 5 Jun kept court and Counsellor Cox was his steward.
  • June 1693, our 4th bell was carried to Sudbury to be new shot and brought home and the other were chipt to make them tuneable. They were first rung 6 July.
  • 30 Oct. 1693, King William went through Kelvedon.
  • 2 Nov. 1693, John Ancil had hung himself but was cut down in time.
  • 1693, a new pound was set up on Grange hill and the shambles was repaired.

Bufton also recorded, according to Henry French’s estimate, at least 1,000 births, marriages and deaths over the same 20 years. Sometimes entries were merely unvarnished names and dates, but most included some additional information that gives us some clues about Bufton’s view of the world.

Men’s occupations, for example, were often noted, a reminder of Bufton’s close interest and involvement in the local cloth industry. Indeed, men working in the wool trade – ‘weaver’, ‘clothier’, ‘comber’ and even ‘combmaker’ – appear very frequently. Also common were notes about kinship, such as the entry for 23 August 1681: ‘John Newman, Tallow chandler & Grocer, was married to my Cousin Elizabeth Gray’. The number of Bufton’s cousins who turn up in these pages seems remarkable at first, though it makes more sense when one recalls that the term ‘cousin’ could apply at this time to almost any kinship connection, no matter how distant.

The volume is also packed with incidental details and nicknames. Widow Ringer, for example, was John Ilger’s sixth wife when they married in 1682. Likewise, William Cunington married ‘a lame maid whose name was Skinner’ in 1685 and ‘the old widow Raven was buried amongst the Quakers’ in 1689.

It is clear that Bufton often had family or trade connections with those people whose baptisms, marriages and burials he faithfully recorded. There may also have been some religious connections beyond the parish church as Bufton was known to go sermon-gadding to other towns and to associate with Protestant dissenters. However, the most important element in his register seems to be locality. He occasionally records non-residents, but the vast majority were from Coggeshall, even if they were Quakers who didn’t attend the parish church. After all, Coggeshall was a community of less than 500 households at this time, so every birth, death and marriage mattered to the whole community. Sometimes, these life events actually overlapped with wider local celebrations. Thus, on 16 July 1685, ‘There was a great show with a wedding, Samuel Stow’s sister came and was married here and a great company with her, but they went to Braintree to dinner’.

If we look at his chronical as a whole, what does it tell us about Bufton’s place in his society? A few features stand out.

The (mostly) 15th-century parish church in which Bufton spent many a Sunday

The (mostly) 15th-century parish church in which Bufton spent many a Sunday

First, the importance of the parish church is obvious, with many entries relating to adding new pews, repairing the bells, painting the walls, choral singing and visitations by ecclesiastical authorities. So, although Bufton never served as a churchwarden, he definitely saw himself as a fully-fledged parishioner. Yet he seems to have included Quakers and other religious dissenters in his community as well, suggesting that a love for the parish church did not necessarily imply an exclusionary sort of piety.

Second, Bufton must have placed a great value on local festivity. He recorded May Day celebrations, grand funerals, marriage feasts and, on Shrove Tuesday 1677, ‘Abraham Emming roasted a Small bullock, whole, on Church greene’. Communal events of this kind clearly gave him a sense of belonging, tying together the people of Coggeshall ways that fruitfully overlapped with parish piety. ‘Merry England’ was still very much alive in this particular town.

Good times were had by all

Dancing in a circle: much more fun than you might imagine

Third, Bufton had no illusions about the limits of communal harmony. It was not all church bells and maypoles – the harsh realities of poverty, crime and social conflict remained. He did not shy from recording murders, suicides, robberies, executions and even the bread riots of 1693 and 1695. Here we see evidence of Bufton’s keen awareness of the contested, unstable nature of local community. That there was no attempt to hide or explain-away such problems is perhaps related to the fact that Bufton himself, as a journeyman woolcomber, was a ‘poor labouring man’ and may have empathized when the paupers were ordered to wear stigmatising badges in 1686 and again in 1693.

Finally, the high politics of king, parliament and foreign policy is not forgotten but neither is it set apart from the politics of the parish. King William III appears almost exclusively as a passing celebrity – travelling through the nearby town of Kelvedon and, on one occasion, staying and dining at the Angel Inn. The Nine Years War appears not as an abstract struggle for the balance of power in Europe, but rather as the cause of death for deserters executed at neighbouring Colchester. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 barely features and even the local elections in 1693 are as much about local bonfires and illuminations as about partisan politics.

Overall, then, Bufton was a man who took very seriously his job as self-appointed town chronicler. He recorded both the mundane and the extraordinary in equal measure, as long as it had a link to his local community. In many parishes, we have only the dry chronology of names as presented in the parish register, but in Coggeshall we are blessed with a crowd of living, breathing people who can be seen fighting and failing, working and playing, over twenty tumultuous years of English history.

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3 thoughts on “The Woolcomber’s World, Part IV: Births, deaths, marriages and fighting cocks

  1. Pingback: History A'la Carte 1-1-15 - Random Bits of Fascination

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

  3. Pingback: The many-headed monster devours its 100,000th victim | the many-headed monster

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