Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Laura Gowing, Professor of Early Modern British History at King’s College London. Whereas the petitions and letters under consideration in recent posts often provide only tantalising details about the lives of the individuals behind them, our next batch of posts consider ‘ordinary’ individuals about whom we can say rather more. Here Laura is able to use depositional evidence to reconstruct the fascinating life story of Agnes Cooper of Southwark, but she leaves us with another crucial question to consider: was there anything empowering about the fact that Agnes was able to leave her life story to posterity?
In November of 1619, a fifty-eight year old woman found herself in a desperate position. Single and short of money and work, she had just been evicted from her lodging, and her Southwark parish, determined not to support her, drove her over the parish boundary to her birthplace near London Bridge. It was not an uncommon dilemma in early seventeenth-century England, where the poor law determined a ‘settlement’ for poor relief in the parish where a person had been born or had last spent a year. But Agnes Cooper was unusual in that her struggles left several pages of records, including this long and precise story of her working life.
In the recuperation of the ‘voices of the people’, those of women are often hidden: by low levels of female literacy before the 18th century, but also by being elided into a broader sense of ‘family’. Agnes lost her birth family young, and, like a surprisingly high proportion of Tudor and Stuart women, never married; instead she moved from household to household, working where she could, until she could work no longer. Her story begins in the parish where she was born and spent most of her life.
Agnes Cooper was (she told the scribe):
about the age of 58 years born in the parish of St Olave, Horsleydown Lane daughter of William Cooper by trade an embroiderer.
St Olave’s ran by the river from London Bridge to Bermondsey; it was a large parish, full of multi-occupancy houses and textile workers. Agnes’s father was one of the more skilled.
She went on:
This William Cooper died as she saith while she was young after whose decease her mother married with one ____ Shell by trade a capper with which father in law she dwelt til she was of the age of x or xii yeares old and was then put to prentice to one William Giblett a capper of the same parish with whom she served by the full space of 9 years.
So by the time Agnes was 12, her father had died; her mother had married again, this time to a man who made caps; her mother had then died; and finally her step-father the capper, William Shell, had died. It was not an uncommon series of mortalities for a seventeenth-century urban child. William Shell’s will survives, and details from this make it possible to reconstruct something of Agnes’s Southwark world. The William Giblett she mentions was a useful connection: her step father’s executor, he witnessed other wills, and was a local churchwarden. He took Agnes on as an apprentice after her step-father’s death, and looked after the £6 30s 4d she inherited from him, a precise sum which must have originally been left her by her own parents.
Nine years is a long apprenticeship, and suggests Agnes was taken on ‘for goodwill’, her houseroom, food, clothes and training repaid by her increasingly skilled labour: making the knitted, felted caps worn by all apprentices and working men was laborious and complicated work. Poor girls were often apprenticed into housewifery, but our records of their skilled work are much thinner. Options were limited. Agnes had a small inheritance and some training, but she was unlikely to make a living independently in an economy dominated by working households. Then William Giblett, too, died.
After which time she (and the wife of William Giblett) did work unto one Mr Wood the capper at Battlebridge by the space of 9 years
Unsurprisingly, Agnes’s next move was again within her Southwark networks: with her old master’s widow, and now in her early twenties, she went to live and work with the overseer of his will, Gabriel Wood. Evidently women’s capping work had to fit into a male-headed household. By now Agnes should have inherited that £6, although the parish records reveal that Mrs Giblett paid £7, on her husband’s death, to the parish to redeem the house lease they had pawned. But the 1580s were a time of economic depression and capping suffered, despite the 1571 statute insisting that everyone wore woollen caps on Sundays. By 1590 Gabriel Wood’s trade was failing.
The trade of capping then decaying she went into London and there dwelt with one Goodwife Cleere, a costardmonger in Elbow Lane near the 3 Cranes Vintry by the space of 12 years.
This phrase, the trade of capping then decaying, is a knowing commentary. It may of course be an official’s, but it’s also perfectly likely that a woman working in the front line of a suffering economy knew about, and remembered, not just a local but a national trade calamity. Agnes was now about thirty. She had worked for eighteen years in one trade, knitting and felting caps, seeing customers and probably running errands, making fires and scouring dishes too. Now she moved out of Southwark for the first time, leaving behind her one acknowledged skill and her web of local connections.
Crossing London Bridge, Agnes moved less than a mile away into a different life. For the next twelve years she lived and worked with ‘Goodwife Cleere’ , a costermonger or appleseller, near the Three Cranes Vintry, a dockside neighbourhood with a notorious tavern just west of London Bridge. Southwark was still within sight.
Upon the death of Cleere she returned into St Olave’s parish again & there dwelt with a Dutchman in the Mazes (by name Cornelius Rossendale a lutestringmaker) by the space of 6 or 7 years. Upon the death of her mistress her master went oversea & there her last service ended.
Agnes’s return to St Olave’s when Mrs Cleere died 12 years later suggests that her friends there were still of some use. She found a place to live and work within a few minutes walk of her previous home in Battlebridge – in the mass of small houses known as the Mazes, housing mainly immigrants and the poor, and now buried under London Bridge station. Her new Dutch master made strings for lutes. The Huguenot church records enable us to trace more of his details than anyone else in this story. Cornelius Rossendale had lived in London for at least thirty years and he had been married to first one, then another Dutch widow, one at least with children already: the household Agnes joined looks to have had six children between 4 and 13 living there. Neither Rossendale’s house nor his small contributions to the Dutch church’s fundraising activities suggest he made much of a living, and when his second wife Lowijse died around 1608 he left London.
After this she wrought as a charwoman for several yeares in London sometimes in one place & sometimes in another but in no place constantly till some 2 or 3 years since about what time she got into the house of one Goodwife Goose an Almswoman of the foundation of the Salters London, situate in Mugwell Street.
It’s at this point we can see Agnes Cooper sliding down the scale of women’s work, as her knitting fingers and her bending knees began to fail. Up until now, her work has been ‘service’: labour with a contract of some sort, food, and housing. These long stretches of time, across several different sectors of the urban workplace, spoke to the man who wrote down her story and those who pored over it later, for someone noted them in the margin: Cleere 12, etc. Perhaps they were working out where she had lived longest, or calculating her age, although neither were really necessary to her claim.
But by 1608 Agnes was about 50, the age when petitioners were describing themselves as ‘dark in the eyes’, or past their labour, and the laborious small tasks that kept a household going were all that was left to her. Age and the economy had uprooted her from the world of ‘belonging’ that social historians have recognised as so crucial to survival: no permanent workplace meant no fixed home too. Yet Agnes’s account of these years is one of strategy. She found someone else who did belong – Mrs Goose, a widow who had a room in the Salters’ Company almshouse in Monkwell Street (now by the Barbican) and, in a nice phrase, she ‘got into’ her house, and shared in the alsmpeople’s benefits of sevenpence a week, five sacks of charcoal and 25 faggots a year. Those like Agnes existed on the margins of the city’s great institutions, partakers of scraps of charity. But the company records suggest Mrs Goose died in 1618, and Agnes was homeless again.
In Lent last she came into Southwark to the house of a poor man a poulterer in the Christopher Yard who the sevenight after her cominge thither ran away, his rent unpaid to this day
Back in Southwark Agnes found lodging with a poor man who sold poultry, in the tenements built on the grounds of the old Christopher Inn on Borough High Street. By then, according to another informant, she was ‘living by begging’ side by side with the poulterer’s wife, a Mrs Millayne who walked with a staff and had only one eye. The poulterer, who then ran off without paying the rent, complained that she had taken Agnes in without his permission. We get a sense here of the micro-dynamics of responsibility for the needy – not just within a parish but within a yard and a household.
In this house she continued two years till Our Lady Day last and then was taken in by a poor woman in the Christopher Yard (one who liveth upon exhibition) where she stayed some 4 or 5 days till the constable & other officers did espy her and warned her away. In this time the poor woman put her forth so she lay in the street till the constable willed her to take her in for 3 or 4 nights till she could provide otherwise for herself.
Upon this she was sent by pass into St Olave’s parish & so tossed betweene the 2 parishes till by the warrant of Sir Charles Mountagu knight she was sent to St Olave’s again where she abideth to this day.
There were over 25 households in Christopher Yard, some of whom were wealthy enough to pay poor relief contributions themselves, which perhaps made it more compelling to edge Agnes out. At issue here was the pressing question of whether or not Agnes was a vagrant: if she was, she was liable to be ‘moved on’ with a pass. It was at this stage that Agnes encountered the searcher of St Saviour’s parish: a well-to-do shoemaker named Christopher Fawcett. His job for the parish was to get their inmates or vagrants out of the parish, often sending them back over London Bridge, and he was so good at it in these years that they sacked their other searcher and paid him £5 a year. It was Fawcett who was responsible for eliciting if not writing this long story of Agnes’s life – though perhaps Agnes was responsible, too, for making him listen to it. Either he was sympathetic, or she was successful, for she was deemed not to be a vagrant, allowed to stay in the parish, and eventually granted a generous relief of 12 pence a week from each of the two parishes, St Saviour’s and her birthplace St Olave’s.
Whose is this story – the poor woman’s, or the officials who chivvied her? Surely both. In it we can see the internalisation of the categories that shaped plebeian lives – belonging, begging, service, working. Parish records were for centuries the nearest kind of biography the poor had: legal needs gave a shape to a lifestory whose other details had no official significance. Long before the documents proving settlement became part of the poor law, from 1668, poor women and men had internalised the ideas of parish responsibility. If the form of Agnes’s tale of her descent from skilled work into begging was one forced upon her, it was also one that had meaning for a great part of the population. We might ask, finally, how much agency can be seen in a story compelled so strongly by the strains of circumstance? To tell a lifestory was, for seventeenth century subjects, often compelled by hardship or interrogation under pressure. To speak was not always empowering.