A Page in the Life of William Kempster: Master Mason and Scribbling Accountant

[In our mini-series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a page from their manuscript. In this post, Dr Judy Stephenson (@judyzara) of University College London explores the possibilities for historians created by a master mason’s messy account book.]

Early modern writers may be sought after by social and cultural historians for their descriptions of daily life or for their literary endeavours, but most economic historians are interested in them for something more prosaic: the prices they paid for goods and the money they earned.

Wages and prices are the backbone of all long run data sets in economic history. The long-suffering work of E. Thorold Rogers over seven centuries of manuscript records still offer most researchers their first sources before 1800. Rogers gathered prices from places like Westminster Abbey, and Oxford and Cambridge colleges which had long run accounts. Until recently, all long run wage series have been based on the prices unearthed by him of ‘day work’ paid to masons, carpenters, bricklayers and their labourers.

Private account books that state wages are rare because not many people in the early modern world were paid a weekly or daily wage.  When they do exist, they are almost never those of the sort of wage earners thought ‘representative’ by economists. Recently, however, I came across some individual account books that were very representative, because they showed that the actual wages paid to craftsmen on a big London building site – St Paul’s Cathedral – were different to the ‘day rates’ recorded in the institutional accounts. They were lower, because building contractors took a mark-up on selling their work and services, and they were much more varied.

The manuscripts were the ‘day books’ of William Kempster. Kempster was the son of Christopher ‘Kit’ Kempster who was Christopher Wren’s most favoured mason and assistant on Tom Tower and many City churches. The family hailed from Burford in Oxfordshire, where they quarried and increasingly contracted for stonework. William started contracting at St Paul’s Cathedral in late 1700 and became Master Mason there in 1714.

Account of the Mens Time: The National Archives

Account of the Mens Time: The National Archives

My analysis of the day books in a recent article has created all sorts of controversies about wages, but the books also give us a wonderful insight into an early modern businessman as a writer and accountant, and offer some useful insight for quantitative historians about how to turn such sources into meaningful data.

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