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.

The two books (dating from October 1700 to December 1702, and March 1706 to November 1709) are in all about 300 pages, most of which contain weekly records of men’s names, the number of days they worked that week, and their pay that week. During this period, Kempster’s team built the south west tower, erected the famous geometric staircase there, fitted the stonework of the library, and set and carved the columns on the west front. Most of the carving work at St Paul’s was done by masons, and so men in Kempster’s team may have also worked for Grinling Gibbons, Francis Bird, or Edward Pearce.

The payment records are as idiosyncratic as one would expect of a working journal of a busy mason contractor in the early eighteenth century. The first pages are wide spaced and neatly laid out, later ones full of cramped notes and squashed entries. Mostly the weekly records are headed by the words ‘paid by my sponsor this week’ showing that Kempster was borrowing to be able to profit from the contract at St Paul’s. Building contractors could not expect payment for up to several years after work done, but skilled men had to be paid weekly.

Stephenson - TNA 106-145 accts2

A typical double page of Kempster’s accounts

There are two or more hands which have written in the books, as one might expect if a foreman or apprentice were assisting with record keeping. One of the hands is older in style with different styles of spelling of names. Generally, there is a double page assigned per week, with men’s days struck off on one side, and payment made recorded on the other, but when short of space both records were squeezed into one page. In some places two weeks were listed top and bottom, and in a couple of instances four weeks of wage payments were recorded on a double page. There are lots of corrections and crossings-out, and there are mistakes. On a number of occasions only the number of days worked was recorded, but no pay. On others the days struck off say that five days were worked but payment made for six, or vice versa. Sometimes individual men are clearly expected to have been working – their name appears in the middle of the list – but no days or pay were recorded for them. At others, a payment for a number of days was slipped into the bottom of a list with no prior records.

There are occasional small notes and memoranda which help in identifying men and work. On 12 May 1708, we find: ‘I promise to pay into Mr Will Kempster the sum of five pounds upon demand witness my hand Tho Knagg’, which probably refers to the repayment of a loan. Knagg worked in every year of the records, and was one of the most hardworking men on site, so it might have been a safe bet to lend him money, though this would have been a month and a half’s income. On 4 June 1709, for example, ‘John Tuckey began to set the fli[ght] of steps at the west front May 26th 1709, ended the same August 24th 1709 it being Bartholomew’s day’. Kempster also recorded several payments to his wife – Susannah Wrigglesworth – through 1700-1702.

Stephenson - table1

Raw data entered direction from the manuscript

To be able to be precise about what Kempster paid his men I had to create a database of all the payments recorded in the books. Because of the fragile quality of the books and the patchy and hasty scribbles in places, this could not be outsourced, and data input was slow and painstaking. I found it easiest to record entries exactly as written – name, date, days worked, pay in shillings and d.- and then convert them to weekly and daily amounts. As time went on the spreadsheet fields also filled up with other information I gleaned about the work and the men from other sources.  The original data was backed up and the data was ‘cleaned’, with Kempster’s blanks reconciled or omitted and five annual sets of comparable accounts created from the data, to enable me to examine seasonality, weekly and monthly patterns, team dynamics and compare the records to the Cathedral’s own accounts and bills.

Stephenson - table2

Cleaned data arranged for analysis

In accounting for their costs, their cashflows, and recording their financial arrangements, early modern contractors, agents, position holders and investors have given us a glimpse into the commercial world of London before industrialisation. Contractors such as Kempster only made an income on the difference between their contract monies and their costs, so accounting – and account books – were the difference between their fortune or failure.

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3 thoughts on “A Page in the Life of William Kempster: Master Mason and Scribbling Accountant

  1. Pingback: A Page in the Life | the many-headed monster

  2. Pingback: Guest post on the many-headed monster – Judy Z.Stephenson

  3. I guess it’s a question of the secular trend to employ ‘day rates’ (although changes in the working day presumably occurred over the long term too). Piece rates were not unusual, but perhaps the question remains of the amount of work produced and Y received. For aggregate Y, there is also the issue of ‘the makeshift economy’, with multiple sites of activity to aggregate Y, so reliance on wage rates in one account book may not, for some workers, represent aggregate Y. So, for my question anyway, what are the impications of your research for, e.g., Donald Woodward’s rates for ‘building’ workers in the North?

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