Category Archives: Local History

Maidenhead spoons in old wills and inventories

One of the most fascinating genealogical tasks is reading old wills and inventories.  For a start, there is the humbling recognition that the goods and chattels of even a well-to-do householder, right up to the eighteenth centuryy, could be listed on a single page.  The will owill-fragmentr inventory of a Tudor or Stuart yeoman (or his widow) often takes us room by room around his house and outbuildings, enabling us to peer through the windows and see what kind of bed he slept on, what he wore, what he ate his food with, and even into the corners of the lumber rooms where miscellaneous and unnamed ‘thinges’ lurked.

Silver utensils, being of special value, were often described in some detail.  A wealthy Cornish yeoman of the parish of Saltash in 1581 left his wife, among other things, a dozen silver spoons ‘called by the name of the mayden head’; after her death, they were to be passed on to her daughters.

Maidenhead spoons 1580

Maidenhead spoons 1580



Maidenhead spoons – that is, spoons with a filial in the form of a female head –  feature in inventories from the fourteenth century.  The examples that survive – both in the documents and in reality – are usually silver, but no doubt there were wooden spoons that were similarly carved.  It has been suggested that they might have been wedding gifts.


The expression ‘born with a silver spoon in his mouth’ reflects the importance of the silver spoon as a mark of status and in particular of inherited wealth.

Precious as they were, it might have come as a surprise to the yeoman in question that a few centuries later, his maidenhead spoons would have fetched thousands of pounds.  A pair of Elizabeth maidenhead spoons, made ca 1580, was valued at between £5,000 and £7,000 in 2016.

The minute size of a spoon filial was a challenge to the craftsman.  Similar images, in wood and stone, are found in abundance in medieval church decoration, where the larger size allowed for a greater breadth of treatment.

Maidenhead spoon filial 1607

Maidenhead  filial 1607

Like other traditional forms of decoration, the maiden’s head had a symbolic meaning.  An inventory from Durham Priory (1446) makes it clear that two of its spoons (which were perhaps used liturgically for incense) had ‘the image of the Holy Mary at their ends’.  Over time, as with other emblems, generations of craftsmen adapted the image as they chose, so that some of the female heads on the ends of spoons were not obviously maidenly.

Small wonder that, come the revolution, a new fashion for Puritan spoons emerged, with plain lines and no decoration.


Sources & Further reading:

T Kent, West Country Silver Spoons and Their Makers, 1550-1750 (J H  Bourdon-Smith Limited, 1992).

C M Woolgar, The Culture of Food in England, 1200–1500 (Yale University Press, 2016).

Roberta Gilchrist, Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course (Boydell Press, 2012)..

Online catalogue, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Woolley & Wallis, Salisbury:

J H Bourdon-Smith, London:



Colwell Wood and Colwell Wood Cottage

Colwell Wood Cottage

Colwell Wood Cottage

In a clearing in the heart of Colwell Wood, in the parish of Offwell, near Honiton in Devon, stands a seemingly insignificant cottage known as Colwell Wood Cottage.  This property, and the land around it, was the subject of one of our first ventures into house history back in the 1980s.  It proved a remarkably rich subject for research, yielding links with some of the most powerful landed families in medieval England, a Napoleonic war hero and a King.

Colwell was never a manor as such, but as a small estate its history can be traced back to the Domesday Book.  As part of much larger estates it passed through the hands of the great aristocratic families of de Courtenay, Hungerford and Hastings.  During the Wars of the Roses, and the period of Yorkist rule between 1461 and 1485, it was held by the ill-fated Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who finally became King Richard III.

The aristocrats were succeeded as landowners in Colwell by the local gentry – Franklin, Collins, Southcott, Marwood and Mayne – some of whose names live on in memorials in Offwell church.  This history of this period was a complex one, since the estate was fragmented, with different pieces of the jigsaw changing hands fairly frequently.

Admiral Sir Thomas Graves, who was second in command to Lord Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen (1801), bought Colwell Wood in 1798 for £1,210.  In 1805 he gave it to his daughter Mary, and shortly afterwards the Cottage was built.  The wood was a sound investment, for timber fetched high prices, but it had also acquired a new value.  Whereas natural woodland had traditionally been viewed with trepidation, full of danger and mystery, the Romantic age saw it with new eyes.  For those who had leisure, a ramble in the woods was now something to be relished, and the steep wooded dells of Offwell had already won the heart of the parish’s most famous son, Edward Copleston, Bishop of Llandaff, who in 1825 wrote to a friend:

Bluebells in Colwell Wood

Bluebells in Colwell Wood

Natural history is the food of my vacation hours, and I shall take your precious volume with me when I next go to saunter and ramble in my Offwell woods.  It would do my heart good to have you one day to join me in those rambles over the scenes of my infancy …

Thereafter, the dual functions of Colwell Wood can be traced more readily.  It firstly remained a valuable asset with its timber and cover for breeding game birds, and secondly it was a picturesque retreat.  In 1985 Colwell Wood was fortunate in being acquired by an owner who appreciates the natural beauty of the place over and above any commercial interests.  He has funded years of painstaking research, restored the Cottage, and striven to preserve its tranquility and natural habitat for the benefit of future generations.

The results of years of painstaking research are now available in our detailed, illustrated History of Colwell Wood and Cottage.  Pedigrees of the Graves, Mayne, Collins and Marwood-Elton families are included.  The volume will be of value to anyone with an interest in Devon history or in small English estates.  Above all, it demonstrates that no matter how small or apparently insignificant a piece of English property is, dig deep and a rich and varied history may emerge.

A History of Colwell Wood and Cottage is available via Amazon, and its companion volume A History of Offwell, generously sponsored by the same individual and sold in aid of Offwell parish church, can be purchased from Debrett Ancestry Research Ltd.

The Brewer’s Drayman

McEwan draymen 1929This photograph, found in a junk shop many miles from where it was taken, apparently portrays the draymen of McEwan’s Fountain Brewery, which was founded in 1856 by the brewer-politician William McEwan,  donor of Edinburgh University’s magnificently grandiose McEwan Hall.

The photograph is dated 1929: depression was biting, and the following year McEwan’s would merge with its rival William Youngers in order to survive.

As a vital link between brewery and drinker, the drayman holds an honoured place in popular culture.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines him as ‘a man who drives a dray (in England, usually a brewer’s dray)’ and, if case you were wondering what a dray might be, cites a French-English dictionary from the reign of James I:

Haquet, a Dray; a low and open Cart, such as London Brewers use’

Literary allusions

At about the same date, the drayman found his way into Shakespeare, albeit in unflattering guise: Pandarus, in Troilus and Cressida (1609) describes Achilles dismissively as:

‘A dray-man, a porter, a very Cammell’

Charles Dickens sketched a more benign portrait of the London drayman in The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1843): the enamoured John Westlock helps Ruth Pinch over a rope which two ‘good-tempered burly draymen’ are using to lower beer barrels into a cellar:

‘… and when John helped her – almost lifted her – the lightest, easiest, neatest thing you ever saw – across the rope, they said he owed them a good turn for giving him the chance. Celestial draymen!’

The grotesque broadside ballad ‘Barclay and Perkins’ Drayman’, which crudely expresses even cruder racist sentiments, portrays the drayman as the thuggish but majestic object of a Thames-side widow’s love:

This drayman was more than six foot high,
a proper broad great back man
She thought him best the reason why
he was twice as big as the black man
His face was like the moon just rose
More like a priest than a lay man
The eyes they did sparkle and so did the nose
Of Barclay and Perkins Dray man

A heavyweight occupation

Physical strength was obviously a prerequisite for the job, and in 19th century popular culture the drayman became something of a champion.  He was not however known for his radical politics. Punch magazine noted that draymen were among the first to enrol as Special Constables in April 1848 to protect the City against a Chartist demonstration.

The draymen of Barclay and Perkins’ brewery, which was on Bankside, stepped into the limelight in 1850 when General Haynau of Austria, who had notoriously ordered the flogging of Mme Madersbach, a Hungarian aristocrat, visited the brewery. He was met by a hostile crowed of draymen and labourers and was forced to flee and take refuge in a dustbin, from which he was eventually rescued by police.

A few figures

That fount of Victorian wisdom, Haydn’s Dictionary of Dates, tells us that in 1858 there were 205 great brewers in England and 40,418 licensed brewers.  According to the Findmypast indexes, the census of England, Scotland and Wales of 1851 identified 604 men as draymen (or brewer’s draymen or brewer’s carters), of which 119 were in Scotland. (The total population at this date was around 20.9 million.)  In 1881, a handful of draymen’s wives were also described as draymen: in most cases, the description has been struck through by the enumerator but against one the word ‘milkseller’ has been added, an indication that some of the draymen were probably milkmen, not brewery carriers.

Heavy lifting

The heavy loads carried by the draymen took their toll.  The pioneering bone surgeon Sir William Arbuthnot Lane (1856–1943), whose father was an army surgeon, studied the skeletons of brewers’ draymen and other manual lifters and noted that:

‘In the case of the brewers’ drayman who carried a heavy barrel on his right shoulder, the spine had become adapted to meet its burden’.

The industry had yet to embrace the culture of health and safety, in which it is now classed (in the US) in the category of ‘Material Moving Workers, All Other’.  In the UK, while the horse has been replaced by the engine, the old word is still used, resonating down the centuries in honour of this essential British occupation.




The Oxford English Dictionary (online)

Bodleian Library, Broadside Ballads Online

William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida (1609), Act 1 Scene 2, line 24

A. James Hammerton, Cruelty and Companionship: Conflict in 19th century Married Life (Routledge: London, 1992)

Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit liii. 609 (1843)

Haydn’s Dictionary of Dates (1858)

Who’s Who in Orthopaedics (London, 2005, page 184)

An eighteenth century choir loft

In 1729 eighteen singing men of the parish clubbed together to build a choir gallery in the parish church of St Lawrence, Gnosall, Staffordshire. The gallery or loft was situated next to the pulpit, rather than at the rear of the church.

Tucked away in the parish registers of Gnosall is the following Memorandum, dated 17 March 1729:

That the Loft in the Church of Gnosall by the Pulpit was by the Minister and church-wardens appointed for the use of certain Persons to sing Psalms there.

That it was fitted for that use at the expence of Thomas Fowke, John Stevenson, John Hicken, John Collier, William Collier, Thomas Ward, William Adderley, John Chilton, Humphrey Bayley, Thomas Sutton, Nathaniel Sutton, William Bromley, William Venables, John Parkes, John Lees, Adden Ashton, Richard Bernard, and William Reynolds, and that they are to enjoy the said Loft during their continuance to sing Psalms to demean themselves well.

That the expence in fitting the said Loft for that purpose did amount to the sum of one pound and sixteen shillings.

That four pence a year shall be allowed by every one of the above-named Persons for his sitting in the said Loft till the said sum of one pound and sixteen shillings shall be discharged.

That if any one of those Persons who are appointed to sit there shall leave his place, another Person, who can Sing Psalms shall be nominated by the Minister and Church-wardens of Gnosall to succeed him and that he who is nominated to succeed him shall pay to him, that resigns his place or Sitting, the eighteenth part of that which shall then be unpaid of the one pound and sixteen shillings.

This was approv’d by the Bishop and Mr Rider
Abrah. Peacock

Robert Reynolds and John Alderley were elected into the places of William Reynolds and John Lees by the minister and church-wardens.

Daniel Dean was elected into the place of [blank] Collier by the minister and church-wardens
June 23 1734

Elsewhere, galleries were provided by wealthier donors, such as John Ford at Offwell in Devon (who was patron of the living). The choirs in both parishes would have been singing metrical psalms, perhaps using Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady’s New Version of the Psalms of David (1696), which drew on Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins’ Whole Book of Psalms in English Metre, published in 1562 and still in use over a century later.

Psalms of David

Tate & Brady’s New Version

Like most Georgian galleries, the one at Gnosall would have been destroyed by the Victorians. The gallery at Offwell, which was at the west end of the church, was built in 1754 and removed exactly a century later. The loft at Gnosall, if it survived until 1820, would then have been swept away in the major rebuilding of the church which took place in that year.

Further Reading

Debrett Ancestry Research, A History of Offwell Church and Parish (2008: available for £18.75 with all proceeds to the church from Debrett Ancestry Research)

‘West Gallery Music’, Wikipedia

Gnosall Parish Registers, Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent Archive Service (published online by Findmypast)

Old Photos: an Intriguing Trio

From a box of old photos in a junk shop: a photo of three young nurses in the 1940s.



On the back of an off duty photo of the three young women is inscribed:

Three Musketeers Front

18 March 1948
Porthos: L. A. Everett

Aramis: Rikki [?] Hughes

Athos: B. Darbyshire

‘Rikki’ might have been Veronica, a popular name in the Merseyside area at the time.

The photographer was A A Newall of Northenden Road, Sale (Cheshire).

Was this then Aramis’s marriage, with Porthos and Athos as bridesmaids?  Does anybody know who these Three Musketeers were?


Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionaries

In a previous blog (June 2013) we wrote of our affection for the Victorian encyclopedia Haydn’s Dictionary of Dates Another well-worn favourite on the Debrett bookshelves (although it is now available online) is Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of England (5th edition, 4 vols, 1842), to which family historians turn for descriptions of the parishes, towns and hamlets of the nation in the early days of Victoria’s reign: for population figures and administrative identities; and for an account of their soil, their industries, their places of worship and their schools.  Lewis’s style is elegantly succinct, and while smaller parishes and villages have modest and business-like entries, there are little dashes of colour.  We learn for example of the parish of Betley, Staffordshire, that:

the village is remarkably cheerful and pleasant, and contains several respectable houses.

Large towns and significant parishes are given much more space: the entry for Carlisle, for example, runs to three and a half pages.


The first edition was published in four volumes in May 1831 and included county maps, a national map, and a plan of the London area.  The scale of the project was daunting: there had been no topographical work on this scale since Camden’s Vision of Britain Through Time, which was first published (in Latin) in 1586, and the availability of local histories was patchy.  Lewis explains in his Preface that he first engaged ‘several gentlemen’:

to procure, by personal examination and enquiry, the fullest information upon the various subjects contemplated in the plan of the work.

He had originally conceived the dictionary as purely topographical, but then decided to include historical information, and so ‘other gentlemen’ were employed to sift out ‘notices of the most important occurrences connected with each spot’.

Nineteenth century data collection was a cumbersome business.  The project began in 1825 and the initial survey, using a printed questionnaire, took place over three years.  The raw material also included some 3,000 documents donated by ‘a clergyman residing in the neighbourhood of Ashby de la Zouch’ who had attempted a similar project by sending questionnaires to every parish priest in the kingdom.  Not all had complied; not all the questionnaires had been fully completed, and it may be imagined that the unnamed clergyman relinquished his mountain of paperwork with some relief to the publishers. Scholars from the British Museum, the London Institution and elsewhere provided additional information.  Members of the local nobility and gentry also contributed, some donating material that had not previously been published.  The maps were engraved on steel plates from drawings made ‘from the best authorities’.  In the copies circulating today, these maps have too often been plucked from the books and resold.

The work of compilation and editing took a further three years and Lewis estimated the entire cost of producing the first edition at nearly £48,000.  Inevitably, the work attracted plagiarists, and Lewis successfully took Archibald Fullarton to the Court of Chancery in 1839 for his New and Comprehensive Gazetteer of England and Wales, which was published in Glasgow hard on the heels of Lewis’s work, and which was judged by the court to be ‘to a very considerable extent a piracy of the plaintiff’s copyright’.

In the early stages of the project Lewis had a business partner, George Pringle, who was still involved in 1836 when Pringle and Lewis were named as principal creditors of a bankrupt printer of Andover, Benjamin Bensley.  By 1846, Pringle was referred to as his ‘late partner’.  His only son, Samuel Lewis the younger (1821–1862), joined in the enterprise as a draughtsman, and also published two works on the history and topography of Islington, but died, of pneumonia, at the age of only 42.

In response to the early editions, Lewis received thousands of letters with corrections and additions with which he revised the text, and so the later editions are more reliable.  By 1849 there had been seven editions, and similar volumes for Scotland, Wales and Ireland had also been published.  Presumably in gratitude to the many clergymen who supported and contributed the work, in 1848 Lewis donated 100 guineas to the Society for the Sons of the Clergy of the Church of Scotland.

Lewis front (2)


Purchase was by subscription and by 1846 Lewis calculated that the various editions had sold to 20,000 subscribers in all.  The names of the subscribers to each volume were published as a preface, and included members of the royal family and the aristocracy as well as numerous clergymen and ‘esquires’. There was a sales team of agents, and fulfilment was a slow process: several years could pass between the signing of a prospectus and the delivery of the product.  Female subscribers were few: this was a work undertaken by gentlemen, for gentlemen; and for any who defaulted upon their undertaking, the law had an answer.  In 1846 Lewis took Walker Smith Esq of Brotherton, Ferrybridge, Yorkshire, to the Court of Exchequer for the non-payment of his £13 13s subscription.  The court decided in Lewis’s favour, the tart verdict being that:

 ‘Gentlemen should not put down their names to such a work unless they intended to pay’.[1]

Family of Samuel Lewis

Samuel Lewis married, on 18 November 1816 at St George the Martyr, Southwark, Charlotte, the daughter of Thomas and Ann Tuchin, who had moved from Warwickshire to London.  Samuel’s own parentage has not yet been established but he appears to have been baptised in an Independent Chapel in Abingdon, Berkshire, on 2 June 1782: Abingdon was certainly his place of birth.  His son Samuel was born in Worcester and baptised there on 29 April 1821 (at St Martin’s); he was followed by a daughter Jane, baptised at St James, Clerkenwell, Middlesex, on 22 January 1826; and by Eliza, baptised on 20 February 1828 at St Stephen, Colman Street, London.  Eliza never married and lived at home until her father’s death.

Lewis & Co had business premises at 87 Aldersgate Street (1831); at 87 Hatton Garden (1842); and at 13 Finsbury Place South (1845).  Samuel lived with his family in Myddleton Street, Clerkenwell, in 1826 and at 13 Coleman Street, London, in 1828, but by 1841 he had settled in Islington, where he died, at 19 Compton Terrace, on 28 February 1865.  His estate was valued at under £7,000.  In the census return of 1861 he was described not as a publisher but as a landed proprietor and fund holder; whatever his origins, Lewis at the end of his life had established himself as one of the English gentlemen for whom his great work was created.


Published Sources: Samuel Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of England, 1st edn, 4 vols (London, 1831); Samuel Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of England, 5th edn, 4 vols (London, 1842); Laurence Worms, ‘Lewis, Samuel (1782/3–1865)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; Birmingham Journal, 25 Jul 1836; The Times, 22 Feb 1838; Cork Examiner, 12 Aug 1844; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 22 Nov 1846; Caledonian Mercury, 29 May 1848.


Unpublished Sources: National Archives: Census 1841, 1851, 1861; Principal Probate Registry: National Probate Calendar 1865; Parish Registers of St James, Clerkenwell; St George the Martyr, Southwark; St Stephen, Coleman Street, London (London Metropolitan Archives/






[1] Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 22 Nov 1846.