Stuart-era Girl Power is revealed

Striking new details about the working lives of women, and families from the royals to the Pepys’ at the time of the Great Fire of London has been revealed, thanks to research based on the number of fireplaces in their homes.

Posted: 14 July 2014

image for news story Stuart-era Girl Power is revealed
The Hearth Tax return showing a number of wealthy Londonders reluctant for their details to be recorded.

Academics whose research specialises in the long-abolished Hearth Tax have just published their latest findings covering the year 1666. The culmination of their seven year project, a two volume 1,900 page work, reveals thousands of records on house size, occupants and occupations, immigration levels and even royalty kept by mid-17th century tax collectors.

They found an outbreak of Stuart-era girl power in the capital, with significant numbers of women as heads of their households, working in skilled craft trades and occupying sizeable homes. The information, gathered by the Centre for Hearth Tax Research based at the University of Roehampton, showed only some were widows carrying on their husband’s trade. Others were listed by tax men of the time in their own right as printers, farthingmakers, victuallers, haberdashers, chandlers and even a goldsmith, Magdalen Elliot, who lived in a six fireplace house.Yet more carried out physically demanding trades such as hot pressing and coopering.

The just-published research showed the 1666 Lady Day tax was due in March that year, but because of the plague and disorganisation the tax officials did not even start collecting until April 1666; many were still about that task in September.

The collector who walked up Pudding Lane, noting that Thomas Farrinor, baker, had five hearths ‘and one oven’, little knew that within a short space of time his work would be completely undone and much of London consumed thanks to that ‘one oven’. Farrinor was the man blamed for starting the Great Fire of London.

The documents record the myriad of insalubrious alleys crammed with impoverished residents and the nitty gritty of the collection process: notes of payment and non-payment, doorstep arguments and complaints, doors shut in collectors’ faces, items taken in lieu of payment; even physical blows.

Dr Andrew Wareham, from the University of Roehampton, said: “Tax records like these paint an illuminating picture of people’s lives at the time of the plague and the great fire, which is just fantastic. We can compare our own circumstances with those of our ancestors and, when we do, in many cases, they’re not all that different.

“Women were running businesses, the richest in society were reluctant to reveal their tax affairs, the state was keeping records on everyone, going to pubs was an immensely popular pastime and London was sucking in hundreds of people from the north and other parts of the UK.”

Tax collectors recorded well over 100 families with distinctive Cumberland or Westmorland surnames in London, such as Kendal, Appleby, and Satterwaithe. They found more than 1,000 Welsh sounding families, including Llewillin, Lloyd, Pritchard and Griffith who had settled in western and north western suburbs including Clerkenwell. Lancashire families like Midgeley, Bickerstaff, Wolstenholme and Ramsbottom also appear in the records. Immigrants from France and the low countries had also been attracted to the capital.

Specific research on the family of the diarist Samuel Pepys has identified most of his relatives. His first cousin Charles, was a joiner living in a small two hearth house in Creed Lane. Another cousin, Richard, son of draper William Pepys of Norwich, who had an empty two hearth household, his younger brother, Thomas, a tailor who had been apprenticed to Pepys' father was living in a four hearth household in St Bride Fleet Street, and a cousin Thomas, who until the great fire had a house and shop in St Paul's churchyard with six hearths, shared with Richard Bullock.

At the pinnacle of the upper classes, tax inspectors often found great difficulty in accessing homes to count the hearths. No records could be made for St James’ Palace, home of the Duke of York or Charles II’s Whitehall Palace as entry was denied to the taxman. At Hampton Court Palace, a clever collector was likely to have sat outside counting chimney pots before estimating around 1,700 hearths.

Dr Wareham added: “Counting the number of hearths in homes actually contributes to a very clear picture of life in the midst of the fire and plague. This level of in depth research carried out at Roehampton and with our partners allows us to create a body of work which will be relied on by scholars for decades into the future. It is a contribution to recording London’s personal history.”


This research resulted in the publication of a two-volume edition, London and Middlesex 1666 Hearth Tax Return, eds. Matthew Davies, Catherine Ferguson, Vanessa Harding, Elizabeth Parkinson and Andrew Wareham (London, 2014) Copies of the work are available from the British Record Society, and a free searchable database is available at Hearth Tax Online. The research was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and involved a partnership between the Centre for Hearth Tax at the University of Roehampton, the British Record Society, the Centre for Metropolitan History at the Institute of Historical Research, and Birkbeck College, University of London. 


For more details, visit the centre's web pages

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