Grass Green Stockings

Eleanor Hubbard

  • The Business and Household Accounts of Joyce Jeffreys, Spinster of Hereford, 1638-48 edited by Judith Spicksley
    Oxford, 413 pp, £90.00, March 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 726432 4

In June 1646, Joyce Jeffreys lost her spectacles. When a servant found them, Jeffreys tipped her sixpence, and then the elderly gentlewoman, following her habit, entered the expense into her account book. Between 1638 and 1648, Jeffreys kept a record of all her receipts and expenditures, noting them in a neat, regular hand. While we know little of her early life – when she was born, for example, or why she never married – we know a great deal about her business dealings, friendships and pastimes during her later years. Jeffreys never learned the double-entry bookkeeping practised by merchants, and her methods were so idiosyncratic it’s impossible to tell how much she was worth at any given moment. But the figures she recorded add up to a valuable sum: the portrait of a spinster at a time when unmarried women were socially invisible.

Or were they? To history, perhaps, but not to their neighbours. Jeffreys frequently recorded tipping the servants who brought her presents from the local gentry – venison, a turkey cock, cherries, a salmon. These weren’t charitable donations, but tokens of esteem, and she reciprocated, sending gifts from her farms: ‘my Lady Cornwall’ was given eight muscovy duck eggs and Ursula Vaughan received ‘a baskitt of apricocks’. These sociable exchanges were at least as important to the servants who trundled back and forth with the presents as they were to the recipients: tips were a cherished perquisite and all those sixpences added up. Gifts were exchanged all year round, but were most common at New Year: sugar loaves and scented gloves for friends and family, and tips for servants, fiddlers and children. Even on Valentine’s Day, Jeffreys played her part. She wasn’t a young woman – she was at least 55 when the records start – but that didn’t prevent her from being visited by an admirer or two. In 1641, she gave a shilling to Mr Tom Aston and Mr Dick Gravell, who, she wrote, ‘cam to be my valantine’.

As a single woman, she couldn’t attend female neighbours who were giving birth, but she would send money to midwives and nurses. When her niece produced twins, Jeffreys stood as godmother to ‘little Joyse Walsh’, giving the baby an expensive silver tankard. She also gave money to the nurse who cared for the other baby, a boy, noting sadly in the margin of her account book his death at only ‘nine weecks ould’. Jeffreys was particularly attached to Beatrice Ailway, the daughter of her former servant Anne, buying some crimson cloth for the first coat ‘that ever she ware’. She liked to see children dressed in bright colours, and later gave Beatrice gowns of scarlet, orange and green.

As well as gifts to peers and dependants Jeffreys also made regular if not especially generous charitable donations: she paid eight shillings a year for the poor of her parish, All Saints, Hereford, fulfilling her obligation under the Poor Laws. Parish rates were supposed to provide for the deserving poor, cutting out the need for begging, but they were rarely sufficient and older forms of informal charity remained necessary. It was usual to hand out alms of food and drink at the door, and Jeffreys often gave beggars a few coins. She gave fourpence to ‘a poore man that keepes the dogges out of the church’, and tuppence to ‘a poore woeman of Harpley that had the pallsey’. Some of the people she gave money to were ill, bound for hospital or the curative waters of Bath; one was blind and another was mad; some had been hurt in fires or been shipwrecked; others were simply poor.

In addition to establishing her social position, Jeffreys’s account books tell us something about her interests, which included animals. On several occasions she bought new ‘twiggen’ cages for her songbirds, hoping no doubt to keep them safe from her cats. One of them, a yellow Cyprus cat, was a gift from Lady Dansey of Brinshop; another was sent by a relative, arriving the same day that Jeffreys tipped Tom Simons for bringing her ‘a litle dogge’. Most of these animals, like her muscovy ducks, lived in the barnyard. She was fond of horses, and kept a pair of mares for her coach, breeding them herself: in September 1642, she recorded paying five shillings ‘for two leaps for my greate coatch mare, and my gray mare, of Mr Shewards & Mr Brabazon horses’.

No great reader, Jeffreys’s most expensive purchase was the works of the Bishop of Exeter at thirty shillings, but usually she preferred secular books, especially Greek and Roman histories in translation. A biography of Mary, Queen of Scots caught her eye in 1639. She regularly bought almanacs for the farm, and once ‘a litle boke of asstrolagye called Arcandam’. She even fell for sensational pamphlets now and then, including one about the extraordinary Henry Welby, 84, who lived for 44 years as a hermit on Grub Street without ever being seen by a soul, subsisting on gruel, salad and weak beer. She may have been intrigued by his unusual longevity. In 1646, perhaps feeling her own years, Jeffreys laid out 14d for Leonard Lessius’s Hygiasticon: Or, The right course of preserving Life and Health unto extream old Age.

A much larger expense was clothing: early modern people spent enormous sums on their clothes, and Jeffreys was no exception. She dressed for the most part in sober black, though she liked to have her stockings dyed grass green. But while her dresses were not showy, they were certainly not cheap. Twenty-three yards of ‘blak silk calimanko’ cost almost £12 (around £1200 in today’s money), not to mention the price of lace, clasps, buckram, sewing silk, ribbons, taffeta lining and labour. Jeffreys was loyal to her London tailor, though she often found that his creations had been made ‘too litle’ and paid a local man to loosen the stays. In addition to having clothes made for herself, Jeffreys provided them for her dependants. Most lavish were the things she bought for her goddaughter and companion Elizabeth Acton, whose expenses appeared frequently in Jeffreys’s accounts until Acton married a local gentleman, and received her parting gifts, a fat sheep for her wedding feast and a generous dowry. Jeffreys also paid for her needy cousin Jane Gorton’s more modest clothes, as well as her rent, and, when she died, her funeral expenses. Even her servants received clothes: Jeffreys paid her maidservants the usual low wage of thirty or forty shillings a year, but often gave them wedding dresses when they left to marry. She was also mindful of their pleasures: at the Lady Day fair at Worcester in 1644, for example, she treated four maids to a shilling each, and even gave Barbara the dairy maid a second shilling when she lost the first. Like their mistress, the girls would have been able to toss a penny to the man with the monkey, or the one with the dancing horse.

Living in the country, Jeffreys had relatively few opportunities to waste money, and seems to have had thrifty habits. No gambling losses are recorded in her books, and she spent little on wine, though she liked to smoke now and then, buying four pipes on one occasion, and investing a shilling in ‘an ounce of very good tobacko’ on another. All the same, being a gentlewoman was not just a matter of having money, but also of spending it freely, showering or at least sprinkling one’s dependants with largesse. An early reader of her accounts, her great-nephew Henry Jeffreys, was disgusted by her spending. As he saw it, her poor judgment and thoughtless generosity wrecked the fortune she had accumulated ‘from the Gratuitys of her friends’ – especially the inheritance from her father and the annuity left to her by her half-brother. If she hadn’t eventually come to live with his father, he wrote, she might have ‘come to want in her old age’. Yet, he noted smugly, ‘something pretty considereble was saved from these shipwrack which be very well deserved for him & his children.’

Henry Jeffreys seems to have grudged every penny his great-aunt spent, but the ‘something pretty considereble’ that remained at Joyce Jeffreys’s death was approximately £5000, more than double her inheritance. In focusing on her expenditure, Henry neglected to examine her receipts. In her later years, Joyce had several thousand pounds a year lent out at interest, mostly in well diversified loans of £50 or less, with many of her Hereford neighbours on her books. In the decade covered by her accounts, she kept track of 145 different debtors, and received interest payments every few days. She didn’t know all of the debtors personally; some lived as far away as London, like the vintner Matthew Pack, who paid his interest to her tailor.

One might think that Jeffreys’s moneylending would have raised a few eyebrows: usury was a sin as well as a crime. However, money was in short supply in early modern England and the economy depended on the provision of credit. The 1624 Act against Usury, which declared that usurers charging more than 8 per cent should lose their capital while the less rapacious should forfeit only their interest, had the effect of setting a de facto interest rate: like many others, Jeffreys charged 8 per cent per annum. According to common law, single women could own property and enter into contracts, though married women could not. At a time when spinsters were barred from most crafts and trades, they took advantage of the few rights they had, and participated widely in credit markets: only the scale of Jeffreys’s investments was unusual.

In any case, in early modern England, where financial and social credit were practically synonymous, wealth could lift yeomen up to the gentry, and poverty could strip a gentleman of his status. Jeffreys’s money gave her a status that would ordinarily have been denied to a single woman. In the poll tax of 1641, she was taxed at the rate of a gentleman, while Elizabeth Acton paid the small sum due from wives and children. But Jeffreys was not really an honorary gentleman: she held no formal office in Hereford. Rather, her wealth and her age gave her the stature of a gentleman’s widow. Even a rich spinster couldn’t live alone in her youth: social decorum meant she had to remain under the protection of her family. After her father’s death, Jeffreys lived first with her mother, then with her cousin Sir Thomas Coningsby and his wife. She first appeared as a householder in the Hereford tax records for 1623, when she was in her forties or early fifties. By then, it must have been clear that she didn’t intend to marry (and have to relinquish her carefully managed investments). It’s easy to imagine her satisfaction at finally setting up house on her own.

Few spinsters were so fortunate. A single woman without the independence money provided was left with unappealing options: she could live with her family or she could enter service, offering her master and mistress obedience in exchange for bed, board and paltry wages. While suitable enough for girls, being a maidservant must have been galling for older women. Being single was thought suspicious: take Margery Noble, who entered the historical record when she came to testify at an ecclesiastical court in London. Opposing witnesses found it easy to blacken her character. Noble had pretended to work in Westminster as a laundress, they said, but was expelled from the parish for setting ‘men and their wives at deadly hatred and dissension together’. They suspected her of being a procuress who preyed on unemployed maidservants, and she had even ended up in prison, once for stealing clothes and once for defamation. Noble may have been a born troublemaker – even the prison keeper complained of her trickery – but women’s wages were so low that honest labour guaranteed nothing more than honest poverty. A poor spinster had little to gain by following the rules and little to lose by breaking them.

Wealth could not shield Jeffreys when war broke out in 1642. A staunch royalist who referred to Charles I as ‘the kings majestie’ in her accounts, she had paid her Ship Money without complaint, and must have been shocked by the unravelling of the English state. She gave a cousin a shilling in 1640 ‘when he went to Scottland to the warres’, and bought drink for other soldiers. She also paid 20d a day for the training of ‘her’ soldier, John Trahern, who took her place in the Hereford militia. For Jeffreys, the disturbances must at first have seemed remote: London figured primarily in her books as a place of business, and a place to buy whalebone, writing paper and other luxuries. In October 1641, she made a belated effort to catch up with the news, buying a book about the ‘trobles’ of William Prynne and his allies, who had lost their ears in 1637 for seditious libel, and one on ‘the Earle of Strafords arainment and his pickture & the Arch Bushop Lawds’.

When war came, Hereford declared for the king, but was taken by a Parliamentary army led by the Earl of Stamford in September 1642. While Stamford occupied it for only a few months before moving on, the following year Hereford was taken again, this time by troops led by William Waller, who stayed for three weeks then marched on to Gloucester. A Scots army besieged it for five weeks in the summer of 1645, but Hereford came under Parliamentary control for good only after Colonel Birch captured it in December of that year. Jeffreys and the other residents suffered at the hands of both sides. Taxes were raised to extraordinary levels, soldiers were billeted in civilian houses, and livestock was requisitioned to feed hungry soldiers and serve as their mounts. Jeffreys fled to the house of a friend before Hereford was first taken in September 1642, and bitterly recorded that Captain Robert Hammond and ‘his barbarous company’ seized her prized bay mares, some money and ‘much linen’. Worse was to come.

The uncertainty of the times damaged Jeffreys’s business: she found collecting her money more and more difficult, and became reluctant to put her remaining capital at risk. Her most grievous loss was probably that of her new house on the edge of Hereford, built at a cost of £500. When it became clear that buildings in the area were going to be torn down in order to raise fortifications, Jeffreys sold her house for a tenth of its cost. She had already left it to stay first with Elizabeth Acton and her husband, and later with her nephew and his wife at Ham Castle. She kept her independence, though, and paid for her keep, as well as that of her maid.

It was hard to be a woman alone in wartime, as Jeffreys’s Puritan neighbour Brilliana Harley knew. Lady Harley had a husband, the dour Sir Robert, who was almost twenty years her senior, but during the wars he stayed away on Parliamentary business, leaving her to look after their younger children, manage his estates, and defend them all against the assaults of the Royalist armies. Though Lady Harley wrote sadly to her son, ‘Since your father thinkes Hearefordsheare as safe as any other country, I will thinke so too,’ she longed for permission to join her husband in the safety of London. It was not forthcoming, and in July 1643, her home, Brampton Bryan Castle, was besieged. Lady Harley held out valiantly until the siege was lifted several weeks later, but never saw her husband or son again. In her last letter, she told her son she had ‘taken a very greate coold’, and hoped that God would restore her to health, ‘for it is an ill time to be sike in,’ but the Lord, like her husband, left her to fight her battles alone.

On 27 June 1648, in what Jeffreys stubbornly called ‘the twenty fourth yeare of the raigne of our soveraigne lord King Charles of England’, she made her will. She died sometime in 1650, having outlived her sovereign, who was executed on a wintry January afternoon in 1649. As was common for spinsters, her will gave more evidence of family commitments than of isolation: though she left the bulk of her estate to her nephew William (who left it to his son, the ungrateful Henry), no fewer than 26 relatives – mostly female cousins – were given legacies. Her ‘beloved neece’ Anne Nott had five daughters, who each received £20 ‘and to every of them a silver spoone, being sorry that my fortune hath beene so broken that I cannott enlarge these bequests as I would.’ These girls would grow up in a world less friendly to the women increasingly derided as ‘old maids’. By 1650, with her outdated ruffs and loyalties, her pipes, her horses and her Roman histories, Joyce Jeffreys was a creature of the past.