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.

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