Newbury Branch meeting 10th June 2020, conducted on Zoom
Speaker: Joan Dils
Women are often left out of recorded history, but the everyday detail of their lives lies hidden in records such as those of the church court. Those such as Elizabeth Henwood, a domestic servant, had her own attic room in the family house. The ground floor was the master craftsman’s workshop and the first floor was where daily family life went on. Servants lived and ate as equals with the family, unlike the social apartheid practised by Victorians.
Servants worked alongside the wife of the family on household tasks. Their wages of 30/- pa were paid quarterly and should be saved for marriage. Courtship opportunities would generally arise from the working situation, and betrothal required prior parental approval in order to secure a dowry. When this happened for Elizabeth, it transpired that she had spent her wages, not saved them.
Thomas Roberts of Reading and Joan Green of Newbury broke with convention by meeting at the market and exchanging tokens which bound them to each other. Another servant spied on them and reported to Joan’s parents. Under parental pressure, Joan broke the relationship off, and Thomas sued for breach of promise.
On marriage, the bride was taken by the groom to the church door, where the dowry was handed over. In Newbury, most marriages took place from October to January, because Michaelmas (October) marked the end of employment contracts. There were no marriages in Lent or Advent (a prohibition of the old religion) or in August, because of harvest.
Gender roles were unvarying. Eve’s misdeeds had decreed that women must obey their husbands. Women were responsible for all household duties and childcare, and they were expected to bear a child about every two years. Newbury had two midwives in Tudor times. Children had three godparents/gossips at baptism: two of the same sex as the child, and one of the other.
Bills and suchlike give evidence of womanly tasks: washing, ironing, shopping, spinning for the household linens, and taking the husband’s goods to market (sometimes a considerable distance). Households produced their own beer and bread, although the baker’s oven might be hired. A household of eight needed 200 gallons of (small) beer a year.
Inventories and probate documents detail household equipment: pans, kettles, tubs, barrels, vats, churns, salting troughs, chafers, colanders, basins and more. Wool and linen required separate spinning wheels. Home spinning by women supplied the Newbury’s cloth workshops, where weaving, dyeing and finishing were carried out solely by men.
Widows, unlike married women, could make their own wills, including bequests to friends. Their property might include gold rings, cloth goods, platters and porringers, beds and bedding, spoons, bacon flitches, butter, second-hand clothes and bibles. Musical instruments were rarely owned by women.
When women died, it would be other women who carried the coffin to the graveside.