Last month I wrote about my work at the Apprentice House at Quarry Bank Mill and my idea for representing the lives of former child workers there by recreating the boxes in which they kept their possessions. This month I’ve been given an entirely different brief at Apprentice House: deciding how to present a room currently described as the Shawcross’s parlour.

The Apprentice House and garden, Quarry Bank Mill

The Apprentice House and garden, Quarry Bank Mill

George and Elizabeth Shawcross were employed as managers of the Apprentice House between 1811 and George’s death in 1834 (after which, Elizabeth carried on alone for a year before handing over to the Timperleys). George was paid an annual salary of £40 for his and his wife’s labours, and he received an additional £10 a year for his work in the village shop. This rate of pay means that the Shawcrosses were by no means rich, but it places them in the same income bracket as many small tradesmen and women in this period, so that it is not surprising that their son, William, was a butcher and their daughter, Hannah, married a hat maker.[1]

Parlour at the Apprentice House

Parlour at the Apprentice House

The room is currently fairly sparcely furnished: with white distempered walls, three wooden chairs, a corner cupboard, a side table and a small rag rug on the flagstone floor.  Because space is required to seat visitors on guided tours, much of the rest of the room is taken up with wooden benches (not shown on the image above). There are some ornamental touches: dried flowers in a vase, a china tea set on display, a copper kettle and other possessions, but it still feels a little empty, even for a couple of fairly modest means. When I first entered the room, I was reminded of the comments made by the Manchester grocer, George Heywood, upon moving into a shop and house on Old Millgate in 1815, when he complained in his diary that with only a set of chairs and a carpet downstairs, plus a single bed upstairs, he and his business partner ‘have little to come to’, with their house made more miserable because the walls upstairs were ‘naked’.[2] Though the Shawcrosses parlour suggests that they had more possessions than this, the lack of furniture and the white walls do not feel right to me.

The Shawcrosses might not have stretched to affording wallpaper, but they may have selected a coloured distemper for their walls. This is something that could be explored by a specialist analysis of the house’s decorative finishes.[3] But what of the contents of the room? With nothing surviving from the period in the house, and George Shawcross’s will devoid of any detail on his personal possessions, I’ve decided that the best approach is to look for examples of comparable individuals whose belongs were better documented. I’m using the same method that I undertook with Jane Hamlett in my current research project on north-west trading families in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, by examining inventories.

Early modern historians have long used probate inventories – the formal lists of a person’s possessions produced after their death – to determine spatial organisation, room naming, and the variety and distribution of goods within households: though it has also been pointed out that inventories must to be used with care.[4] Georgio Riello, for example, has shown some of the pitfalls of the inventory for the historical researcher, most notably the subjectivity of the inventory maker and the frequent absence of non-valuable items from these lists.[5] Far fewer inventories survive for the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as the custom of exhibiting inventories in court and retaining them in the administrative records, if not of making inventories themselves, declined from the 1720s.[6] However, inventories were often preserved in Cause papers relating to disputed wills.[7] This means that a handful do survive for individuals in trade in northern England during the closing decade of the eighteenth century and first quarter of the nineteenth who look to be broadly comparable in social status and income to the Shawcrosses.

Within the limitations of what survives, I have narrowed down my examination to the inventories of a Newcastle-under-Lyme hatter (1811), a Cheadle butcher (1797), a Liverpool butcher (1795), a Cheshire miller (1797), a Doncaster shopkeeper (1818) and a butcher from Batley in Yorkshire (1824). Two things have struck me when looking at these inventories: first, that they list many more items of furniture in their main living rooms than are present in the current interpretation of the Shawcross’s parlour, and secondly, that rooms such as this are usually not described as a parlour, but rather as a ‘house place’, ‘house part’ or simply ‘house’. Some of the inventories I am looking at list a ‘parlour’ as well, but these rooms seem to have been less well furnished and not the first room in the house. Weatherill notes that before 1760, house place, house part or hall were commonly used to describe the main living room in small English households.[8] By the second half of the eighteenth century in most regions, and in some places even earlier, the kitchen seems to have replaced the house place.[9] However, the older name, was still used by tradesmen and women into the nineteenth century in the north of England.[10] So it seems that I might be in charge of decorating and furnishing the Shawcross’s house place, rather than their parlour.

First page of the inventory of William Spedding, 1824: copyright of the Borthwick Institute For Archives, York

First page of the inventory of William Spedding, 1824, Borthwick Institute For Archives, York

Moreover, this room is likely to have more in it than it does now: perhaps in line with the possessions of the Batley butcher, William Spedding. An inventory of his goods taken in 1824 listed the ‘house’ as containing a mahogany desk and bookcase, 1 elm and 4 mahogany chairs, 1 mahogany card table, a small stand, a walnut desk, dressing glass (mirror), 3 Japan waiters (decorated trays), 2 brass candlesticks, 7 pictures, ‘birds in case’ (presumably stuffed), a wine glass and 4 tumblers, a metal tea pot, 6 pitchers, a pitcher and basin, 3 vegetable dishes and covers, 3 basins, 2 jugs, 3 oval dishes, a tureen, 5 pie dishes, 2 glass bottles and ‘sundry 3 small pots’.[11] Other inventories list clocks, dinning tables and sofas and suggest rooms that were pleasantly cluttered and more welcoming than the Shawcross’s parlour in its current incarnation: in which case, I think I need to get ready to do some shopping.

[1] I am grateful to Danika Grace Lloyd, a QBM volunteer, for her painstaking research on the family history of the Shawcrosses.

[2] John Rylands Library, Diary of George Heywood, Eng MS 703, fo. 76.

[3] Work such as this is carried out by Patrick Baty who has a fascinating website on his various projects.

[4] For a summary of these surveys before 2000 see Tom Arkell, ‘Interpreting Probate Inventories,’ in Tom Arkell, Nesta Evans and Nigel Goose (eds) When Death Do Us Part: Understanding and Interpreting the Probate Records of Early Modern England (2000).

[5] Giorgio Riello, ‘“Things Seen and Unseen: The Material Culture of Early Modern Inventories and Their Representation of Domestic Interiors’, in Paula Findlen, ed., Early Modern Things: Objects and their Histories, 1500-1800 (2013). See also see Mark Overton, Jane Whittle, Darron Dean and Andrew Hann, Production and Consumption in English Households, 1600-1750 (2004), pp.14-18; John Bedell, ‘Archaeology and Probate Inventories in the Study of Eighteenth-Century Life, ‘Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 31, no. 2, (Autumn 2000), pp. 239-240.

[6] Jeff and Nancy Cox, ‘Probate 1500-1800: A System in Transition,’ in Arkell, Evans and Goose (eds), When Death Do Us Part, p. 27; John S. Moore, ‘Probate Inventories: Problems and Prospects,’ in Philip Riden, ed., Probate Records and the Local Community (1985), p. 27.

[7] Moore, ‘Probate Inventories,’ p. 17.

[8] Lorna Weatherill, Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture in Britain 1660-1760 1996), p. 10.

[9] Ursula Priestley and Penelope Corfield, ‘Rooms and room use in Norwich, 1580-1730’, Post-medieval Archaeology, 16 (1982), p. 106; Weatherill, Consumer Behaviour, p. 150; Margaret Ponsonby, Stories from Home: English Domestic Interiors, 1750-1850 (2007), p.105.

[10] Susan Denyer, Traditional Buildings and Life in the Lake District (1991), p. 18; Ponsonby, Stories from Home, pp.105, 136.

[11] Probate account of William Spedding, Batley, Yorks, Borthwick Test CP 1824/1: you can find other Yorkshire inventories by searching the Borthwick Cause Papers.