This month we feature a guest blog from Peter Cox, one of the group leaders of the volunteers undertaking a Shared Learning Project between the University of the Third Age (U3A) and the Hearth Tax Centre. Peter’s team have been delving into a fascinating set of records showing London society on the eve of the Great Fire in 1666.
We’re nearly halfway through the Hearth Tax project, and it’s time for the City group to take stock. We’re looking at the occupants of particular City parishes, eight of the 21 whose 1666 Hearth Tax Returns, for some reason yet unknown, tell us the occupation of each householder. This gives us an unrivalled opportunity to track individuals – if there are many Nicholas Smiths about, it’s impossible to distinguish between them unless you know that yours was a Salter.
The Hearth Tax was invented in 1662 by Parliament to help fund the restored monarchy, which was calculated to need £1.2m each year. It was levied on each householder, who would pay one shilling twice a year, on Lady Day and at Michaelmas, 25 March and 28 September, for each Hearth in his or her dwelling. The team at Roehampton University, for whom we’re working, are going steadily through transcribing those Returns that still exist.
Their project doesn’t allow for any investigation beyond the transcriptions, and that’s where we come in, as unpaid but energetic researchers. Our remit is broad: ‘find out what you can, and follow what interests you’. Thus Lisa Vine, already researching stationers and booksellers, is looking at a group who settled in Little Britain, a street in the large parish of St Botolph Aldersgate that she’s sharing with Aelwyn Taylor and Jane Harrington, who has only recently joined the team. This parish differs from all the others, being more like a small town clustered along Aldersgate Street, with many more households and a wider range of occupations.
It didn’t suffer as badly as the others did in the Great Fire that swept through the City in early September, starting in Pudding Lane in the parish of St Margaret New Fish Street, which is being researched by Barbara Sanders, who is currently wading through its original churchwardens’ accounts and vestry minutes. Its church was burnt down – one of the 83 churches destroyed – as was St Magnus the Martyr, the abutting parish which incorporated all the houses on old London Bridge. Wren rebuilt it, but St Margaret was one of several not replaced, and its parishioners worshipped in St Magnus instead. Of our other parishes, the churches in St Gabriel Fenchurch and St Benet Sherehog, both of which served fewer than 100 households, were destroyed and not rebuilt, the latter becoming part of St Stephen Walbrook. Their church was also burnt down and was another rebuilt by Wren in the 1670s. The Walbrook was an ancient stream, by then covered over, which ran south to the Thames, and Walbrook, a street that runs parallel to it, contains an unusual number of skinners and druggists. St Benet and St Stephen are being investigated by Cheryl Bailey; St Gabriel’s researcher has just had to drop out, so we’re looking for a replacement.
One parish church that survived the fire was our most easterly, being tackled by SLP veteran Joan Hardinge, is Allhallows Staining (meaning stone, to distinguish it from other Allhallows churches which were made of wood.) But it collapsed in 1671 and was rebuilt in 1674. The church of St Katherine Coleman no longer exists, but it did survive the fire. It’s being researched by Pauline Brown and Maryke Koomans.
Researching City parish records and how they were governed is complicated by the fact that the City was divided into 23 administrative districts known as wards, which each covered several parishes. St Magnus the Martyr, which I took over when a researcher dropped out, is in the ward of London Bridge Within. A rare set of books survive for the Ward, itemising every inhabitant and Ward officer – such as constables and ‘scavengers’, and grand and petty jury members – from 1627-88. I’ve set myself the task of using the lists, an intriguing annual census, to look at how the ward was governed from the years before the Plague and Fire of 1665 and 1666 to a few years after it. London had perhaps the most comprehensive and effective form of local government of any European city of the period.
The years 1665 and 1666 were pivotal in London’s history. A fifth of Londoners died in the plague summer of ‘65, and many fled the city. Few are recorded as dying in the Fire, but many were permanently or temporarily displaced. So the project is an opportunity to see what happened to some of its inhabitants and their homes. The ‘Fire Court’ was set up in late 1666 to hear disputes over occupancy and rebuilding, usually between landowners and their tenants. It dealt unusually swiftly and flexibly with the cases, and its pages – thankfully already transcribed and printed – give an insight into how the City got back on its feet, house by house. We now have thirteen weeks left to find out all we can.
Peter Cox. 31st March 2018.
(Image above: Great Fire Map of London, 1667. British Library, Maps.Crace.Port.1.50. Copyright The British Libary)