The Taxman Cometh: Exploring a 17th Century South Derbyshire Home

Introduction

This is the first ‘archaeological story’ in a series of posts that explore everyday life in the 17th century through an early modern manor house in South Derbyshire:[i] ‘Upper Hall’ – a private home, recently visited by the author.[ii] We take an imaginary tour around the dwelling in 1662, by following (unseen) a visitor to this building: Samuel Beighton, the petty constable.[iii] Written sources indicate the responsibility of this person for assessing the Hearth Tax in this year.[iv] Though fictitious, archaeological and other historical evidence informs the tale.[v]

Brief discussion of this approach, background information and on Hearth Tax, is outlined within the previous post ‘Expedition into the Past: Tales of a 17th Century Derbyshire Manor House’. The preceding post ‘From Yeoman to Gentleman: Peopling a 17th Century South Derbyshire Manor House’ investigates the early residents of the house, using written evidence to produce ‘family histories’, and to consider social relationships between and within the families that occupied the Hall, and the wider community. An earlier post, ‘Living in the Early Modern Past: the 17th Century Home’, provides a backdrop for this series, outlining the domestic environment and material culture at this time for the typical yeoman household.

In this post, we follow Samuel as he approaches Upper Hall, and considers the impressive façade.

Location, Location, Location…

It is Michaelmas, in the 13th year of the reign of Charles II (were it not for the Puritan Purge of the Commonwealth) – September 1662. Those whose property he had hitherto protected from ne’r-do-wells had soon come to scorn Samuel Beighton: he now aroused enmity from poachers and landowners alike. The Hearth Tax[vi] (or Chimney Tax, as some call it) has not proved a popular innovation, devised (it is said) to sustain the recently restored monarch in his indolence and debauchery.[vii]

Parish Constable in Elizabethan Jacobean

The Elizabethan – Jacobean Petty Constable (Source)

Undoubtedly, it is only proper that the constable should search the humble hovels in which he suspects are concealed stolen goods (for the theft of game and sheep rightly deserves stiff punishment – the branding that many receive is far too lenient).[viii] But the very notion that Beighton is now empowered to intrude within the homes of reputable families – who by their good grace elected the man to his office – is contemptible. Surely, any fool can determine the charge by counting the number of chimneys that rise above the rooftops. (Those with sham pots deserve to pay for their pretensions.) Yet he can compromise the liberty of honest men, and encroach upon private life in search of hearths – despicable. Moreover, this petty constable puts the honour of gentlemen to the test, whose word regarding the number of hearths within their own home is no longer considered adequate – an intolerable state of affairs.

Having collected his documents from the parish chest,[ix] Samuel Beighton starts out on his route around the village, to check Hearth Tax assessments submitted by local residents.

St Peter's Parish Chest

Parish chest, St Peter’s Church, Hartshorne, Derbyshire (©Grassroots Heritage 2014)[x]

He is heading for the manor house, which he can see a short distance away. Two chimney-stacks rise from the roof (which is fashionably – and expensively – tiled, and not thatched, as a common dwelling); the seven pots in all surely indicate the provision of bedroom fireplaces: such extravagance for a yeoman farmer (Samuel cannot help but wonder at the decadence he might encounter within the dwelling). He suspects that all the information he really needs to know is now before him, but the opportunity – nay, duty – to inspect this dwelling, in order to ascertain the accuracy of Master Benskin’s assessment, compels him to continue.

Nonetheless, he must tread carefully. He only retains this responsible and respectable position thanks to their acknowledgement of his merits, and meeting the requirements (he scorned the assertion that this noble office was generally given to the “poorest and weaker sort“, and was reluctant to admit that he only came to office because it was his turn, considering where he lived). Sometimes he considered paying a deputy his £3 to fulfil his tasks as a constable – this unpaid position was often more trouble than the authority it conveyed. However, at other times (perhaps such as this) he might consider serving beyond the obligatory year – after all, few could command the authority conferred by the post as he did (and he would receive 2d. in every £1 collected).

Will the family at the manor house take kindly to such an intrusion? He knows of the Benskin’s prosperity – and of their litigious reputation, in trying to hold on to their wealth. The constable finds this new ‘middling sort’ often less amenable than the landed gentry – though they too often express indignation at such government interference; the tugging of private tax collectors at their already stretched purse strings is even more distasteful to these purveyors of taste.

The constable walks down the hill, soon meeting the main thoroughfare. He must quickly step back to avoid a laden cart, the sneer upon its driver’s face suggesting to Mr Beighton a deliberate act of malice. Be-splattered by mud from the wheels on the waterlogged track, he gains some comfort from the obstacle that the cart would meet further down the road: a shepherd, and the straggling remains of his flock (likely returning from the beast sale), visible a moment ago from his vantage point on higher ground.

Abandoning his attempt to brush away the dirt from his woollen knee breeches, the constable resumes his journey. As he walks, Samuel considers the name of Upper Hall. It is no ordinary farmhouse (and positively no cottage), to be sure, but the principal residence of one of the two manors that make up the village. He contemplates the grandeur of the house and, with wry amusement, notes that, though built on a far smaller scale, it yet imitates the houses of the gentry. He looks forward to taking a closer look.

Other carts pass by before he reaches his destination – despite the short distance of his walk. The route is busy, used to carry bricks between nearby Measham and burgeoning townships beyond, and from Swadlincote and Ticknall potteries to various markets (the clattering carts suggesting that not all of their contents will be delivered intact).

Samuel soon arrives at the gate to the Hall; before him are several stone steps leading to the main entrance, elevate above the road. With not a little trepidation, he ascends the path to the front door.

Outside Upper Hall

Upper Hall: rear elevation (©Grassroots Heritage 2014)[xi]

Constable Beighton knocks with the tip of his staff upon the door (both in announcing the official nature of his call, and in anticipating that his knuckles would make little sound upon the thick oak). As he awaits an answer, he steps back slightly to take in this impressive dwelling, and casually glances around to take it in.

The timber box frame – the skeleton of the house – is made of good straight oaken beams (of the sort coveted, and he expects paid for dearly, by the Navy for its ships). The frame rests upon several courses of large stone blocks (this ‘half-timbered‘ form of construction still fashionable for the homes of the well-to-do yeoman: see the previous post on 17th century housing, which also discusses social terms). The lime-washed plastered panels of ‘wattle and daub‘ that fill the spaces between the beams reflect the bright sunlight.[xii]

The gabled wing to the right brings a gentrified air to the building, which together with the extravagantly glazed windows (and the numerous chimneys that remain within his thoughts), proclaim the modernity of this comfortable house. He again reflects upon how tall this house is when compared to nearby low cottages: not one but two storeys, with the slope of the roof suggesting further accommodation in the loft (for he sees no small holes or narrow windows to suggest that the top floor is used to store cheese or doves). Built above the level of the road, the provision of generous cellars is also to be expected.

Beighton hears sounds from within, as (he suspects) someone is coming to answer his knock. Before they reach the door, he considers who might greet him. He recalls the family pious, prim, and proud in all their finery in their prominent pews in the church, and considers what grand garb he might encounter today. But he expects that one of the servants shall first be sent to attend to him, and that he shall only meet Master Johannes or Mistress Maria if and when necessary.

Porchporch graffiti

Graffiti, front porch (©Grassroots Heritage 2014)

As the servant opens the front door, Beighton peers around the girl into the porch. (What he cannot know is that, seven years hence, some resident – or perhaps a visitor idly waiting for attendance – would leave their mark on the wall to the left: ‘W. A. 1669’, the culprit   exhibiting some degree of literacy, as well as a sense of their own importance, despite – or perhaps because – these grand surroundings.)

The porch is generously sized, and provides an impression of what might be seen beyond. The servant reluctantly bids Samuel to follow her into the building, indignant on behalf of the Master and Mistress…

Constable Beighton begins his search of the house in the following post ‘In at the Ground Floor: Exploring a 17th Century Home in South Derbyshire: ’.

Notes

[i] Within British archaeology, the Early Modern period is typically seen as beginning in the mid 16th century, and ending in the mid – late 18th century. For a fuller discussion see the previous post the preceding post ‘Expedition into the Past: Tales of a 17th Century Derbyshire Manor House’.

[ii] For information on the circumstances of access to the property, see ‘Expedition into the Past’ (op. cit.). The full address of this property is withheld in order to retain the occupant’s privacy.

[iii] For background information on the petty constable, see E. Trotter (ed.) 1980 Seventeenth Century Life in the Country Parish, p. 83 ff.; also see William Edward Tate (1969: 3rd Ed.) The Parish Chest: A Study of the Records of Parochial Administration in England, pp. 176-87.

[iv] For information on the Hearth Tax, see Hearth Tax Online.

[v] For more information on the ‘story-telling’ approach, see ‘Expedition into the Past’ (op. cit.). Italicised text is used to denote discussion of later and features, and to present background information, outside the main narrative.

[vi] For Hearth Tax records see the National Archives online catalogue.

[vii] See Tim Harris (2005) ‘Charles II: The Reality Behind the Merry Monarchy’, History Today Vol. 55. Iss. 6.

[viii] See note iii..

[ix] For information on the contents and historical value of the parish chest, a classic text Tate (op cit.).

[x] For more information on the photographs of Upper Hall, see ‘Expedition into the Past’. All images of the building and associated artefacts may not be reproduced without the express permission of the LIP project and property owners.

[xi] The front of the property is not illustrated in order to retain the privacy of the occupants.

[xii] Wattle and daub was frequently composed of woven rods of the flexible hazel, covered with clay containing binding material, such as horsehair, straw, and dung. Though most commonly off-white in colour, organic pigments such as ochre (to give a buff hue), or iron oxide (to give an earthy red hue), were sometimes added to lime-wash to tint the finish.

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