Oh the thrill of finding a will and household inventory belonging to a long-dead ancestor. This particular find lists the possessions of one William Fox, a farmer, who died in Great Hucklow, Derbyshire in December 1710. The village itself is little more than a hamlet and sits below Hucklow Edge between Tideswell, Bradwell and Foolow. It is a sparsely peopled land of pasture, dry stone walls, bleak moorland, ancient trackways, Neolithic burial mounds and lead.
The lead vein both outcrops and then runs deeply into Hucklow Edge and has been mined since at least the 1300s when the area was ruled by monks. Many of my Bennet ancestors worked (and farmed) on this lead field from at least the 17th century. The Fox family, too, like most High Peak farmers, also had interests in or connections with lead mines.
This particular great uncle (if the Fox hunt sleuthing is on the right track) is one of too many William Foxes in my Derbyshire ancestry. Evidence suggests he was born in 1667, son of William and Elizabeth Fox who were tenant farmers at the Oaks, an isolated farm on the Highlow Estate near Hathersage. He had an elder brother, Robert Fox, a yeoman farmer and lead miner in Foolow, between Great Hucklow and Eyam, a few miles from the Oaks.
In 1689 William married local lass, Mary Hoyle. The record at Hope Church says they are both ‘of Highlow,’ as do the baptismal records for their first and second/third child: Sara (1690) and George (1693). It is impossible to know from these vague references whether William stayed at the Oaks after his marriage, or took up the tenancy of another Highlow farmstead. But by 1699, when Robert is born, the family is at Callow Farm and the christening is in Hathersage rather than at Hope. Then there is a gap in definite records until 1707 when William, the couple’s last child is born at Callow. Somewhere in between, Mary and Martha (possibly a 1702 baptism at Hathersage) were born. Also in 1707 Mary Fox’s widowed mother dies at Callow.
That’s a lot of family in one farmhouse. And that’s possibly not all. I also suspect William’s niece Mary, and nephew William could have been living there too. In his 1699 will (written in 1690) Robert Fox of Foolow had entrusted the care of his four children to his ‘well beloved brother William Fox the younger of Oaks’ and brother-in-law, Thomas Mower.
In any event, some time shortly after 1707, it looks as if William and Mary Fox moved to Great Hucklow, leaving William’s nephew, William Fox (5th great grandfather) to take over the tenancy at Callow. In 1711 the Callow William then married and had his first child, also named William, and so began the Fox dynasty at Callow farm.
But back to the will and inventory. What can they tell us about the lives of William and Mary and their six children after they moved to Great Hucklow (actual home location unknown apart from the use of a barn and grazing on Stanley Moor)?
William was around 43 years old when the will was made. The content is notable for the lack of standard clerical waffle. Unusually, it also omits William’s station or occupation in life, e.g. husbandman, yeoman, miner, gentleman etc. In fact he may have written it himself. He certainly signs and seals it, thereby leaving all his goods to his wife and executrix, Mary, on the ‘condishon’ she will pay all his debts and manage the funeral arrangements. He then leaves the equivalent of £25 to each of his six children, to be received when they reach the age of twenty one. It perhaps reflects on his state of health that he initially omits son Robert from the list of his children’s bequests, and pops him in right at the end.
Now for the inventory. The appraisers were usually two or more neighbours, and inventories were made for the purposes of proving wills.
To begin with, it should be said that William Fox was not exactly a poor man. His clothes and money in his purse amounted to £4, around £400 in today’s values. He was quite well turned out then. Also his household goods and farm stock were assessed at £135 10s 5d which according to the National Archives currency converter was equivalent in value to £14,000 – or 1500 days’ wages for a skilled tradesman.
The inventory also gives us an idea of the sort of house the family was living in (and I’m assuming the house and farmland were rented from some big landowner e.g. the Bagshaws). Four specific rooms are mentioned: the house, which is the main living area or hall in the medieval sense of the word, the parlour, and the two upstairs chambers. So we are basically talking about a yeoman’s dwelling of the ‘middling sort’, two large rooms downstairs, and two rooms above, probably stone built as most High Peak houses are. Or if it was an old cottage, possibly half-timbered atop low stone walls.
The furniture listed in the house/living room includes a cupboard, 3 tables, 2 benches, 2 dozen cushions, 8 chairs, a long settle, and a small table, three trestle tables. There is a cooking hearth with a range and two spits, 4 iron pots, a brass pot, a kettle, skillet, saucepan and a warming pan, scales and weights and a lantern. The family had 20 pewter dishes, 5 plates and 18 spoons for eating. There were assorted tankards and beakers for the drinking of ale (most probably brewed at home).
The parlour served as both a place for private business and as the master bedroom. This was customary into the 18th century. William and Mary’s parlour includes a bed with bedding, four tables and, most fascinating of all – ‘a frame for weaving of stockings’. This would have been a highly valuable item and its presence perhaps surprising in an isolated Derbyshire community.
The stocking frame
The stocking frame was invented in 1589 by Nottinghamshire vicar, William Lee – apparently to save his wife the labour of hand knitting this most essential foot wear (worn by both sexes and all classes). He tried to patent his revolutionary device, but successive English monarchs, including Elizabeth 1, to whom he gave a personal demonstration, and James 1, would not countenance putting the hand-knitters out of business. Lee tried his luck in France, but the enterprise failed. He died in 1610 and the frames were repatriated and sold in London. It wasn’t until late that same century that frame knitting took off, first in London, but later back in Nottinghamshire where the technology began.
The frames, being costly items, were usually bought by wealthy businessmen who hired them out to knitters, while also providing the yarn and buying back the finished product.
But it seems the Foxes owned their own frame since it appears on the inventory (?). Three pairs of stockings at 5 shillings are listed among the upstairs goods. That’s about £9 a pair. So it seems likely that this was more than the means of domestic self-sufficiency, but a significant family business. It was usual too for the women of the house to spin wool and then weave cloth for family use; 14 yards of woollen cloth (‘stuff’) is also listed along with the stockings.
The chamber over the house looks to have been the Fox childrens’ sleeping quarters, and a place for household storage. There are four beds with coverlets and a ‘bed hilling’ (quilt or eiderdown); 6 pairs each of blankets and sheets plus pillows, towels and other linen. There is ‘one great ark’, i.e. a large storage chest, and 5 cheeses. (Cheese and oat cakes – an oatmeal pancake made from fermented batter were staple Derbyshire fare). There is also a cloak bag, used by travellers on horseback, and a pillion seat.
And here it is the pillion seat that particularly caught my attention. Further down the inventory we can see that the family had two mares, essential means of transport in the Derbyshire uplands before the advent of turnpike roads. The pillion was a padded saddle, either used by a wife riding on the same horse behind her husband, or for riding alone. Either way she would of course be riding side-saddle. From at least Elizabethan times, the pillion included two pommels for hooking the legs securely and enabling the rider to jump obstacles.
My only photo of Callow 2nd great grandmother, Mary Ann Fox, shows her pillion-equipped and wearing a rather smart riding habit. Legend has it that 3rd great grandfather George, confiscated her pony because she persistently disobeyed him by jumping the five bar gate at the end of Highlow Lane instead of stopping to open it. Here she is some time in the late 1870s/early 1880s.
Mary Ann Williamson Fox born at Callow Farm in 1863
Moving on to the chamber over the parlour we find a motley collection of possessions, including 66 trenchers. These were the square wooden plates that most people ate from before pewter came along for those who could afford it. It’s interesting that they are being kept. There is also a desk, another storage chest and 3 more cheeses, a salting vat and several lids and measures, scales and weights, corn and coal sacks.
Now out on the farm.
The first items on the list are ‘3 stocks of bees’.
Traditional bee hives or skeps. Public domain image Wikipedia
This item provides several insights into the Fox family’s household management. Bee keeping was a highly skilled activity, and therefore not as common as might be supposed. The swarms were kept in baskets called skeps. It’s important to note here that the inventory was taken at the end of December, and that the presence of ‘three stocks of bees’ implies live bees. However, at the time it seems that only highly competent bee keepers kept their swarms through the winter since to do so involved the painstaking and likely painful operation of moving the swarm to a new skep so that the year’s store of honey and wax could be harvested from the old skep.
Due to the hazards involved, it was more usual for keepers to kill their bees (by digging a pit and placing the skep over burning sulphur paper which gassed them). The skep contents could then be drained, strained and stored, and a new skep prepared in hopes of capturing a passing swarm the following spring (also a hazardous pursuit).
Crops and animals
There seems to be a considerable stock of oats in a barn on Stanley Moor, around £2,000 worth in modern terms. Also a good amount of hay. There are 4 cows, 2 bullocks, 2 pigs, 4 calves on Stanley Moor, 2 calves at the farmstead (presumably to ensure the cows kept producing milk), and 30 sheep.
Farm equipment includes a cheese press (an essential item), 3 carts with harness, ‘all husbandry gear’, and ‘all hustlements’ which is a handy (if annoying) term covering ‘the usual odds and ends’ not considered by the appraisers to be worthy of individual listing.
Finally there is list of debts owed and payments due.
There is nothing obvious in the inventory to suggest William Fox was engaged in lead mining, though he does have three carts and two lots of weights and measures. On the other hand, his brother was a yeoman farmer-miner in nearby Foolow, and owned the rights to several lead rakes at the time of writing his will in 1690. Farmers, as free miners, operated under the jurisdiction of the barmote courts, which were answerable to the monarch under the auspices of the Duchy of Lancaster, and they often had claims to mineral rights on or near their farms, working them in the winter months when there was no other farm work. Some farmers also provided transport services, shifting ore to local smelting mills.
Otherwise, these brief documents of William Fox’s worldly possessions give a picture of busy and enterprising farming life – not rich by any means, yet with all necessities well covered; the potential to live well enough and maybe make some money too.
And so what happened to Mary and her family after William’s death in 1710?
Skimming the Hope parish records provides a few glimpses, the first being another sad event following William’s death. In April 1711 George died. He was 18 years old. Then in September 1712 there’s a marriage between Sara Fox and Joshua Marshall, and in 1714 in Great Hucklow this same couple have a son, Thomas. This could well be Mary’s eldest daughter. Robert, the last remembered in his father’s will, married Sarah Bagshaw in June 1724 at Bakewell (both of Great Hucklow) and then lived a long life, dying twenty years a widower at the age of 86.
I’ve found no further records relating to Mary and Martha after their mention in the 1710 will, but the youngest brother William appears in a legal document drawn up by his mother Mary in 1731, not long before her death. In it she hands over to William all her worldly possessions in return for a yearly annuity of £5 paid to her at Michaelmas and on Lady Day. The agreement is signed and sealed by Mary, and proved by the delivery of a napkin to William. It’s annoying there isn’t an inventory accompanying this property transfer.
Presumably Mary continued to live in the family home with William. (He in fact only got married in the month following her death – a breach of decorum perhaps). And of course I’m itching to know more of her domestic circumstances after twenty years a widow. Was she the careful bee keeper in the family? Was it she who worked the stocking frame? Or rode the mare to Hope or Hathersage markets, taking the latest batch of stockings, carefully stowed in the cloak bag? We’ll never know. She died in Great Hucklow in November 1733, aged 67, and was buried some miles away in the quietness of Hope churchyard along with a host of ancestors and the rolling Derbyshire uplands all around.
copyright Tish Farrell 2022