Being a Time Lord

Since returning from our summer holidays there has been a huge range of work coming in to TSL.  I was chatting with my sister about some of the jobs that I have been working on, and was struck by the variety, the different periods of history, the different locations of the manuscripts that come across my computer screen.  Reading eye witness accounts of the battles of Blenheim and Ramillies in the morning and by the afternoon wondering whether it was mustard gas, or wounds that had caused that World War I veteran to be transferred to a hospital, instead of heading back to the USA with his mates.   I have had the pleasure of reading manuscript letters from Millais and Ford Maddox Brown, and just a little while later I am sitting in the room of a 16th century yeoman, conjuring up images of him lying on his sick bed, watching as he looks around him and decides who should have the silver candlestick, and who the pewter pan.

This work takes me not only around the world, but back in time…. surely that is the definition of being a time lord?

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Building from the ground up

Still working on transcribing the weekly accounts books for the building of an early 18th century English stately home, and I realise how unaware I have been of the labour, logistics, and scale of the work involved in building before the days of the builders’ merchants.



Look up at that brick facade and remember that each and every brick was dug out of the local clay, put in a mould made by the local carpenter and blacksmith,

                                         brick moulds 3

fired in a kiln built by local labourers,



stacked in a clamp, and manhandled up to the masons who fixed in it place with mortar made from lime, the product of a lime kiln that was built on site also, mixed with sand dug from local sandpits.

And then think that at every stage from raw material through to the hands of the masons, the bricks were transported, by the thousands, in carts, barrows and by hand.  The accounts tell me that in one week alone 30,000 bricks were needed!  And for each firing of the brick kiln and the lime kiln fuel had to be brought in, whether faggots of wood, made by the thousands in the local woods, or coals, brought in by the ‘chalder’ (a measure varying in quantity from 32 to 40 bushels), cart load after cart load.

I had never given much thought to the fact that buildings were created out of the raw materials of the local area, and that meant digging them up, cutting them down, quarrying for them, and transporting them.

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30 Rods dug this week

How long is a rod?

Again working on transcription of the account books for the building of a stately home I find myself wondering how much digging Francis, William and Thomas have been doing this week, as it is measured in rods and I have no idea how long a rod is.  That’s easy enough to find out, I thought, I’ll just have a quick look on the internet.  But as with kilderkins and hogsheads, where the sizes of the various barrels differ according to the nature of the contents (see my earlier blog on this subject), a rod is not a straighforward thing.

Looking at Wikipedia (yes, I am aware that it isn’t always a completely reliable resource, but useful nonetheless) I find to my surprise that there is actually a table included in the description with 55 entries detailing the different lenghts of this measurement from place to place.   The rod as a surveying measure in England was not standardised until 1607, and only phased out as a legal length of measurement in 1965.  If the table is to be believed the length of a rod could vary between 1.5 metres and 5.9 metres.  That would make a significant difference in the labour required by my Francis, William and Thomas, who were being paid 2d a rod.

Fortunately the digging they were doing dates from shortly after the rod as a survey measure was standardized by Edmund Gunter in England in 1607 as one-fourth of a chain (of 66 feet (20.12 m)), or 16 12 feet (5.03 m) long.   Fields were measured in acres, which were one chain (four rods) by one furlong (in the United Kingdom, ten chains).

Although the account book doesn’t specify how deep was the trench that they were so busy digging, it does tell me that Francis was paid for digging 30 rods in one week, or about 150 metres.  Work that would keep him warm in the cold winds of January, but it is to be hoped the ground wasn’t frozen hard.

ditch image

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The Stately Homes of England

We are currently working on transcribing account books associated with the building of a stately home in the 17th century.  This amazing resource gives week by week expenditure, detailing everything that was needed, including labour, for the building of a new country residence for one of the nobility.

As I sit here transcribing once again I find myself transported back in time, I am given a window into the past through which I happily gaze.  I see before me the labourers digging, and digging, and digging.  A vast amount of soil was dug up and moved to make way for the foundations, and to landscape the gardens.  I have visited several stately houses but never before have I given any thought to the people who actually laboured in their construction.  I now find myself thinking how welcome the regular income must have been to those engaged in the building and gardening work.  Week after week the same men, and a few women, were engaged to prepare the ground, transport everything from here to there, plant and weed.

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The owner of this house bought a huge number of plants.  His orchard was filled with crab apple, apple, plum and cherry trees.  I can only imagine what an amazing spectacle that must have been in the spring, when they were all laden with blossom.  His gardens were full of damask roses and briar roses, surely the scent must have been heady in the summer’s warmth.  He established a well stocked kitchen garden and filled his grounds with vast numbers of oak trees, ash and beech, buying acorns by the bushel.

When I next go visiting one of these mansions I shall look with fresh eyes at the building and the grounds, and think back to the men and women who created these glorious dwellings.

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For a Rinlett of Clarett wyne….

In a previous post (How many kilderkins in a hogshead) it states:

“The standardised measurements continued to be the subject of later statutes.  In 1423 an Act of Parliament first standardised the hogshead, though the volume varied by locality and content. By 28 Henry VIII, cap. 14 it is re-enacted that the tun of wine should contain 252 gallons, a butt of Malmsey 126 gallons, a pipe 126 gallons, a tercian or puncheon 84 gallons, a hogshead 63 gallons, a tierce 41 gallons, a barrel 31.5 gallons, a rundlet 18.5 gallons.

So half a tun is a butt, or perhaps a pipe; a third of a tun is a tercian, or puncheon; quarter of a tun is a hogshead; a barrel is an eighth.  Who knows how a tierce (at just a little more than a sixth) or a rundlet (at nearly a thirteenth) came to be decided on.”

Today, while working on transcription of a book of accounts of 1619 I found the following:

“It[em] For a Rinlett of Clarett wyne containing vj [6] gallons v [5] pintes at ijs [2s] the gallon”

And a quick search online led me to :  Rinlett, runlet — a cask or vessel of varying capacity (N.E.D.)

So is a ‘rinlett’ not the same as a ‘rundlet’ or was the barrel was only 1/3 full?

Given that in the same set of accounts the Clerk of Kensington was paid 4 shillings for a quarter of a year’s wages, it is to be hoped that the claret wine at 2s the gallon was good quality stuff.

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The old and the new

Although I had started a blog about things historical, I seem to have lost access to it.  So rather than waste the posts, which I think are interesting, I have reposted them into this new blog.  I hope you enjoy them, and sign up for emails letting you know when a new post is written.  I welcome all constructive criticism and comments.

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Fame, and fortune ?

It’s always nice when a client is pleased with our work at Transcription Services Ltd, and even more pleasing when they tell other people about us. Last month I was contacted by Atlas Obscura telling me that someone mentioned the help we had provided with reading old manuscripts. This online magazine was interested, and they got in touch with me to ask if I would do a telephone interview. I agreed, and shortly afterwards spent an hour chatting on the phone. They published an article on the 8th February which can be read here:

To my amazement this article generated a huge increase in visitors to the webpage, almost a thousand visitors within a couple of days. It was picked up by a local BBC reporter, and even more amazingly led to a short slot about me and my work being shown on the regional news programme this week.

Should I start my memoirs now?

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Bad and dubious debts – 2nd May 2017

Frequently inventories, particularly those of merchants, have lists of those owing money to the deceased. These are sometimes divided into ‘sperate’ and ‘desperate’ debts. Prior to transcribing these inventories I had never come across the word ‘sperate’, but once seen it is clearly the opposite of ‘desperate’, so I have a new word that means ‘hopeful’, which must be a welcome addition to a vocabulary.

But today I am transcribing an inventory, and had to smile, for in among the ‘Bad and Dubious Debts’ is one of 1 shilling and 8 pence owed to the grocer by

“Woman in a Green Gown”

I can see why the executors might conceive this to be a desperate bill. I wonder if the grocer himself extended this credit, or was it an underling, completely overcome by the elegance of the lady in the green gown, who later repented his action.

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Burnt china – 2nd April 2017

Another 18th century inventory that came my way recently made mention of

“Six Burnt China Plates, One Burnt China Tea Pott”

This was a term I hadn’t come across before, and puzzled me.  To burn a plate might be careless, but to burn six plates and a tea pot?  The items were also of some value, included in a list of the ‘China’ owned by the deceased.

So a little internet searching and I discover that:

“Burnt china” was another term used in the 18th century to differentiate porcelain from pottery.

Good to know.

During the course of my search online I came across the V&A ‘A to Z of Ceramics’ which makes for fascinating and very informative reading (see

Also those interested in tea might be interested to read the publication “Tea Drinking in 18th-Century America: Its Etiquette and Equipage, by Rodris Roth” available through Project Gutenberg at

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And so to bed (2) – 10th April 2017

Another inventory, another new term – what is a ‘Millpuff bed’?  One worthy Bristol merchant appeared to have several of them in his house.

A millpuff bed is a mattress stuffed with ‘millpuff’, which is a coarse type of wool ‘flock’.

It would seem that 18th century mill owners suffered from theft by their employees of scraps of yarn and waste fibres, and occasionally some better quality yarn, which were smuggled out of the mills and sold to ‘flockers’ who used these scraps to stuff flock beds. In many mill towns shops close to the mills would ‘swap’ with child mill workers, offering an apple for scraps of fibre.

wool flock 1

One of the sources of this waste fibre was the ‘millpuff’ created by the gigmill.  A gigmill was a mechanised carding machine that would raise the cloth to produce a nap.  It was a development that took the place of hand carding done originally with teasel seed heads and later with metal combs, and consisted of a main roller with several others gathered around it.  The mill would tease out the ends of the fibres to produce a nap, which would then be sheared or cut to the required height.  Originally only wool was raised, but now flannelette and cotton are raised, giving us the soft and comfortable brushed cotton of sheets, quilts and nightwear.





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