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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One brass hearth & creepers, brass slice and tongs”….. – 5th March 2017

“One brass hearth & Creepers brass Slice and Tongs  –     £01      01s        00d”

While working on transcription of an inventory recently I found myself wondering ‘what is a creeper’ in relation to a hearth?  It was not a word I am aware of having seen before, so set me off in search of information.

I discovered that Google Books have scanned and made available a work dating from 1845 with the wonderfully snappy title ‘On the History and Art of Warming and Ventilating Buildings – By open fires, hypocausts, German, Dutch, Russian, and Swedish stoves, steam, hot water, heated air, heat of animals and other methods:  with notices of the progress of personal and fireside comfort, and of the management of fuel.  Illustrated by two hundred and forty figures of apparatus’ by Walter Bernan, Civil Engineer, Volume 1 [231 pages].  How could I resist?

Now I’m not sure I will ever get around to reading the whole volume, however I have found the information on page 160 to be very interesting, and I think worthy of sharing with you.  So, allowing Mr Bernan to educate us, we read:

“The ancient andiron, as has been stated, was composed of two standards, connected by a rod of iron, or billet bar, as shown in Fig. XXVIII.,


which is a sketch of the andirons that stood on the floor of the hall at Penshurst.  But when the fire was made in a recess that was very wide and deep, each standard was fixed into the back of the fireplace by a lateral bar, Fig. XXIX and Fig. XXX


that show the andirons in the hall at Vicar’s Close, Wells; c, c, are the standards, i the billet bar, and a the reredos, or hob that in deep recesses brings the fire more into the room.  When the fireplace was of moderate dimension, the andiron was moveable.

In the kitchen, where large fires were made, and large pieces of wood laid on, the standards and billet bars were proportionably massive and strong, but usually plain with very little ornament.  In the hall, that ancient seat of hospitality, they were also strong and massive to sustain the weight of the logs of the “glorious Christmas fire”.  These were more ornamental by the standards being polished and kept bright, or ornamented with brass rings, knobs, rosettes, heads and feet of animals, and a variety of fantastic and grotesque forms.  As it name imports, the implement, in kitchens and in the rooms of common houses, was wholly made of iron, sometimes the billet bar and foot only was of this metal, and the stem and ornaments were of copper as at Hengrave, or the standard was wholly of brass, like those in the long drawing room at Haddon Hall.  Others were highly gilt and enamelled with beautiful flowers in various colours, and disposed with great art and elegance.

Sometimes they were fashioned of more costly materials.  When Carr, Earl of Somerset, was married to Frances Howard, they received valuable presents from the court-favour hunters.  Among others, Sir Robert Mansel and Sir Robert Carey, each gave fire tongs, fire shovel, and creepers (andirons), and all the furniture of a chimney in silver; another cringer laid at their feet a “cradell of silver to burne sea cole in”.  Sir Charles Wilmot’s offering was a warming pan of gold; and at a feast made for the unworthy pair by the city of London, Sir Robert Ingram presented them will all the implements of a kitchen in silver.

The andirons, “like knights with their squires, were often attended by a pair of younger brothers far superior to, and therefore not to be degraded by the humble name of creepers” that are given to them in the Hengrave Inventory.  Indeed they often carried their necks half as high as their proud elders.  “I have a pair,” says a correspondent in the “Gentleman’s Magazine,” “in my hall, that are 2 feet 6 inches high, and much ornamented at the bottom; but there is something singular belonging to them, they have each a kind of round pan, about 4 inches diameter and 1 inch deep, hanging loose, whether designed for use or ornament I know not, but when I was a boy, they served me, and have done my children since, to make a noise with.”

These round plates at the top of andirons were a common ornament, and were almost as nicely polished as a convex mirror.  A pair at Wombwell Hall had armorial bearings figured on their discs.  The common sort of creepers had no standards, or very low ones, and their feet were connected by the billet bar.  The office of the creeper was the same as that of the andiron, to keep the ends of the brands from the hearth, and in order to produce a brisker combustion.  Andirons and creepers are still in use in many old mansions, in woodland districts where wood continues used for fuel.”

So with many thanks to Mr Berners I now have a clear idea of what creepers are, but what about that ‘slice’?

Well, my ever-handy “Words from Wills” by Stuart A. Raymond tells me a slice is a fire shovel, used particularly for taking ashes out of bread oven.  Its end was shaped like a spade or paddle.

I have also found at

that a slice is defined (among other things) as:

A plate of iron with a handle, forming a kind of chisel, or a spadelike implement, variously proportioned, and used for various purposes, as for stripping the planking from a vessel’s side, for cutting blubber from a whale, or for stirring a fire of coals; a slice bar; a peel; a fire shovel.
And in “The Age of Cunard: A Transatlantic History 1839 – 2003” by Daniel Allen Butler we are told:

“A stoker’s first task was to break up the large lumps of coal brought by the trimmers into something more manageable, so using their shovels and slice bars, they would reduce the larger pieces into fragments roughly the size of a man’s fist.  Next, timing his movements to the pitch of the ship, the stoker would swing open the door to a firebox and quickly thrust home his slice bar along the fire-grate, working it back and forth four times, once for each track of the grate, to improve the draft across the burning coals by breakins ashes and clinkers loose.  These were quickly raked into the pit below the firebos and the fire-door swung closed again.”

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Time for ….. tea, coffee, chocolate? – 12th March 2017

I have recently come across several inventories that tell me that in the kitchen are to be found a coffee pot and a chocolate pot, as well as the tea kettle.  I have tea pots and coffee pots in my own kitchen, but what is the difference between a coffee pot and a chocolate pot?

Well, it seems each pot is designed to increase the flavour and improve the delivery of the particular drink they contain.

Tea pots tend to be short and bulbous, thus allowing more space for the tea leaves to move in the pot, promoting the flavour of the tea leaves in the water.  Tea arrived in the UK in the 17th century, and was made in pots that at the time were indistinguishable from a wine ewer.  In 1694 the British East India Company directed that teapots made for them in China must have “a grate… before the spout”.  This was in essence a small sieve to strain out the tea leaves when the tea was poured.  The spout of a tea pot is always in the centre of the pot, and is generally short in length, presumably to make it easier to clear out those tea leaves that escape the strainer and clog up the spout.



Coffee pots are more slender than tea pots, to help the heat stay in the brew.  The spout of a coffee pot is usually at the bottom of the pot, which also helps the liquid to retain its heat.  The pot has a long spout, which makes pouring the dark liquid more easily controlled, and less likely to splash the fine clothing of the lady of the house.  Coffee pots sometimes share the ‘grate’/ strainer of the tea pot at the entry to the spout.


Chocolate, as it was originally made, was a more labour intensive operation that either tea or coffee making.  First the cocoa beans are roasted, shelled and crushed in a large mixing bowl.  The crushed cocoa beans are then transferred to a heated grinding stone, where using a rolling pin the beans are ground until they melt, and the liquid is poured into a container where spices, and at a later date sugar, are added.

grinding cocoa beans

The chocolate was harder to dissolve, and would settle to the bottom, and needed to be stirred, or frothed up, before pouring into the drinking cup.  For this reason chocolate pots tend to be tall and straight and the lid has a hole in it, or a removable finial, so that a swizzle stick (or molinet) can be inserted, which would be frequently turned to keep the chocolate well mixed.  The spout of a chocolate pot tends to be close to the top of the pot (though not always), and it can be quite wide, to allow the unimpeded pouring of the frothy loveliness that is a cup of real hot chocolate.  In the 17th and 18th centuries chocolate pots were mostly made of silver or porcelain, two valuable materials.  Chocolate was a rare commodity, exotic and expensive, and so was associated with luxury and was delivered in a suitably luxurious pot.

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Huckaback or Harateen? 19th March 2017

Inventories often feel to me like someone opening wide their front door and inviting me in to their homes, to have a good old nose around.  They can bring  to life the social history of different periods, give you a real sense of how people lived, and what was of value in their homes.  Walking with the appraisers from room to room, seeing in your imagination the room in front of you is much more satisfying if you have some clue as to what the unusual or obsolete terms mean.

The types of fabric used about the household are often specified, some of which are less familiar than others.  In this post I am putting together a list of fabric types, some I had heard of, others were new to me, which hopefully will add depth to the picture, fill in some of the gaps, and make the inventories clearer.  This list is far from exhaustive, but these are some words that I have come across in recent work.

buckram Buckram – fine linen or cotton; subsequently coarse linen stiffened with paste or gum.

stiffened buckram
– – –


Cambric, camerick – a type of fine white linen, originally made at Cambrai in France.  The term was also applied to a hand-spun cotton imitation.

cambric     – – –

camletCamlet – a fine, light linen made from a combination of wool, silk and hair, and especially from the wool of angora goats.  It is said to have originally been made from camel hair in the Middle East, but this is uncertain.  Frequently used for bed hangings, upholstery, and womens’ clothing

camlet gown

– – –

Cheyney – a printed woollen or worsted fabric, sometimes used for curtains


– – –

Damask – a rich silk fabric, woven with elaborate designs, originally from Damascus.  Later, a twilled table linen, with an elaborate design woven in, seen by the reflection of light; the term was subsequently applied to any fabric woven in this way.

– – –

Diaper – twilled white linen cloth woven with geometric patterns, used as towels, or napkins for drying hands during meals; also as table cloths.  Originally made in Ypres, Belgium, hence the name d’Ypresdiaper

– – –

Dowlas – a coarse linen or calico used by the poor for sheets, skirts, smockes etc..   Originally from Adoules or Doulas in Brittanydowlas-Linen

– – –

Drugget – a coarse woollen material, or perhaps mixed with linen or silk, felted or woven, sometimes printed on one side, and used for wearing apparel, or for table or floor coveringsDrugget Rug

– – –

Fustian – a coarse fabric made from a mixture of cotton and linen, with a silky finish, used for furnishings and heavy clothes; conjecturally originating in Fostat, Egyptfustian

– – –

Harrateen – a linen fabric used for bed curtains

harrateen backing of stitched work chair

– – –

Huckaback, huggaback – strong linen fabric with a roughened surface, used for towellinghuckaback towels

– – –

Turkey, turkey work – cross-stitched woollen carpet on a canvas backing, with a deep pile, woven from richly coloured yarn in the Turkish fashion, used as a covering for chairs, cushions, etc.turkey work

– – –

Twill – a coarse linen fabric in which the weft passes alternately over one warp thread and then under two or more threads, producing a lined effect; often used for bed coverings


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In the kitchen, one dog wheel – 12th February 2017

A 1732 Bristol merchant’s inventory has

‘In the Kitchen’

“One Dogg wheel in a frame” – valued at 6 shillings.

Knowing that there are ‘fire dogs’, metal bars for resting logs on in the hearth, I began by assuming that a ‘dogg wheel’ was something of the same nature, a metal wheel with some purpose in the kitchen.  And it is indeed a wheel, but a far more literal description than I had expected.

Since medieval times, and before the development of closed ovens, in larger houses, inns and palaces meat would be cooked over an open fire.  To make sure that the meat was evenly cooked, and not spoiled, it was necessary to keep the spit turning more or less constantly, and usually this was the job of the lowliest of kitchen servants, the ‘spit boy’.


This poor lad would sit by the blazing fire, sometimes protected from the worst of the heat by a wet hay bale, or a metal screen, turning the spit for hour after weary hour.


At some stage someone invented the dog wheel, replacing the poor, over-heated lad as a source of power with something resembling a modern day hamster wheel, powered by a dog.


This wheel would be set up somewhere in the kitchen, linked to the spit by a chain, and as the dog ran around in the wheel so the spit would turn, and the meat would be cooked evenly.



Over time a breed of dog was developed purely for this task, a heavy dog with a long back and short powerful legs.


The ‘turnespete’ is first documented in Arthur Fleming’s Of English Dogs (1576), which is a translation of John Caius’s De Canibus Anglicis, where it is said that turnspit dogs “so diligently look to their business that no drudge nor scullion can do the feat more cunningly.” These dogs had other names including ‘vernepator’ [Latin for spit turner], and Canis vertigus [literally ‘dizzy dog’ because it was constantly going round and round].



For a large joint, that needed many hours of cooking, the job of running in the wheel would be shared by two dogs, taking turns at the hard work.


Training of the dogs was often not a gentle process, with tales of hot coals being put in the wheel with the dog to ‘encourage’ it to keep running, or be burnt on its back legs.  In various descriptions the dogs are noted to have ‘unhappy’ faces, small wonder when they spend so many hours forced to constantly run without getting anywhere, with the smell of roasting meat that they could not reach.

They feature in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, where Dromio of Syracuse says “She had transform’d me to a curtal dog and made me turn i’ the wheel.”  Charles Darwin used turnspit dogs as an example of genetic engineering, saying ‘Look at the spit dog. That’s an example of how people can breed animals to suit particular needs.’

For some turnspits Sunday brought a short interlude of rest, when they were taken to church as foot warmers.  It is said that during service at a church in Bath, the Bishop of Gloucester gave a sermon and uttered the line “It was then that Ezekiel saw the wheel…”. At the mention of the word “wheel” several turnspit dogs, who had been brought to church as foot warmers, ran for the door. [Coren, Stanley (2002). The Pawprints of History: Dogs and the Course of Human Events. Simon and Schuster.]

Queen Victoria kept three turnspits as pets, though they don’t seem to have been generally adopted as family pets, and when mechanical methods were invented to do the job of turning the spit the dogs were no longer needed, and as a breed they are now extinct.


Illustrations taken from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales, published in 1800, showing a dog at work.  By Henry Wigstead – Henry Wigstead (1799) Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales: in the year 1797, No, 40 Charing Cross, London: W. Wigstead

The Illustrated Natural History (Mammalia), published in 1853 showing the conformation of a Turnspit Dog.

The dog wheel circa 1890, drawn in E.F. King’s Ten Thousand Wonderful Things.

 Annals of Bath, from the Year 1800 to the Passing of the New Municipal Act – Rowland Mainwaring, Mary Meyler and son, 1838 – Bath (England)

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