The Woolcomber’s World, Part III: Rich clothiers, poor combers and the obscurity of early modern occupations

Brodie Waddell

Whether you’re a historian, a hairdresser or a helicopter pilot, you may well define yourself by your occupation. The same was true in the early modern period, as when legal scribes added ‘labourer’, ‘weaver’ or ‘yeoman’ after each and every name in their records.

Joseph Bufton, the Essex diarist and sermon-goer, was no different in some ways. His father, John, was listed as a ‘clothier’ in at least four documents between 1645 and 1692. His brother, also John, was likewise a ‘clothier’ in 1671 and 1695. Joseph himself was described as a ‘clothier’ when he served as a trustee for a local charity in 1695 and again when he made up his will in 1718. He was, then, a clothier in a family of clothiers.

So why have I titled this series ‘The Woolcomber’s World’? I’ve used that label because Joseph Bufton was – I think – a woolcomber for most of his life, closely linked with the trades of fulling and combing throughout his time at Coggeshall.

Isaac van Swanenburg's 'The Removal of the Wool from the Skins and the Combing' (1595)

Isaac van Swanenburg’s ‘The Removal of the Wool from the Skins and the Combing’ (1595)

The evidence for this comes from yet another almanac-turned-notebook, a Goldsmith’s Almanack of 1686, which Bufton later described as the one which ‘has the orders in Comber’s book, &c.’. In it he recorded the ordinances of his guild, warrants from magistrates to protect the craft, the articles of the journeymen’s ‘purse’, and of course several lengthy poems lauding the glories of the trade.

His guild was officially ‘the whole Company of the occupation trade & mistery of the Clothiers Fullers Baymakers, & new Drapers in the towne of Coggeshall’. However, both Bufton and Essex magistrates usually simply called them ‘the Company of Fullers’. Bufton recorded the names of the two ‘Wardens’ that they elected each year from 1659 to 1698 and also noted the eleven ‘orders’ that served as a sort of constitution for the craft. The orders, probably dating from 1659 if not earlier, decreed the strict enforcement of seven-year apprenticeships, the exclusion of ‘strangers’ and the annual celebration of ‘their Feast & Guild day’. The guild was still active in 1710, when the local authorities confirmed its by-laws, but the severe depression in the Essex woollen trade in the early eighteenth century may have brought it to an end as I haven’t found any subsequent references.

Various cloth and wool trades, including fuller and comber, from 'England's Great Joy and Gratitude' (c.1700).

Various cloth and wool trades, including fuller and comber, from ‘England’s Great Joy and Gratitude’ (c.1700).

The Company of Fullers was a broad institution that probably included essentially all the men active in the wool and cloth industry in Coggeshall, from the journeymen fullers and combers who cleansed and prepared the wool to the prosperous traders who sold the finished product to London merchants. Joseph Bufton’s father was likely in the latter group as he was listed as a ‘clothier’ and had a large house with five hearths by the 1670s. Joseph, by contrast, seems to have been an apprentice and then presumably a journeyman until perhaps 1694 when his father died and Joseph may have taken over the higher position at the ripe age of forty-four.

Indeed, we can see Bufton’s close association with woolcombing most clearly in the late 1680s, when he was already nearing forty, for it was then that he was involved in establishing the ‘Combers Purse’, a sort of insurance scheme for journeymen ‘for the help of such of us as may by sickness lameness or the want of work fall into decay’. The combers described themselves as ‘we poor labouring men’ and hoped for encouragement from ‘our good masters’, so they were clearly skilled manual workers rather than prosperous middling traders. Bufton, as was his want, not only recorded their eighteen ‘rules & orders’, but also some verses apparently of his own creation:

Come on brave noble hearts

Behold & take a view

Lets bravely act our parts

In what doth here insue

For now we do intend

A purs there shall be made

On purpose to defend

And help the Combing trade

When men grow poor & low

And into want do fall

By sickness as you know

Or have no work at all

From our kind Charity

Such help there shall be found

As may their want Supply

And more & more abound

The Combers’ Purse did not last long. In April 1690, wrote Bufton, ‘the Combers Broke up their Purse’ because one of their members was ‘being so unreasonable’. Whereas the Company of Fullers lasted at least fifty years, this journeymen’s club survived for only two. Still, Bufton and his brethren clearly took great pride in their craft and had worked hard to organise themselves ‘to defend And help the Combing trade’.

The specific language used by Bufton in both this poem and some other verses on the wool trade is very revealing, especially when seen alongside the practical implications of the various ‘orders’ and ‘rules’ created by these men to govern their working lives. As I discuss elsewhere, we can see in this little notebook the importance of manliness and fraternal loyalty, of protecting privileges and mutual charity, and of regular sociability within the craft.

However, I think these notes are equally important for what they say about the ambiguous nature of work and occupational identity in this period. Just as Bufton moved easily between the religious spheres of ‘Anglican’ and ‘Dissenter’, so too he shifted between the worlds of the prosperous middling clothier and the poor labouring comber. His father and later Bufton himself were firmly in the former, but much of his adult life was apparently spent as a humble journeyman. It is notable, for instance, that – unlike his father – Bufton never served in a parish office such as overseer of the poor.

Indeed, the distinction between ‘middling’ and ‘plebeian’ occupations should not be overdrawn. Mark Hailwood, in a forthcoming article in TRHS (now here), shows that ‘tradesman’ could be an identity that encompassed both traders and workers. Likewise, although most early modern historians probably think of ‘clothiers’ as wealthy employers or merchants, it could also mean simply ‘a maker of woollen cloth’. The OED notes several writers referring to clothiers combing (1377), carding (1575) or fulling (1828, U.S.) wool. In other words, the working lives of clothiers, fullers and combers may have overlapped in seventeenth-century Essex.

So, what does Bufton and his notebook tell us about work in this period?

Well, Bufton was part of both a well-established fraternity based on prosperous master tradesmen and a short-lived sub-fraternity – a sort of guild within a guild – of poorer manual workers. Moreover, Bufton was more than just a passive member. He seems to have been their unofficial record-keeper and contributed to their identity by copying and composing numerous ‘verses’.

Bufton, then, was closely integrated into the broader ‘fellowship’ of the wool trade, which included the ‘middling’ and respectable, but also the ‘poor’ and precarious. Was Bufton an exceptional case, an amphibian who moved between two very different worlds of work? Or was he a typical early modern worker, a tradesman with strong ties to the craft as a whole despite its obvious diversity?

7 thoughts on “The Woolcomber’s World, Part III: Rich clothiers, poor combers and the obscurity of early modern occupations

  1. This is fascinating Brodie, thanks, and its a rare chance to be able to explore the issue of occupational identity with reference to a concrete individual to complement the explorations we have based on collective institutions such as guilds and on portrayals of occupational identities in drama or popular literature. What you have found here chimes with a lot of what I have found in my work on broadside ballads: that there was a certain fluidity to occupational identities. An apprentice shoemaker, for instance, might at times think of themselves as an apprentice and at odds with their master; at other times simply as a shoemaker and distinct from other less worthy trades (shoemakers certainly thought they were the most noble of crafts); and yet again in other contexts they may think of themselves as a ‘tradesman’, part of a collective identity with other trades, and as distinct from farmers, or from wealthy merchants and landowners.

    It seems that those working within the wool trade could likewise don a number of different occupational ‘hats’: at times identifying as a poor labourer or journeyman within the trade and distinct from their masters; at other times as a ‘clothier’, a worker in a particular industry with a shared set of interests stretching from its apprentices to its merchants. The broader conclusion to draw from all this, it seems to me, is that occupational identities could operate on a number of different levels. It was not necessarily the case, as historians have often argued, that occupational identity in this period tended to create a narrow ‘craft consciousness’ – a rigid identification of a worker as, say, ‘a shoemaker’ or ‘a weaver’ – that mitigated against broader collective identities amongst workers (and, ultimate, a sense of class identity). I would argue that occupational identities were fluid rather than rigid, and a given individual, like Bufton, might see themselves as having a range of work-based identities in a range of contexts: he was a poor comber, a clothier, a journeyman, a tradesman. If occupational identity operated on these various levels, it seems plausible that a broader sense of collective worker identity would not necessarily have been undermined by ‘craft consciousness’.

    Anyway, more on that when my article comes out in December! It would be great to have others’ thoughts on these issues shared here….

    • This is really interesting; both your blog, Brodie, and Mark’s reply. I don’t often spend very much time thinking about occupational identities, but I was encouraged to a bit when I gave a paper at a BA-funded workshop on ‘the early modern career’ last year, organised by my Birmingham colleagues Tara Hamling and Tom Lockwood. The event encouraged us to reflect on whether there were any parallels between early modern ‘careers’, and the experience of forging a career as a scholar of the early modern. I spoke about the Tudor musician and composer Thomas Whythorne, whose extraordinary ‘autobiography’ survives and is relatively well known as one of the first works in that genre.

      What struck me about Whythorne, is how important his identity as a musician was to him, especially when his career wasn’t actually doing too well. Quite often he had to work as a teacher to make ends meet, but it was incredibly important to him to establish, both to himself and his various employers, that he was not a servant, but a skilled musician. This extended to distinctions about where he ate and lodged, with whom, and how he negotiated relations with those who may (or may not) have been his social superiors. These distinctions were often subtle, but of obvious importance. A sense of a career is clearly something which can only be constructed retrospectively, but throughout our lives we tell stories to give meaning to our choices, or to the circumstances which fate deals us. I’m therefore fully persuaded that we’re talking about an aspect of identity which is fluid, polyvalent, and closely linked to changes in context and circumstance, both communal and individual.

    • Mark: Glad it chimed with your own research on this. Yes, Bufton’s case seems to show a concrete instance of occupational fluidity as he adopted different labels (comber, clothier) and different social positions (labouring, middling). In many situations this terminological fluidity would have be accentuated by very real economic circumstances. With Bufton, as with many other artisans, it was a life-cycle change as he shifted from apprentice, to journeyman, to (probably upon his father’s death) master. Likewise, we know that many people had bi-employments (farmer-weavers, etc.), which would have also made their occupational status difficult to pin down. That said, I think that Bufton’s ‘fluidity’ may have been limited in one key respect: he was firmly based within the wool trade throughout his life. He may have moved between different types of work (manual, wholesale, retail) and different statuses (poor, middling), but he remained loyal to the Bishop Blaise, patron of the wool industry. So perhaps because of the diffuse nature of the wool trade in England at this time, he was able to both adopt a varity of different ‘occupations’ whilst still maintaining a strong sense of work-based identity?

      Jonathan: Thanks for sharing Whythorne’s case. It sounds fascinating and highly relevant to this whole issue. I quite like the idea of occupational identity as a narrative that we tell ourselves and try our best to act out to others, even when circumstances change. This, I suppose, is where sources like Bufton’s notebooks and Whythorne’s autobiography interact with the popular culture of the time, such as Mark’s tradesman ballads or handbooks on trade, music, etc. The latter provide simplified, idealised images of particular ‘occupations’ or even ‘careers’, that individuals can use as models for their own less-tidy stories.

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