[In our series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a single page from their manuscript. In this post, Brodie Waddell introduces us to the main character in his new article on ‘Writing History from Below’ in early modern England.]
Between 1679 and 1699, an inconsequential tradesman named Joseph Bufton kept a chronicle of his town of Coggeshall in Essex. He wrote it in the blank pages of an old almanac, Rider’s 1677 British Merlin, in which he also recorded notes about local births, deaths, marriages and various other miscellaneous memorandums.
Between printed pages listing the saints’ days and predicting the weather in November, Bufton inscribed the events from late 1684 to early 1686 that he considered worthy of remembrance:
- [September 12, 1684, My Cousin Smith told me There was about 20 people riding to Sturbridge faire in an empty waggon that weeke] and the waggon overthrew, whereby 4 women were killd out right & 4 or 5 more had their bones broken.
- In November 1684, A new pew was set up in the Chancell near the door, by Samuell Sparhawk and Samuell Smith.
- In December 1684, It was said 7 Butchers were Robbed by 4 Theives of above 500 pound, about 200 of it of Nicholas Fosters and above 40 of Roger Mulling’s
- In January 1684 George Abbott went to be a Chimneyman.
- June the 19, 1685, Our two great guns were fetched away from the Church.
- About 4 July 1685, Robert Samson began to Sell beere.
- October 26, 1685, Edward Abbot began to sell beere.
- October 27, 1685, There was a Riding for Thomas Ramsey.
- October 21, 1685, Thomas Deane had a child by John Clark’s lame daughter, which was buried October 27, 1685.
- November 9, 1685, Richard Cook & one Pouter, a Broom man, were sent to Jaile for Robbing a house at Brackstead.
- In November 1685, A new pew was set up again in our Church where there was one set before in 1679 & pulled down in 1680.
- January 7, 1685, Benjamin Howard’s arme was Broke by young William Guyon
- January 9, 1685, Abraham Arnes Broke.
- January 20, 1685, John Guyon began to carry here againe.
- In February 1685 Young John Moty set up for a Shoomaker in the house where old John Rodly was newly gone out; there he had a shop.
- March 3, 1685, a young child was found in a pond of the backside of Sir Mark’s, which was Richard Pouter’s wife’s. The Coroner came the next day about it, & March 5th 1686 he and his wife were both sent to Prison to Chelmsford being suspected guilty of murdering the child.
We start with a fatal accident and end with a child’s murder, useful reminders that life could be nasty, brutal and short in seventeenth-century England. The two robberies recorded here reinforce our sense that rural Essex was no pastoral idyll, isolated from the notoriously dangerous streets of the rapidly growing metropolis. Moreover, the bankruptcy of Abraham Arnes reveals that Coggeshall’s traders were fully exposed to the harsh vicissitudes of the market economy.
Yet this was still a very small town. The local importance of the church and its furnishings is obvious from the two references to new pews being installed. Perhaps most tellingly of all, the community was tight enough to organise ‘a Riding’ – a loud and public humiliation – directed against Thomas Ramsey for some unnamed indiscretion. Evidently the parish church and the moral authority of the parishioners remained strong in the mid 1680s.
However, as I try to show in my article, this chronicle tells us just as much about the chronicler as about the town itself. Unlike some of his elite counterparts – the educated clerks and gentlemen who wrote more ‘official’ or ‘intellectual’ histories – Joseph Bufton studiously included unpleasant stories. The Pouter infanticide is the most notable example of this, but the sad note about the very short life of the illegitimate child of ‘John Clark’s lame daughter’ is even more striking. Such a miserable tale, lacking even the thrill of a murder trial, would have been silently passed over in any ‘respectable’ contemporary chronicler. For Bufton, though, a broken arm, a new shoemaker’s shop and the death of an unnamed bastard child were all worth recording.
His chronicle of Coggeshall was not a ‘political’ history in the conventional sense, even if it mentioned a few national events in passing. Indeed, it was not even political in the way modern writers of ‘history from below’ such as E.P. Thompson tended to approach history. Bufton never explicitly aligned himself with ‘the poor’ or the oppressed who occasionally appear in his chronicle. Instead, Bufton was political simply through his process of selection. Whereas many would have elided the stories of John Clark’s lame daughter and others like her, ensuring their lives were forgotten, this peculiar tradesman decided to record them. Thanks to Joseph Bufton, they have a place – however small – in history.
Source: Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, MS 8 (Rider’s 1677 British Merlin; ‘Joseph Bufton His Almanck 1677’), p. 87. The whole manuscript is now viewable on the University of Leeds special collections website. I have silently expanded contractions and added punctuation where necessary. I have also included in the transcription the beginning of the first entry which starts on the previous page.