[In our mini-series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a page from their manuscript. In this post, Brodie Waddell explores the wider implications of a rather clumsy poem about the cloth industry written by a seventeenth-century tradesman.]
The Essex town of Coggeshall was not known for literary genius. It inspired no Hamlet nor Paradise Lost nor even a Pilgrim’s Progress. Its only published authors were two clergymen who spent a few years there in the 1640s.
However, in the late seventeenth century, it was home to a tradesman named Joseph Bufton, who filled up notebook after notebook with a diverse array of writings. He devoted a great many pages to chronicling his local community and the state of the nation as a whole, a practice which I discussed in an earlier post.
But he also filled many volumes with other sorts of writing, including devotional texts, financial accounts and even a bit of poetry. I’ve just published a new article in the Journal of Social History that looks at what Bufton and others like him can tell us about literacy, work and social identity in early modern England, so I thought I would mark the occasion by offering another page from his notebooks that illuminates some of these themes.
In 1688, he inscribed ‘some verses of my owne making’ about the cloth industry in his town…
In August 1688 I wrote these verses of Blase in a Book for the Combers, & after them these following things, & first some verses of my owne making[:]
As in all ages have been some that stood
Most nobly to promote the publick good
So in this present age some are inclined
The good of our fulling trade to mind
& have indeavord what in them doth lie
That to promote to all posterity
By keeping out Intruders from our trade
According to the laws before were made
Long may their memory be kept alive
By those that shall in after times Survive
Remarkable also in their Charity
(oh that it may remaine & never dye)
Such love unto their trade they now do show
As former ages here did never know
For they have of their own free will & mind
Agreement made by which they are designd
Each others wants at all times to Supply
Out of their Stock by their own Charity
Without assistance from another hand
Which should relieve all that in need do stand
May heaven bless their generous designe
And hearts of their Superiors incline
To favour & incourage them herein
That they may proceed as they begin
And may their good example now persuade
And draw in others of the fulling trade
To joyn with them in this their Enterpries
That none their small beginning may despise
This poem was placed in notebook filled with all sorts of texts related to his trade, such as the ‘ordinances’ of the ‘company’ from the 1650s and the ‘proceedings’ of the journeymen wool-combers from the 1680s. In fact, his own composition was written in between some ‘Verses of Blase from Colchester’ and a poem by an anonymous wool-comber. These simple rhymes came from a variety of sources, but they were united in their call for fraternity and solidarity within the cloth trade.
As you can see, in Bufton’s own verses, he wrote admiringly of the recent initiative of the combers ‘to promote the publick good’ and ‘the good of this our fulling trade’ by ‘keeping out Intruders’. He similarly commended their new plan to show ‘love unto their trade’ by establishing a stock to ‘releive all that in need do stand’.
The language he used here is revealing. It contained a telling slippage between ‘our trade’ and ‘their trade’. He was very much part of the broader fraternity and may have worked alongside the combers in the 1680s, yet he was also the son of a master clothier and would soon become one himself, if only temporarily. He therefore sought to support his brethren through his pen, as when he noted that ‘I wrote these verses of Blase [from Colchester] in a Book for the Combers’ and then added the ‘verses of my owne making’.
When considered together, these poems show how Bufton’s literacy allowed him to draw on these wider regional currents of occupational culture, record and share the words of poorer workmen, and contribute his own encouragement, all within a discourse that represented the trade as a single united fraternity.