This project is about Poole’s Maritime Heritage in the period 1580-1730 and as such it draws on research materials that largely concern the men of Poole in their different guises and occupations. But we wondered what ‘was life like’ for the women in that time period as they receive very little written recognition in their own right.
In an interview with Lyse Doucet for a Radio 4 programme in January 2018, Vigdis Finnbogadottir (Iceland’s first democratically elected female President in 1980) talked about the Icelandic fishermen who sent a long telegram in her support. We think this modern day quote is very relevant to women’s lives in the period we are talking about, 1580-1730. English fishermen used to fish in Icelandic waters before Newfoundland was discovered. Asked why she thought the seamen were supporting her, Vigdis Finnbogadottir said: “Seamen know so well the qualities and the capacities of women, because they (women) are there ashore and while they are out at sea and they (women) are taking care of the home and everything; they are taking care of the home, the finance minister of the home, the architect of the home, they (the seamen) come home for 3 days leave and everything is under control and they realise that that is a woman who has done that – a housewife has done that”
Women in the C16th and C17th were not admitted to the professions but they were often employed by fathers or husbands in their workshops and it was not unknown for the widow of a craftsman to carry on his trade. Women could earn money as milliners, dyers, embroiderers, bakers, brewers and confectioners. They were employed as washerwomen, nurses, midwives and domestic servants, in Poole, we know from sources like the 1574 census that many girls and women were employed in domestic service. In 1574, a quarter of the households had at least one maid servant, and 65 maids are listed in total.
One trade that women did pursue in their own right was inn-keeping. A 1620 list of Inn-keepers and alehouse-keepers includes six women including Mistress Field, as one of the four inn-keepers. The Melledge family owned Poole’s most important Inn, the Antelope and in a tax record of 1662, the widow Mrs Melledge was listed as holding the inn. This was probably Elizabeth, the widow of Micha Melledge, as a trade token of 1666 connects her to the inn. After Elizabeth’s death the Antelope came into the possession of Alice, the widow of Johnson Melledge who left it in her will of 1678 to her daughter, Alice junior, a very rare example of an unmarried woman inheriting property from another woman. Among other women inn-keepers were Rachel Lloyd of the King’s Arms and Mary Carter who ran the White Bear in the early C18th.
Not everyone treated women fairly ( in work that would be considered professional these days) for example, in 21st December, 1648, a nurse, Mary Freind, who attended to the sick and maimed soldiers in Poole garrison, by order of Col. Bingham, by the space of two years and upwards, and ‘made it all her labour, for which she never received any satisfaction,’ is to be paid £6 ‘ for satisfacc’on for her pains taken therein’.
In contrast to Mary Freind’s experience who was finally paid for her work, according to Mr Hutchins in The History of the Town and County of Poole, ‘in or around 1666, a young woman named Mary Cutler, was condemned to be hanged in this town for the murder of her baftard child: That dreadful difeafe the plague being then in this town, the fherrif granted her a refpite from execution provided fhe would attend the perfons afflicted with the plague as a nurfe; this fhe faithfully performed and efcaped the contagion, and in confideration of her fervices, the fheriffs and corporation made great interft to obtain her pardon from the king; but fuch was the juftice or cruelty of thofe times, that their felicitations were without effect, and fhe was executed near the entrance of the town (to the great concern of the Corporation and inhabitants) which place retains to this day the name of “Cutler’s Gallows”.’
When they married, the job of women was to keep the house and look after their families but no doubt they frequently also helped in their husband’s businesses. As housewives, women were kept busy baking bread, brewing beer as the water was unfit to drink, curing bacon, salting down meats, making jams, jellies, preserves, soaps and candles. Tending the garden, growing vegetables and herbs for the table and to make simples to treat common ailments; cooking, cleaning, washing, spinning wool and linen to make clothes, feeding the animals; keeping hens for their eggs and for the pot, possibly bee-keeping as well, with much of this produce being sold on a stall on market day.
Wealthy women supervised and instructed servants and were capable of running an estate and doing the accounts if their husband was away. Women could be named in their husband’s will to inherit the business – mainly because they knew how to run it. It was often in widowhood that women acquired some status and independence as property owners and executrices of their husband’s estates. In the early C17th, widow Helen Dolbery kept an inn and also leased the passage service from the Corporation. Edith, the widow of George Dackombe was listed among the 34 richest citizens in a subsidy list of 1628. Widows could also be vulnerable. In 1598, the wealthy widow Alice Green with her servant Agnes Beard were murdered in her house in High Street and her strong boxes broken open and ransacked.
Elizabeth Hyde is one of the few notable women in the latter half of this period about whom we have proven information. She was the only woman on record as signing bonds for cargoes of clay in the Poole port books. But best of all, (and I am now directly quoting from the article by David Cousins) in 1688, Thomas Hyde was in Rotterdam with a ship, at the time when William of Orange landed in the West Country. The Princess of Orange wished to send important letters to her husband, and approached the masters of several English ships to carry the letters back to William in England. However, they were apprehensive, as memories of the consequences for those involved in the Monmouth rebellion were still vivid. Elizabeth Hyde then travelled to The Hague, took the letters from the Princess, quilted them into her skirt, and carried them to William. As recognition for her bravery, the Hydes received a pension.
Away from the port, the main occupation was farming which did not provide sufficient for the families to live on so the men were fishermen also. Once Newfoundland was discovered and the vast quantities of cod reported in the seas, men equipped their boats with everything they might need to be away fishing for seven months at a time leaving their wives to run homes, businesses and their lives as best they could.
Pirates and slavers (usually one and the same) were a big problem to fishermen throughout the period; they could be attacked and taken anytime and sold into slavery. Sometimes it was possible for them to be ransomed and set free and it was their womenfolk who had to try and raise the money. A document exists dated 6th January 1697, concerning an appeal for ransom to free some Poole seamen held as slaves in North Africa. John King and Henry Hunt were held captive by the Turks and sent letters concerning their plight which Elizabeth King and Elizabeth Hunt (wife and sister to the men) put before the Mayor, Justices of the Peace, Aldermen and Burgesses of Poole Town and County, as they were too poor to pay the ransom themselves. It was suggested that to save these men, it was recommended that the money should be raised by charitable donation by ‘good and well disposed people not in the least doubting but considering the incertainty of the fortunes and chances of this life and that as charity is not only a great duty Incumbent on all, But alsoe very acceptable with God he loving a cheerful giver / they will answer the end thereof.’ The council stated that they would ‘ take and use all possible care for the safe and speedy remitting of all such moneys as shall be given towards the reliefe release and discharging of the said captives…’; this is surely an early example of crowd-funding.