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A guest post by London Historians Member, Hannah Renier

Review: Ingenious Trade: Women and Work in Seventeenth-Century London by Laura Gowing.

ingenious women coverThink about it. What were London’s opportunities for women to make and keep their own money in the seventeenth century? Before I read this book, I thought they had almost none. Of course some could have worked within a family business ­– accounting, say, or serving in the tap-room, or setting their hands to any one of the practical trades. A widow might inherit a going concern, but inheritance seems like cheating. A tiny number of the best educated might find outlets for their talents in the arts, a precarious option.  The rest could be maids, shopgirls, street vendors, or famously, orange sellers at the theatre. Even unpaid housewifery meant heavy, exhausting work for poor women then. And the oldest profession was an option for some.

But making ‘their fortune’ implies enterprise, ambition and financial independence. Finding capital enough to start your own business, planning expenditure and paying down debt, building the business up and retiring rich, well, how could a woman, a chattel of a husband or father, do that in the seventeenth century?

This is what Laura Gowing, Professor of Early Modern History at King’s College, sets out to show us, concentrating particularly on post-Restoration London, when the spirit of enterprise was flourishing and the Bank of England would soon be founded.  She has examined hundreds of books, court cases, wills, digital sources, manuscripts and other records to build a picture of the lives of these women and their families. The result is surprising, and includes many instances of husband and wife running entirely separate, equally successful businesses. (They could not be sued for each other’s debts.)

Londoners had been moving west for decades, but their main financial and commercial centre was still the City, a closed shop. Among the network of often interrelated families associated with the City Livery Companies, membership was the closest thing to a guarantee of competence and trustworthiness. Membership of a Company gave a man the Freedom of the City, that is, permission to trade there and vote for the City Aldermen as a citizen. A woman could inherit the Freedom if her husband or father had been a member of any Company, however unrelated its name to the trade she proposed to follow. Also she should also be over 21 and a householder.

Without any connection to a Livery Company, a woman would have a much harder time raising capital to start a business anywhere. Two of the country’s retail engines of trade, Cheapside and the shops above the Royal Exchange, would be closed to her. So the option, for country gentry families, was to buy their daughters a seven-year apprenticeship to a skilled, usually female, Company member. Often she would be an expert needlewoman. Seven years of training in the City under such a Mistress endowed a girl apprentice with Freedom of the City – and of course contacts that might lead to her own business, marriage with a Company man, and the connection of her whole family to London merchants.

Up the long stairs from the main trading floor of the Royal Exchange, set around the walls, were scores of little wooden booths, barely big enough for two people to squeeze into, with display shelves in front that could be raised and locked at night to make the booth secure. Most were held by Company women who sold dress or upholstery fabric, bedlinen or bespoke clothing of some description, from handkerchiefs to hats and breeches and petticoats. These Mistresses took girls, and some boys, to work here as apprentice drapers or milliners, lacemakers, button makers, staymakers, tailors, glovers and so on.

The girls were usually aged fourteen upwards. The indenture, co-signed by parent or guardian and the Mistress (called only by custom the ‘Master’ of the craft), made expectations clear. For instance the apprentice must be clean and civil to both Mistress and customers, learn diligently, uphold the reputation of the business at all times and never reveal commercially confidential information to rival firms. The Mistress must treat the apprentice kindly, lodge her in comfort, and teach the skills of the profession without reservation.

Many of these girls would have learned basic mending and hemming before they arrived. Now that they were in the City, watching and listening, they would find out how to value the hundreds of different kinds of cloth, from heavy worsted to linen and gauze and paisley cottons,  that flooded into London. As beginners they would learn how to cut and shape rabbit fur, and to produce fine needlework and fastenings, and they might later become skilled at measuring, cutting, padding and patternmaking. They would have to know how to buy and sell in a competitive market, for Connections and Carriage were key to success as a saleswoman. ‘Carriage’ meant pride in appearance, a respectful and helpful demeanour as a saleswoman, and ability to negotiate a good price without anyone feeling hard done by.

Usually all went well. The seven years were served, the newly skilled young free-women took their own shops, and in due course trained other girls (often country cousins from the same family). Indenture fees and trading profits accrued; meanwhile a husband, also a Freeman, was doing much the same. Frances Spillett, who had become prosperous in her own right as had her husband John, retired to Hackney with him and both lived into their eighties. ‘Her estate included property, jewels and stock worth £600 in the Bank of England, an investment not mentioned in her husband’s will.’

Maybe because the older generation had been through the Interregnum when life was hard, and kept bleating on about it, the post-Restoration crop of girl apprentices included quite a few teenage rebels: apprentices who walked out half way through their term or were effectively sacked. Either way, there would be an attempt to recover the cost of the indenture. Gowing cites court cases where accusations from the apprentice of inferior accommodation, exploitation or even beatings were countered by the other side’s attack on her dishonesty, surly attitude or slatternly appearance.

Some young women gave up apprenticeship in favour of marriage. To complete one’s training, and claim the Freedom, only to marry a man who did not belong to a Livery Company, was a major mistake; marrying out meant giving up her Freedom. Widowed, and in middle age, such a woman might well re-apply to take up her membership. The Company could, if its office-holders chose, re-admit her on payment of a fee, so that she would be able to feed and clothe her children.

Gowing has doggedly researched the backstories of individual successful City tradeswomen, and their families, throughout their lives. She has uncovered whole social networks that linked families and Companies together, like fungus that spreads below ground in a forest. She hints also at political networks within the network – Dissenters, for instance, working at the Royal Exchange.

This is a fascinating book, a magnifying glass into a corner of a long-gone world, and it sets a high standard for further work on London’s trades.

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Ingenious Trade: Women and Work in Seventeenth-Century London (284pp) by Laura Gowing is published in hardback by Cambridge University Press.

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