Inventory reveals what 17th Century people wore

During the process of transcribing probate documents of people who lived in St Albans in the 17th century, the inventory of Robert Woolley was of particular interest.

Robert was a draper, or mercer, and the value of the inventory dated 1606 is almost £60, a considerable sum for the time, compared with the median value of the 28 inventories so far transcribed for the years 1600 to 1607 which is £29.97.

Mercers were considered to be the senior of the urban tradesmen of the period. The Mercers Guild in London was at the top of the Guild hierarchy. Robert Woolley was a prominent figure in St Albans society, having been mayor three times, in 1561, 1571 and 1578. The family lived at Harpsfield Hall, a substantial property located on the Hatfield Road and demolished in 1930 to make way for the aerodrome.

Robert’s inventory gives details of the wares in his shop and their value, totalling £27 8s 6?d (46 per cent of the inventory total). As well as shirts, stockings and buttons, the bulk of his stock comprised fabrics to be made up into clothes. Over 20 types of cloth are listed. Robert Woolley had seven varieties of russet, over 50 yards in total, at prices varying from 18d to 3s a yard. Russet was a low fashion material for general use as described in Textiles and Materials of the Comman Man and Woman, 1580-1660, edited by Stuart Peachey (Stuart Press, 2001).

The most expensive fabric in the shop was a dove-coloured kersey at 3s 4d a yard. Other main types of material on sale were cotton, canvas, fustian and ‘hempten’ cloth. At that time kersey and cotton were woollen fabrics, hempten and canvas were hemp-ased and fustian was a mixed fibre. Exact definitions are difficult to pin down as names changed over time and differed in different parts of the country.

The ordinary people of St Albans were not colourfully dressed at this period when only natural dyes were available. Most of the materials listed are quietly dull in colour: Grey, white, brown, mouse-coloured but there was a mallard-coloured kersey, ‘grene wodmole’ and some blue linen. The Oxford English Dictionary describes wodmole, or wedmole, as coarse woollen material).

This inventory provides some answers as to where Robert Woolley obtained his supplies of cloth. For example, the list includes Welsh cotton, Preston cloth, Dutch canvas and Holmes fustian. Holmes fustian was made in Germany, particularly in the Ulm (hence Holmes) area. The only clue to where he was dealing is in his debts, which show he owed money (30 shillings) to ‘Stubbs of Wyndsor for cloth’.

This article by Pat Howe, co-ordinator of SAHAAS’ 17th Century Research Group, was published in the May 2015 edition of the SAHAAS newsletter (No. 196). It was written in collaboration with Jane Harris, co-ordinator of work on the inventories within the 17th century team. Jane Harris and Scott Chalmers, of St Albans Central Library, transcribed Robert Woolley’s inventory, edited for publication to make it easier to read