Elizabeth Ashurst's household account book 1738-85

Elizabeth Ashurst's household account book
Kate Moss

Elizabeth Ashurst, née Hollis, was widowed in 1735, having only one surviving child, also Elizabeth. The Hollis family were cutlers, operating in the Minories, just outside the City of London, and a branch of that family lived in St Albans. Joshua Hollis, son of St Albans cutler Thomas, was apprenticed to his uncle John, Elizabeth’s father, a member of the Draper’s Company, in 1719, but had died in 1732 and was buried at St Peter’s.

Elizabeth’s husband, William, had inherited the estate at Castle Hedingham in Essex, but on his death, Elizabeth had to withdraw in favour of William’s brother Thomas and return to their City of London house in the parish of St Margaret Moses, Friday Street. Their newborn son William had been buried in the churchyard there only two years before.

Elizabeth’s country home in St Albans

In 1738, the mansion house at St Julian’s estate on Watling Street, more or less opposite St Bartholomew’s R.C. Church, had become vacant, following the death of Samuel, heir to Viscount Grimston at Gorhambury. He had been occupying the house since his marriage in 1730 to Mary Lovel, having bought the contents from the descendants of Admiral Henry Killigrew, who had lived there for many years.

Elizabeth Ashurst took out a lease on the house as her country home. From that date until she died in 1785 she kept accounts of all her household purchases. Kate Morris found the two volumes of these accounts in the private archive at Castle Hedingham, now the home of Jason Lindsay and his family, still part of the families who have owned the estate for centuries and who now run it for weddings and other events. With their kind permission, the books have been photographed and are now being transcribed by some of the members of the St Julian’s Research Group.

Thanks to the devotion of our team during these long weeks of lockdown, all fifty-two files of volume one have now been transcribed onto Excel spreadsheet proformas, ready for analysis. Some very interesting aspects of life then are already obvious, and some highlights can be shared, though full analysis will have to wait for completion of volume two as well.

How do you spell ‘mackerel’?

Fortunately the handwriting is quite easy to read and there were not many occasions when a word could not be deciphered. Spelling was not standard at that time and a glossary has been compiled for interest and future benefit. Who would have thought that there are so many different ways of spelling mackerel: Mackeral, Macqueral, Macquerall, Macquerel, Maqueral!

The nature and scale of household purchases in the eighteenth century is fascinating – her household consumed an enormous amount of meat, poultry, game and fish. Between 6 December 1744 and 8 June 1745, she paid for over 35 stone of (mostly) beef, veal mutton and pork, plus pounds and pounds of other meats, including offal. However large her household was, or how much she entertained, they certainly weren’t short of protein.

Turnpike tolls and mops

Other interesting aspects of life in that period on which light is shed include their washing and cleaning materials; their cooking and gardening equipment; their payments of turnpike tolls, bell ringers etc. We are, however, left with a lot of unanswered questions. There are, strangely, no entries in volume one for fruit and vegetables after 1745. We know there was a garden at St Julian’s but did she really grow everything she needed from 1745, including the Chinese and Seville oranges she bought earlier? One wonders, from the number of mops, brooms and glassware bought, if this reflected frequent breakages, or wear and tear.

We have already identified many of the long list of tradespeople named in the files, some clearly from St Albans, and some from London. We hope this will help trace her movements back and forth, but also the nature of her circle. So far both her London and St Albans suppliers seem to be from the non-conformist community, reflecting her family’s inclinations. It will also be interesting to compare her purchases with consumer spending today. Work will soon begin on volume two.

Additional transcribers are welcome to join our team, so do get in touch if you would find it interesting. Contact either: kate@englishinfo.biz or sandyanorman@gmail.com