Inventories in the Probate Records of the Diocese of Durham


6. Structure, accuracy and contents

Inventories appear on all sorts and shapes of paper and parchment. James Hall's in 1615 was cut to look like an indenture, a rare example of the exact fulfilment of the provision of the Parliamentary Act 21 Henry 8 cap.5 that the Bishop's registry and the executor or administrator have identical copies.17 This is a reminder that other (indented) copies of inventories which have disappeared from diocesan records may turn up in family papers, and vice versa. They are most often on one separate page, but also occur as booklets and in some Probate Registers, as appendages to the text of wills. Others are in the form of rolls, with the pieces of parchment or paper joined together in either 'exchequer' fashion, that is joined together by the top or same sides of each page or membrane, or else 'chancery' fashion, joined top of one to the bottom of the previous page or membrane, making a long strip.
The length and detail varied. A few Tudor ones were (until flattened) long parchment rolls. Andrew Gofton's in 1576 is over two metres long; he was a Newcastle merchant. In 1671 Richard Wright's inventory of household stuff and merchandise filled three long pages, but the four appraisers for Robert Shipley in 1691 declared him worth 24 and gave no details whatsoever! This contrasts again with the care taken over Mathew Bell's inventory in 1692 with a last line of 'small things unseen and forgetten' 10s. If the appraisers knew the goods were to be sold off soon, as John Hawkins' were in 1609, the arrangement of the inventory could represent separate lots for an auction.18
The commonest words one sees written as structural headings in inventories are, purse and apparel, or horse and apparel, kine, sheep, stock and crop, household stuff, plate, stock in the shop, working gear, money owing to the deceased, debts owed by the deceased; funeral charges being less common. The end totals are usually given in arabic rather than roman numerals and the dots of 'auditor's use' are rare. Totals were used to set the amount of the bond, usually double.
Inventories open by stating that they are a true and perfect inventory of the goods and chattels of the named person described as 'deceased, of (such a parish or place)'. This is followed with their description, (gentleman, maltster, widow or whatever) with the date of the appraisal and the names of the appraisers, whose marks or signatures will appear at the end of the inventory.
The truth and perfection of an inventory is variable. Quite apart from genuine mistakes self-protective or uninformed obscurity can be incorporated deliberately. Thus distant assets or cattle sent to graze in another place, like James Ridley's four cattle in 1619, might be overlooked, whilst in 1616 someone else's sheep got into Thomas Stranguish's inventory. There are, however, very few examples of an inventory being rejected at the Consistory Court probate office though in 1617, as already mentioned, Thomas Greenwell's inventory was considered inadequate and another inventory was required by a commission sent out for the purpose. The valuations contained in the inventories were supposed to provide a list of what the goods would be worth on the market, the witness testifying that the appraisal was 'honestly made ... no man would pay more'. Animals were described by stage of growth etc. and the agricultural season was obviously significant for the price of crop and stock. But prices of course depend on demand and condition: John Todd's goods were valued at about 75 in 1679 but were sold for 149 whilst, in 1622, it was thought advisable to sell the contents of Robert Garnet's inventory 'before they rot further'. Another barrier to a full and accurate record was the fact that probate documents were seen by officials and wills were public. For privacy's sake people could dispose of property before death in various ways, to avoid its mention in a will or inventory. In a time when the old often lived with their children, this undocumented transfer was relatively easy, and an inventory may not tell the full story. Henry Montfort, gentleman, for example had in 1691 only purse, clothes, books and his fowling piece, but no bed; obviously he was enjoying the comforts of someone else's house. Similarly in 1664 the inventories of the two Thomas Armorers of Belford, esquire and gentleman and of Jane Chaytor, a prosperous widow of Newcastle, mention no clothes. One wonders how often other all too obvious assets have been missed.19
The misleading story an inventory can give, if read alone, shows in the case of Mistress Mary Forster of Old Elvet, Durham City, daughter of Sir William Forster of Bamburgh. Her will, dated on 25 March 1689/90 and made when she was sick, gives legacies of hundreds of pounds and talks of her 'fortune and Estate whether left me by Deed, Will, or by what other means I am intituled'. Mary's sister, Frances, wife of Thomas Forster Esquire of Edderston, Northumberland, swore on 20 December 1692 to perform the will and to exhibit a 'full and perfect inventory'. Yet, despite all this evidence of wealth, her husband Thomas and John Forster, gentleman, of Bamburgh, signed the bond (249) on the same day, for only 100. The inventory dated three months later, 18 March 1692/3 is very brief: 'A True & perfect Inventory of what Mrs. Mary Forster deceased dyed possessed being her apparrell Apprized to the Vallue of 25.00.00 by us whose names ...'. The appraisers were two women, probably servants, who made their marks; a third person wrote the inventory. Had Mary really come down so much in the world, or was that inventory a gesture from an influential family to fulfil regulations, connived at in Durham? The prosperity of the Forsters of Bamburgh and the unlikelihood of Mary dying owning no more than her clothes must have been common knowledge.20
Room by room inventories look promising as historical sources - like that of Dorothy Dykes in 1688. Among other things room names can indicate the changing use of space in a house. In 1679 Jane Shafto had in her house in Newcastle both an old and a new hail. In the delightful inventory of Anne Hickson in 1689, her rooms are named 'Flower de Luce' 'Castle' and 'the Rose' etc., giving an indication of the interests of the family. However, inventories can be misleading in reconstituting the shape or room-division of a house, in that some rooms might contain nothing worth mentioning, or might be let out individually (or as a whole floor), to someone else. Thus, in 1693 when Nicholas Rand, baker and brewer in Newcastle had let a room to Mr. Denham, it is clear that the furniture in it belonged to Rand, but when John Gray of Claypath, Durham City, died, his inventory, 1668, incorporated a separate list of his father's possessions in the house of the deceased. How often this must have been the case and not be mentioned; those dying with few possessions in one room, as Gray's father had, may well have been enjoying all the plentiful amenities of the rest of the comfortable family house surrounding what could appear on paper as an apparently lonely one-roomed abode. An inventory may be true and perfect, factual and complete, but it is only so as far as honest appraisers did or could make it - and to the extent that the authorities required or would tolerate; later readers need to be wary of arguments from silence or making assumptions not in the minds of the appraisers.21
The goods and chattels of an inventory were in the main the personal, moveable goods, house contents and equipment for work. These are listed first and many inventories include no further items, but as society moved further from subsistence agriculture to having assets in forms such as plate (or 'Playet' 1577 William Brandling), leases, bonds or business investments, unpaid legacies or debts, so these also are cited in inventories. Freehold and copyhold land were not relevant for inventories but some leases, like that worth 30 for a modest dwelling house and 6 oxgangs of land held by Bartholomew Aynsley of Egglescliffe in 1587, could be transferred for a cash consideration to someone else and so occur in inventories. A good example is provided by the lease valued in one of Thomas Burdon of Denton's inventories in 1626, whilst George Langstaffe's inventory in 1675 valued his Vane lease, king's rent and tithe rent. Some arrangements are mentioned so infrequently, however that, considering the large estates spread across the diocese of Durham, it must be assumed that their omission was intentional. It is anomalous that the occurrence of valuations of leases in inventories is neither deleted when it occurs or requested when it is omitted.22
Another abstract asset, treated as moveable where saleable, is hired pasturage. The value of grazing rights on common land is not listed in any inventory, but occasionally one glimpses private arrangements, as in 1619 when Richard Welsh's inventory included, valued at 5s., one beastgate in John Welsh's pasture and the same year when Richard Ouston of Sheraton Grange owed 1 8d to John Widefield the cowhird, not of Sheraton, but of nearby Hart.23
Assets in bonds mention the amount of cash concerned 'due upon bond' but do not often give the reason for the debt. Many debts had no written security and depended on good faith. References to the South Sea Bubble, the rise and fall of a fashionable company for trading in Spanish America which made and lost many fortunes in the period c.1707-20, occurs in the wills of people living then, like those of Margaret Sanders and Elizabeth Hudleston, dying in 1729 and 1730, but not apparently in inventories where one might have expected to find them.24
The business debts, or 'shop' debts, are sometimes listed separately from the more personal debts. These latter offer useful insights into a family's way of life, and, more broadly into economic patterns and personal business contacts. William Akenside in 1690, for example, owed money for coal, for his servants' wages, for the price of a cow, for malt and grain and for the teaching of his children. He also owed cash to one person by written bond and to a second, who had lent to him without written evidence, 'as he saith'. The inventory of Robert Hutton, tanner of Barnard Castle, in 1664 shows economic patterns and personal business contacts in a region, listing 37 book debts, bonds and bills.25
Funerals sometimes figure in inventories under the heading of debts. The expenses of George Lewen's in 1665 included at least 43 gallons (195 litres) of punch! For Thomas Forster's funeral in 1648 a separate inventory was made.26
The legal right of a widow to a third of her husband's goods is something that figures in a few wills, however inventories are not structured with that in mind, nor have I noticed it actually mentioned in inventories except for a revealing note added to the inventory of John Kaye who died at Sherburn [Alms] House in 1665. This reads 'Isabell Key widdow and relict of the deceased saith that her widdows bedd was not apprized, consisting of one paire of sheets, 2 bolsters, 2 short codds, one blankett and one Coverlett and noe more save a Chist to lye her Cloaths in worth 2s which she hopes by custome has been allowed to others and wilbe unto her'. One wonders how widespread was this custom of which the probate records mention so rarely.27


17 DPR, 1615, James Hall, will and inventory.
18 DPR, 1576, Andrew Gofton, inventory and will in Register V, 34v-35.
DPR, 1671, Richard Wright, inventory.
DPR, 1691, Robert Shipley, will, inventory and bond 180.
DPR, 1692, Matthew Bell, inventory, commission and bond 260.
19 DPR, 1619, James Ridley, will, inventory and bond 179.
DPR, Probate Act Book 11, 1616, f.134v. Stranguish's inventory does not now survive.
DPR, 1617, Thomas Greenwell, will, inventory and commission.
DPR, 1679, John Todd, inventory.
DPR, 1622, Robert Garnet, inventory.
DPR, 1691, Henry Montfort, inventory and bond 140.
DPR, 1664, Thomas Armorer, esquire, inventory.
DPR, 1664, Thomas Armorer, gentleman, inventory and bond 122.
DPR, 1664, Jane Chaytor, will, inventory and bond 41.
20 DPR, 1692, Mary Forster, will, inventory, commission and bond 249.
21 DPR, 1688, Dorothy Dykes, inventory.
DPR, 1679, Jane Shafto, will and inventory.
DPR, 1689, Anne Hickson, will and inventory.
DPR, 1693, Nicholas Rand, will, inventory and bond 176.
DPR, 1668, John Gray, will and inventories.
22 DPR, 1577, William Brandling, inventory and will in Reg. IV.
DPR, 1587, Bartholomew Aynsley, will and inventory.
DPR, 1626, Thomas Burdon, will and inventories.
DPR, 1675, George Langstaffe, will, inventory and bonds 263 & 323.
23 DPR, 1619, Richard Weishe, will and inventory. DPR, 1619, Richard Ouston, will, inventory and bond 148.
24 DPR, 1729, Margaret Sanders, will.
DPR, 1730, Elizabeth Hudleston, will.
25 DPR, 1690, William Akenside, inventory and bond 11.
DPR, 1664, Robert Hutton, will, inventory and bond 156.
DPR, 1619, Michael Wilson, will and inventory. His debts are in the will, not the inventory.
26 DPR, 1665, George Lewen, will, inventory and account.
DPR, 1648, Thomas Forster, will, inventory and bond 54.
27 DPR, 1665, John Kay, inventory.
< Previous page Previous page Next page Next page >