Inventories in the Probate Records of the Diocese of Durham


9. A case study: Raiphe Smith of South Shields, 1628/9

The process of inventory-making and appraisement, with their attendant aims and problems, can be illustrated by some quotations from evidence presented in a Consistory Court case in 1628/9, between William Smith and Mary Smith concerning the estate of Raiphe Smith of South Shields.35
George Carr, clerk, was the curate of the chapel of St. Hilda at South Shields, aged 55. He gave evidence that he, this examinate, amongst others did not onlie write the Inventarie of the goods of Raiphe Smith deceased but also was one of the apprizors of the coble, whirrie [wherry] and halfe whirrie mentioned in this article [this question] and also of the clothes and apparell of the said deceased. All of which he saith were indifferentlie [unbiasedly] apprized and according to their true worth as by the said Inventorie remaineing in this Court upon record doth appeare for which he thinketh in his conscience at that tyme nor since any man would have given more for the same'. Also 'he this examinate did heare Marie Smith acknowledge that her husband dyed indebted at the tyme of his death the sum of 3 but whether shee hathe since paid the same or noe he knoweth not'.
Another appraiser, Thomas Mathew of South Shields, carpenter, aged 27 years, gave evidence 'that he this examinate amongst others was one of the apprizours of the goods of Raiphe Smith husband of ... Marie Smith which goods he saith were by them so indifferently [unbiasedly] apprized and according to their true worth as for his part he thinketh no man would have given any more for them, at which tyme he saith they did neither know or see any more or others of his goods then [than] in an Inventorie thereof made and by her the said Mary upon oath exhibited into this Court [as] doth and may appeare'.
A third appraiser was Tobias Hocknell of South Shields, aged 34, who said much the same as Thomas Mathew, that he did see no other goods of the said deceased then [than] such as are contained in an Inventarie thereof made and by the said Mary exhibited into this Court'.
In reviewing this material one notices how two of the three appraisers were concerned only with what they personally saw; the third (Carr) mentioned the debts, which must often have gone unrecorded in inventories, if there were no written evidence and those owed money did not claim it promptly. Other moveable goods which were not obvious or mentioned to the appraisers could be missed accidentally or on purpose. Sadly Raiphe Smith's inventory does not survive.

10. Chronological issues

The date of the inventory, usually given precisely, can be used to estimate the date of death, if this is not otherwise known from burial records etc. Usually an inventory was made soon after death, so the business could be settled, as comparison with burial dates shows. However, in 1608 William Gray's inventory was compiled by himself before death and the date of the will, inventory and funeral expenses in 1668 for Richard Skelton were all given suspiciously as the same day.36 A poor-looking inventory may be dated some years after a generous will was made and may reflect either a change of fortune or the desire some people have to be their own executors. Current reticence about personal wealth has long roots. There were ways of disposing of property before death which mean that an inventory may be true enough on the date it was made, but could be really just the residue of an estate.
Actual dates used can be interesting. An inventory made on Christmas Day (Thomas Roper of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1691) could indicate puritan sympathies as the Quakers disregard such feast days; Presbyterianism likewise disregarded some feast days; fifty years ago in Perth, Scotland, dustbins were emptied on Christmas Day. In northern England one needs to be on the look-out for other Scottish influences also. In 1668 the will of Thomas Wallas of Alston was proved. He dated his will 4 March 1652 and his inventory was 7 August 1652. Almost certainly the will came first. Had he used the English dating system he would have dated the will 4 March 1651, as in England the new year began on 25 March. However, Scotland changed to 1 January for the new year in 1600 and Wallas is therefore using the Scottish system. Alston was on the route of the Scottish drovers of cattle and sheep between the two countries and perhaps Wallas was a Scot. Thomas Lodge's inventory is dated 29 February 1675, no error but the use of the English system as 1676 was indeed a leap year.37 Whatever the date given it would signify the day on which all the valuations were assembled, as complicated estates would need different people to evaluate the various parts on probably different days.
After the Reformation the use of the years of a pontificate and the feasts of the church to date documents was increasingly replaced by the use of the regnal year, which in turn gave way to the anno domini system, encouraged no doubt by the difficulties of having to use two sets of regnal years with Philip and Mary and with James VI of Scotland and I of England. Most inventories are dated by date, month and anno domini in figures; the day of the week almost never given. The alternative year, e.g.1641/2 was often given for the dates 1 January to 24 March, as the inventories are mostly before 1752. I have not noticed anything to suggest that the dates on which inventories were made were in any way affected by the ecclesiastical rules on days when legal business or the taking of oaths could not take place.

11. Conclusion

The study of the Durham inventories, taken in their contexts, both of the surviving documentary context and of what we must try to visualise of the social circumstances which produced them, is thus an illuminating window into the formative elements of our present society.


35 ASC DDR Deposition Book V, 12, ff.104, 104v & 1194, 1629.
36 DPR, 1608, William Gray, will and inventory.
DPR, 1668, Richard Skelton, will and inventory.
37 DPR, 1691, Thomas Roper, inventory and bond 218.
DPR, 1668, Thomas Wallas, will and inventory.
DPR, 1675, Thomas Lodge, inventory, commission and bond 107.

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