Setting Affairs in Order During the Plague, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne 1636

9780300174472-1Keith Wrightson, Ralph Tailor’s Summer: A Scrivener, his City, and the Plague. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne is one of those cities that is rarely the focus of a plague study – an industrial town whose prosperity and continued existence was based on its economic impact. Coal was king in seventeenth century England and Newcastle had an abundant local supply that not only supplied southern England but was exported throughout the North Sea. The port brought the plague to Newcastle possibly from the Netherlands in October 1635, at least six months before it arrived in London. Initially the plague was light but it was percolating through the rats of Newcastle, and a note in May 1636 marks the the realization that the plague was intensifying.  Still, the port never closed entirely throughout the epidemic. Cities in southern England were willing to risk the plague to keep the coal flowing. Rather than isolate the city and close it port, they opted to board up the infected, their families and caretakers in their homes and quarantine ships. Wrightson hypothesizes that this forced quarantine/isolation was responsible for the high mortality rate within families. Some ships were even willing to visit the port and wait out quarantine more than once during the plague to keep the coal flowing. 

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Railph Tailor Scr.

Wrightson was first drawn to Ralph Tailor by his fancy autograph. He explains that this nearly illegible signature was an anti-forgery device. Scriveners made their living writing documents in the proper style for a court or business contract. Ralph Tailor was a young scrivener still trying to get established when the plague arrived in Newcastle in 1636. With due diligence and some personal risk, Ralph Tailor established his footing in Newcastle by writing wills for the stricken sometimes through boarded up doors and windows, and later estate inventories for their probate.

Plague response in Newcastle depended upon a spontaneous community assistance to be workable. Keeping families boarded up in their homes for weeks requires external support primarily from friends and neighbors. Someone had to bring them food and be their contact with the outside world including summoning Ralph Tailor to write their wills and other documents. It says something about the straights of poor women that they were willing to take jobs as ‘keepers’ (nurses) who were shut up in houses with plague infected families for a small wage. Social safety nets as we know them today did not exist, but neighborly safety nets did. People wove their own safety nets through relationships with neighbors, fraternities and guilds, and kin. While craftsmen and service providers like scriveners were in competition, they also worked together for the good of their craft to support each other and their industries.

Very little narrative information survives of Ralph Tailor or his customers. Yet, a few bare records of deaths and marriages along with the wills and related documents provides a remarkable amount of information about their lives. By comparing witnesses, beneficiaries and debtors in wills the web of community connections can be partially reconstructed. It is possible in some cases to track the plague’s path through these networks as people refer to each other as beneficiaries or recently deceased so that not only was plague hitting some families much harder than others, it hit their support networks as well.  Wrightson was able to divide the city into parishes, very uneven in size and economic status, as another view at how these neighborhood networks were faring on a larger scale. This is the type of painstaking historical research that needs to be done to understand pre-modern plague epidemiology. Very few cities have adequate, perfectly preserved data for modern epidemiological analysis. It takes a skilled historical epidemiologist to make sense out of these incomplete records and to resurrect data from the scattered historical remains in archives.

Ralph Tailor did survive the plague and went on to be a man of means in Newcastle. Fourteen of the wills written by Ralph Tailor during the plague survive linking him personally with 92 people who served as witnesses, clients, co-appraisers of inventories, etc. He married during the plague and furnished his first home with items bought from estate sales of some of the plague victims. (Buyers and prices are recorded for estate sales because they are part of the probate record.) He later became a notary public and diversified his business interests in Newcastle. Writing documents for people must given him the opportunity to learn of good deals. When the hearth tax was taken in 1665, the notary public Ralph Tailor owned a six hearth home “in Corner Tower Ward, a relatively wealthy ward located below Allhallow’s church” in addition to other homes in the poorer wards that must have been rental property (p. 149). Only 6% of the homes in Newcastle that year had six or more hearths.   He managed to remain a prominent townsman and contracted civil servant without becoming personally entangled in the political and religious wars of the seventeenth century within Newcastle and beyond. Eventually twice married, he left no children and his heirs were relatives of his second wife when he died in 1669. He was buried under a now lost memorial stone in Allhallow’s church yard with his first wife.

Wrightson’s microhistory provides a vivid look into life in Newcastle during the plague of 1635-6. This book will be of interest for those interested in plague in 17th century England, especially among craftsmen and port workers. Noble, elites and clergy are rarely mentioned in this book. Through the works of Ralph Tailor we see that extra-ordinary year through the life and work of an ordinary man.

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