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The Collation

A 17th Century Letter Collection, Part 3: Farming in Early Modern England, 1630-1632

A section of a handwritten letter

Part 3 of 3

In this final installment of a survey of the Powell Letters (X.c.51), we come to what was certainly the core of the correspondence: reports on running the farms. As the major source of their income, the aristocrats who inherited these properties were deeply interested in their success. They monitored events closely and reserved the authority to conceive or approve major projects. They could be relied upon to become annoyed when they did not receive regular updates in the form of weekly letters, for whatever reason.

Farming has never been easy work. In 1630, managers Thomas Crompton and John Beale faced many of the same challenges that farmers do now: bad weather; infrastructure falling apart; government officials and regulations; successfully raising, processing, and transporting crops; keeping livestock healthy and finding them sufficient grazing land, fodder, or feed; etc. etc. etc. Necessarily, farmers have always been stalwart and resilient, although no one can blame them if they are also pessimistic, cynical, and somewhat resigned.

Most of the letters are sent from one one of two “personages” (as used here, a farm or estate):

  1. Westonzoyland Manor, in Westonzoyland, Somersetshire. The church is in the center of town. The manor house and its outbuildings were across the street, and the vicarage was next door to the church. Both residences were part of the Vanlore/Powell estate.

  2. Pengethley Manor is in what is now Peterstowe, Herefordshire, to the north of Westonzoyland. Most of the original manor house burned in 1826, but an image labelled as “Ross On Wye, Pengethley Entrance Hall, 1546 1826 Destroyed By Fire” survives. The manor has been rebuilt since and changed hands. Its most recent incarnation is as a hotel; you may be able to spend the night, if you are in the neighborhood.

I. Upkeep and Weather Damage

Upkeep is an ongoing problem. When Crompton arrives at Westonzoyland, he finds much to do. The dwelling house is dilapidated: “100li.1 will hardly set [it] in repayre” (letter 1). Whoops, make that really dilapidated, with a detailed survey and the cost rising to “at least £160” in a later letter:

The dwellinge howse is very much. out of repaire and all the
vpper windowes are much brooken, and the Glasse that remaines
is not worth any thinge; The dwellinge howse will Coste, to bee
mended as it shoulde bee at the lest: 160li: and to pach it, willbe
but mony Cast away: and the Truthe is: it is pitty that any
Good Houshould stuffe should bee sett in it, as it is:/ (letter 14)

Other buildings are also in disrepair:

one of oure strawe howses2 was blowen almost dawne3, before
wee came heather/ which caused mee to send for Carpinders,
and they haue sett it vprite & layed a new seill4 (letter 2)

Small section of handwritten letter
X.c.51 (2) detail

Even farm buildings currently in use need work. The horse stable needs a new floor, and indeed, the entire great barn floor needs to be replaced as well. To protect the horses, Crompton takes a deep breath and refloors the stable on his own initiative. To do this, he takes logs stored on the green and has them sawed. Because he did the work before getting approval from Lady Vanlore, who owns both logs and stable, he presents it all very carefully. It shows clearly how he is stuck in the middle: on the one hand, he is the expert on-site; on the other, he has no final authority, and must obtain permission long-distance from nobles who may well have different priorities than a professional farm steward:

I desire likewise that my lady: Vanloore shoulde knowe, That I haue
presumed to sawe sum of the Timber, which was almost spoyled a
lyinge in the Greene; . (to plankes:) and haue planked the stable
all new; which was great neede; my master5. can very well testifie./ (letter 14)


I hope the plankinge of the Stable will not much
anger my lady: because I kn^ew not where else
to sett the markitt Horsses, and vntell that was doone6
I coulde not sett them there without daynger;
nither haue I meddled with any other repayracions7
but what must of nessessitie, be downe./
The Great Barne flower8 haue extraordinary
neede to bee all stocked vp9 and new made, and
nowe it is empty. there will not bee such an
opertunitie for the doeinge of it, God knowe when;
but vnlesse my lady: sent mee word to doe it
I will not meddle;/ (letter 16)

While the neglect is being rectified, the weather interjects from time to time. In letter 3, Crompton reports:

Vpon the last munday, was soe greate a winde, That I thinke it hath doone my lady: Twentie nobles10 worth of hurte, in vnslattinge11 her howses here.

Letter 4 (Feb. 6), records much rain and high water, and very unruly winds for the last 2 weeks. We get details of the “vnslattinge” of letter 3, as the wind, “hath vncouered the greate Barne in diuers places. & likewise the dwellinge howse, & Bakehowse; and hath ouer throune12 greate parte of a nother strawe howse; and yester day beinge fryday wee had two greate stormes of hayle:/”

Sometimes, though, a weather disaster[?] is unwittingly helpful:

[On my return,] I founde all well. The mudd beinge
Carried all out before the first glutt of rayne, and all the
rest of the soyle in that Barton13; and layed on the vpper
Creffte14 besides./ which is allmost enough for that Creffte./ (letter 18)

Otherwise, things just need to be fixed:

I desire your. ladyshipp: to accquainte my master. … that the. Kitchin Chimny is mended./ (letter 14)

or improved (gilded?), as requested:

I desire your. Ladyshipp: to tell
my Master. I haue tricked vp15 the Piggeon howse to his minde; (letter 4)

Small section of a handwritten letter
X.c.51 (4) detail

As usual on farms, there is always something that needs fixing in some degree, and the farmer keeps one eye on the weather.

II. Commodities, Gardens, and Farm Animals

The manor at Westonzoyland has a very wide variety of crops and farm animals. The major commodities include corn16, beans, and peas (rose and white), and the straw of all of them. In addition, the estate sells apples, and raises other fruits17. They grow flax and hemp, and plant a number of gardens with onions, leeks, cabbages, carrots, turnips, parsnips, and saffron and other herbs. I find the onions particularly enjoyable. There are an amazing number of idiosyncratic spellings for “onion” used before 1700 in the Oxford English Dictionary. Evidently the word is a borrowing from the French, and all bets were off. Here they appear as “Ineons” and “onyons.” Evidently they had a polarizing effect then as now, for many reasons:

Onyons (an vnprofitable commoditie) haue taken vp a great deale of time
it hath beene the night worke of men and women for this fortnight past
and yet not finished. (letter 29)

A section of a handwritten letter
X.c.51 (29) detail

As for farm animals, they keep horses, of course, for work and transportation; sell wool from sheep; and raise kine18 and pigs, ducks and chickens19, and turkeys and geese. The horses alone are named, and their health and offspring are of particular interest. Initially I could not discern for certain whether “Doll” was a horse or a human: “I hope your ladyshipp: haue received. my last letter. which doeth mencsion of Nan, & Dolls safe ariuall at weston:/” (letter 15) However, it becomes clear later that Doll is definitely a horse, who has, very regrettably, become unwell:

Doll is as yow left her, but shee shall not want for
lookeinge vnto whilst I ame here./ the others mares
foote is almost well:/ (letter 18)

She eventually, to my personal consernation, dies: “Doll died about the latter. end of this weeke last past.” (letter 22)

III. Grain Sales & Transport

Evidently local town fairs offered both retail sales and a wholesale commodities exchange. Newly arrived in Westonzoyland, Crompton checks out the Bridgwater fair, 4 miles away. He comes away glum: “a man cannot sell aboue 6. busshels in a day, but wee must lett that alone tell the wayes be better. (to goe to the markits.)” (letter 1). Not only that, but “I dought wee shall make but little of our strawe; because the winter. was soe farr spent before wee came;” (letter 1). However, by Jan. 21 (letter 2), he has squared his shoulders and seen his way clear to sell 950 bushels of barley and 8 bushels of wheat. He also is selling all of the barley and bean straw “as fast as I cann, haue it Thresshed as yett:/” (letter 2). Set expectations low, and look good when things go well!

Current commodities prices are never far from their minds. Generally, in the letters they are discussed in conjunction with strategizing: what commodities and how much of each is in the barns, what is or isn’t ready for sale yet, and what has just been sold and for how much. In this way current grain and livestock prices find their way into many of the letters.

Wheate is here for six shillings and sixe and fowre peence
a busshell. and Barly at 4s: 8d:/: and Beanes .3s .8d: & .4s: (letter 18)

In letter 3, the transportation issue comes to the fore. Crompton sells 500 bushels of wheat at the Bristol fair, to be delivered to Bridgwater, downstream from Westonzoyland on the River Parrett. However, in letter 5 (Feb. 14), all comes undone:

I doubt20 the Mayor of Bridgwater will not suffer21 my Chapman22
to Carrie away my wheat, for it must bee delivered at the key23 of
Bridgwater, his vessell beinge soe bigge it Cannot shute24 the
Bridge:/ and if I cannot vent25 it that. way my lady: may keepe it
this three yere; for it will bee an endles trouble & Charge to
send it all to the marketts; and besides) the markitts will not vente it
God knowes wehen; & nowe the prises of wheate with vs begine
to fall:/ I am to delivered my wheate the 10o: Aprill:

A section of a handwritten letter
X.c.51 (5) detail

If this current deal falls through, he counsels just storing the wheat long-term for later sale. Transport to market by other means would be difficult and expensive. Then, when it arrives, the market vendors might not have the seller’s best interests at heart; as wheat prices are starting to fall, Crompton fears that the vendors would close the sale when convenient for themselves rather than swiftly, to secure the best deal for the seller. However, long-term storage against a rise in prices can lead to problems with the authorities, as can be seen a year and a half later, on Nov. 25, 1631:

Certaine of the Iustices; of peace weare
yesterdaie at Bridgewater to inquire by vertue of lettres from the councell
concerninge the hoardinge vp of the last yeeres corne, & not sending the same
to the Markette, and towching secrete transportacion of corne this last
yeere. What good may come hereby, experience teacheth. Wheate is dearer26
now then it hath beene of late, and the price of Beanes riseth, but Barley
is at a stande. wee haue a great deale of course27 Barlie. (letter 30)

Soon Crompton has a bigger problem than boat size or possible prosecution for hoarding, though: simply getting the chapman to show up. On April 21 he writes:

My Chapmans, day is past a fortnight28 a goe, I meane for
my wheate, and I here nothinge of him as yett; I must buy
horsses & pack saddles to send it to markitt, & will sell
all before I cum to Lundon (if it please God) (letter 14)

But wait, there’s more; on May 3:

my Chapman for wheat is not yett cum
but I herd of late, hee will cum shortly:/ (letter 15)

Regrettably, there is no mention of this situation in letter 16 (May 9), and the next letter is dated October, so we never find out exactly what happens with that wheat. Such is life working with original sources.

However, Crompton is no fool, and as early as March of 1630 he starts purchasing horses, tack, and carts with a view to being able to harvest and transport the estate’s grain to market without hiring others:

Maddam) wee must keepe 4 Mares or Horsses all the yere longe
to goe to Markitt, & then if your. ladyshipp: or I, may take, or
buy sum reuercion29 of my lady: Vanloore; whereby oure horses
may bee keept in worke when they goe not to markitt./ (letter 7)


I haue sett the bringinge in of my harvest ^(for :40li::30) except Weston feild
alone, which I meane (if it please God) to bringe it in with my
owne horse Teeme/ I haue bought two Carts & sum olde tacklings.
but I must buy two good Carte Horsses, & better Tacklings/ I
thinke to keepe noe oxteeme here./ for the Horses which sen
bringe in my haruest, must serue for markitt horsses./ (letter 8)

Either it is taking a good while to get everything necessary, though, or grain transportation is rather a larger job than he had expected, because by May 9 he is making it work, but only sort of:

I haue soulde :480: busshells of Beanes at 3s-2d-31 the
busshell, & did Carrie them all with my Neighboures helpe
to the water side, fryday & yesterday./ (letter 16)

A section of a handwritten letter
X.c.51 (16) detail

Even though they only went as far as the bank of the River Parrett, where a boat would transport the beans downstream to Bridgwater, the neighbors had to pitch in.

IV. Grazing Land

Feed for farm animals is a constant concern. Grazing land for cattle, horses, and sheep is particularly problematic at Westonzoyland at this time. It is not that the estate has none at all; there are 18 acres of meadow ground32. When Crompton arrives, however, it is, ah, not currently available:

… but for winter. paster
here is none to bee had 6 or 7 miles, & for meaddowe I
must pay 23s: an acre. our 18: acres will not bee uncouered
With water, vntell it be next Whitsuntide;33 (letter 7)

In letter 1, Crompton argues that Lady Powell should not rent the Westonzoyland estate from Lady Vanlore for more than £500,

… any man that takes it must Rent Meaddowe
grounde a greatdeale or else hee will not bee able to hould it longe,
for Mries: Croydon hath all the meaddow grounde to heir howse,:/ (letter 1)

The short-term solution for that spring: there is no alternative but to rent (letter 4, Feb. 6); while Crompton has not yet purchased cattle or sheep, he has foaling mares that need care. Now they have fodder, and in summer, they will have the 18 acres (dried out by then), but “here is not Grasinge Grounde ground to keepe 4 keine vntle the latermath34 of the eighteene acres cum in:/” (letter 4) The alternative to renting pasturage come spring is turning the mares and their foals out “in the Common, which will bee very short feed for them, & not foott;35” (letter 4), which is not feasible. Thus,

if my Master. please I will rent sum meadow grounde, & Grase sum
parte of the eighteene acres; and then here will bee exceedinge good
keepinge for the Mares; which I hould to bee the best course:/ (letter 4)

Section of a handwritten letter
X.c.51 (4) detail

Simultaneously, Crompton maps out a long-term solution. If Lady Powell takes the estate, he suggests converting the barley crofts36 to pasture:

I will haue as much soyle as I can gett & lay vppon
them, before the grasse springe, & make pastur. of them
for that will bee all the pastur. grounde yow will haue,
which will bee but poore pastur. this three yere, let vs
doe what wee can./ (letter 1)

He returns to this idea in letter 4:

The eighteene acres is all the Meadowe Grounde wee haue; and
here is (nither willbee) any Grasinge Grounde, vntell the Crofts bee
made fitt, which will bee 4 yeres hence; but one pleck37 behind the stable
which. will not summer two keine:/

So we have the commons, the better meadow ground, and grazing ground, which apparently is the best.

Problems with pasturing have a way of popping back up in unexpected ways. In February, 1631, we find Beale most disgusted:

Baker of Otherea38 vpon Monday last earlie in the morninge came to me, willinge me
to fitche our sheepe owt of his grounde at Lye, meaning the 5 acres there.
I told him wee had put some of our sheepe into our owne grounde there. I did
litle thinke that you had rented it of him. The ffriday before, the sheepe
and Lambes which weare put there, weare hunted owt and one ewe and
Lambe drowned. I conceived vpon his wordes that he or his assigne had
chased them owt, and I wished he had told me so much rather, before our
sheepe had beene drowned, but he denyed the chasinge of them. I told
him he had dealt dishonestlie in putting owt the old tenante withowt
warninge, he answered that meeting with Ieffrey and demaundinge of
him whether you meant to contynue his tenante, Ieffrey answered, he
could not tell, and withall said, that he would haue had money of
Ieffrey, but Ieffrey denyed him, and therefore he was to provide where
he could, I told him, if he had come to me, I would haue furnished
him. … (letter 34)

V. Honest Dealing (or Lack Thereof)

Finally, a rather large amount of ink is spilled complaining about being taken to the proverbial cleaners in one way or another by virtually everyone associating with the estate. While Crompton is not immune, John Beale is particularly frustrated. One gets the impression that he is an outsider attempting to deal with a small, tight-knit community, that neither respects him nor appreciate an imperious demeanor. Crompton appears to avoid this problem, either through familiarity or superior social skills. A fine example of such problems is the story of the sheep immediately above, in letter 34. However, that is only the beginning. There are the couriers39:

I received. noe letter. with the sacks, as I
haue writt, but that. letter. which should a cum with the Sacks
I/ received this morninge sent from Bridgwater./ The Carriers (for
all theire protestacions) doe play the knaues40 with mee most
Grosly / (letter 7)

Likewise, there are unnamed, unapprehended thieves:

I am sorie, that I must write vnto your Ladyshipp of our losses, On Tewisday was
sevenight41 in the daie time one of the best Turkeys was stollen owt of one of
the Bartons42, or owthowses, One of them before that time was missing, and at
length founde sittinge vpon two egges, the rest had beene taken away. That
night next after the losse of the Turkye one of those which belonge to our howse
came not to bed vntill one of the Clocke after midnight, but I cannot
accuse him. (letter 31)

A section of a handwritten letter
X.c.51 (31) detail

Then there are those renting out grazing land or farms at exorbitant prices in broad daylight, or worse, engaging in duplicitous negotiations, as Baker of Otherea (he who swears he didn’t chase the sheep off the rented property above) appears to have done in another, complex altercation with Beale:

… I since desired Richard Kelley to talke with him and to send me his
answere, but he hath dealt with me as others doe, full of promises &
emptie of performances. Parsons was with me to haue dealt with him for
5 acres for 3 yeeres, his price is 20li. or neere thereaboutes. I found
by Kelley, that Parsons had beene with him abowt it. I dare not to
be too bold with the subtill laddes of theis partes. I protest vnto you: I
can not finde one man in whome I can put my confidence. (letter 34)

Even tenants of the Powells or Lady Vanlore are not immune to the Dark Side, when they feel they can get away with it:

Walter left nine hoggs here; 8°: them where sould before I came,
the other wee founde here full of meazells. & is dead; most of the
mony Phillipe haue received. sithence43 our cuminge heather,: but for howe
much they were sould for I cannot learne: (letter 5)


The heriott44 was praysed45 at 3li- 10s./46 before I came, but they abuse
my lady: for Godfree) who was the womans hussband; in her sicknis
sould awaye the best yoke of Oxen hee had, for 14li:47 sum say, or nere
vpon, shee beinge then very likely to die:/ (letter 5)

In the end, Beale was unable to function effectively, and had to be replaced by Crompton, who apparently was as successful in his second tenure as in his first.


Much of this post is not particularly uplifting; as with the news today, tragedies, problems and frustrations tend to be highlighted. However, there are joys and victories as well on the farms. Animals recover their health: “your. Coachmare Besse is well and lustie againe; withall the rest.” (letter 12) Babies are born:

My Master. his Saddle mare Called Croydon foaled the
6th: of this present Maii, betweene 8. & 9. of the Clock in
the morninge, a horse Coulte, of a light Chessnett Couller,
with. a braue ^white starre in his forehead, beinge nowe
4. dayes oulde & lusty; [and after some initial difficulties]
shee entertayneth him as
louingely as any mare can doe a Coulte./ (letter 16)

Servants act commendably:

William doth looke carefully to the
messinge48 of his oxen. I finde him honest, & willing to doe any Chore
abowt the howse. (letter 29)

While it is true that everyone worries about and prays for everyone else, their social network sustains them, then as now, as is reiterated in Crompton’s post scripts:

Not forgetting my Brothers
my Cisters. and my Service and loues,
to my Ante, my falentine, mries: Iane
Ioane Pensiue, walter, Peter. william Coole
Charles Henry and all the rest:/
from Pengethley the last of October./

your: ladyship: poore Servantt tell death:/
Tho[mas]: Crumpton:/
(letter 17)

A section of a handwritten letter
X.c.51 (17) detail

And finally, it appears that they have all the ineons they can eat.

These few glimpses of both the usual and unusual in the world of the Powells, their retainers, and their neighbors, as well as much else, unfolded to me as I laboriously transcribed the Powell Letters. Not all correspondents in the Folger manuscript collections are as engaging, detailed, and intriguing as Crompton and Beale, but it is well worth looking for others; you never know what window into the past you may find your breath fogging up.

  1. 100li. = £100
  2. For wind blowing down straw houses, cf. The Three Little Pigs; who knew?
  3. dawne = down (not attested in the OED, but it’s got to be it. Crompton seems to be unusually free in the matter of vowel selection; see note 14 below)
  4. seill = sill: “1.a. A strong horizontal timber (occasionally a stone or iron substitute for this) serving as the foundation of a wall (esp. in the building of framed houses) or other structure …” (OED)
  5. Sir Edward
  6. doone (also downe) = done
  7. repayracion: “1.a. An act of replacing or fixing parts of an object or structure in order to keep it in repair, or of restoring an object or structure to good condition by making repairs.” (OED)
  8. flower = floor
  9. stock vp = to stock (up): “II. To pull up or fell. 6. To root up, pull up by the roots (trees, stumps, weeds, etc.); to extirpate by digging or grubbing; to fell (a tree) by digging round and cutting its roots with a mattock or similar instrument. … b. with up (very frequent); rarely out.” (OED)
  10. noble: a coin valued at 6 shillings 8 pence. Thus, 20 nobles is over £6 ½.
  11. vnslattinge: cf. slat: “1.a. A roofing-slate; a thin slab of stone used for roofing.” (OED)
  12. ouer throune = overthrown
  13. Barton: “2. a farm yard (in the modern sense); 3. A demesne farm; the demesne lands of a manor, not let out to tenants, but retained for the lord’s own use.” (OED)
  14. Creffte: [my theory: a particularly idiosyncratic spelling for croft, which Crompton spells elsewhere as crofts (plural, letter 4), crofte (letter 3), and croffts (plural, letter 1)] croft: “1.a. A piece of enclosed ground, used for tillage or pasture: in most localities a small piece of arable land adjacent to a house.” (OED)
  15. trick vp = trick (up) “5.a. transitive. To dress, array, attire; to deck, prank; to adorn (usually with the notion of artifice). Const. with, in. Also intransitive with it. Also figurative. 5.b. Often strengthened with up, off, out.” (OED)
  16. In the European sense: grain crops, not maize; in this case, they are barley and wheat.
  17. Crompton mentions receiving obtains cherry and plum grafts from Lady Powell in letter 8.
  18. Kine = cattle
  19. cf. letter 13: “i0: younge ducke chickinge, & sum 50: henchickinge;”.
  20. doubt: “II.5.a. To dread, fear, be afraid of.”(OED)
  21. suffer: “II.13.a. To allow (a thing) to be done, exist, or take place … archaic” (OED)
  22. chapman: “1.a. A man whose business is buying and selling; a merchant, trader, dealer. Obsolete or archaic.” (OED)
  23. key = quay: “A man-made bank or landing stage, typically built of stone, lying alongside or projecting into water for loading and unloading ships.” (OED)
  24. shute = shoot “4.a. With object denoting what is passed through, over, or under by ‘shooting’: (a) To pass quickly under (a bridge) in a boat …” (OED)
  25. vent, vente: “1.a. To sell or vend (commodities or goods); to dispose of by sale.” (OED).
  26. dearer: from dear, “1. At a high price; at great cost;” (OED).
  27. course = coarse.
  28. fortnight: two weeks. My theory is that if the wheat is due at Bridgwater on April 10, the chapman needs to be at the estate several days before that in order to load and transport it.
  29. reuercion = reversion: in this case, “3. a. The right of succeeding to the possession of something, or of obtaining something at a future time; the action or process of transferring something in this way. Also: a thing or possession which a person expects to obtain.” (OED)
  30. :40li:: = £40.
  31. 3s-2d = 3 shillings 2 pence
  32. meadow ground: “an area of ground used as a meadow or meadows; cultivated grassland.” (OED)
  33. Whitsuntide = White Sunday, or Pentacost, the 7th Sunday after Easter in the Christian calendar, apparently June 3 in 1629.
  34. latermath = lattermath: “A second or subsequent crop of hay or new growth of grass, after the first has been mown.” (OED)
  35. foott = foot: “2.b. The ability to walk or run.” (OED)
  36. see note 14 above.
  37. pleck: “2.a. A small piece or spot of ground; a plot; a small enclosure.” (OED)
  38. A man surnamed Baker, from Otheria (likely = Othery, about 3.5 miles southeast of Westonzoyland, beyond Middlezoy.)
  39. Also mentioned in part 2 of this series.
  40. play the knaues = play the knave[s]: “P1. to play the knave: to act like a knave; to act dishonourably or unscrupulously.” (OED)
  41. sevenight = sennight: “A period of seven successive days and nights; a week” (OED)
  42. barton: “2. a farm yard (in the modern sense); 3. A demesne farm; the demesne lands of a manor, not let out to tenants, but retained for the lord’s own use.” (OED)
  43. sithence: “B.2. after” (OED)
  44. heriott: “2.a. English Law. A feudal service, originally consisting of weapons, horses, and other military equipments, restored to a lord on the death of his tenant; afterwards a render of the best live beast or dead chattel of a deceased tenant due by legal custom to the lord of whom he held. (OED)
  45. prayse = praise: “5. transitive. To estimate or fix the monetary value of; to fix the price of (something for sale); to appraise.” (OED)
  46. 3li- 10s./ = £3 10 shillings.
  47. 14li: = £14
  48. messinge = messing: “2.b. The preparation of food for an animal. Obsolete. rare.” (OED)