'People All Full of Business'
Report of talk given by Sheila Graham and Barbara Hall on 24 October 2018

Full of businessThis was how Daniel Defoe described what he saw as he passed through the Calder Valley in the early 1700s. In their talk at Hebden Bridge Local History Society, Sheila Graham and Barbara Hall showed how they had used the wills and probate records of residents to find out more about the people who lived in Halifax at that time.

The wills show us how, at the last moments in their lives, men and women wanted to ensure that their families were treated fairly, that their property was secured to their heirs and that children would be cared for and educated.

Members of the Halifax Probate group have been transcribing the probate documents of people who died between 1688 and 1700. Not everyone made a will, it was usually the custom of the more affluent; but many of those who did were in business in the town.

At that time Halifax was a compact town consisting of chiefly four streets, rising from the Parish Church in the east, uphill via the Market Cross to Bull Green and Gibbet Lane in the west. As yet there were no mills – handloom weavers were still weaving cloth at home.

So what can we find out from these documents, and how can we use the information to speculate on what life was like at this time? Many of the wills are accompanied by an inventory of the goods owned by the testator. Most of these are domestic objects but in some cases they also include items to do with the business. The sample of wills was obviously from a variety of establishments, some with just two or three rooms, one with as many as sixteen rooms. Long case clocks were quite common, as were chamber pots. Despite the urban nature of the township the majority of land was still given over to farming. Most of the sample had a cow or pigs, which would provide the family with milk and meat.

However, it seems that Halifax was a town of trades. It was a thriving place of business, meeting the needs of the largely traditional textile-agricultural 'dual economy' population in the outlying townships. A linen draper, a grocer and an apothecary were amongst the shopkeepers but also many of the inventories listed debts owed, those with money obviously taking on the role of granting loans.

Thomas Drake – probably a grocer – had a fabulous mixture of spices, glue, sugar, soap and brown paper. Juice of aloes, imported from India, formed the 'basis of most pills' and taken with cinnamon, ginger, mace and aniseed to treat stomach pains. Coriander expelled worms. Horse spice was a patent medicine for horses. In another chamber he had gunpowder, starch and blue powder (dolly blue). So many different commodities could be found in Mr. Drake's shop.

This information, and much more, can be found in a book published by the Probate Group under the title of 'People All Full of Business' and available from W.H Smith in Halifax and the Book Shop in the Piece Hall.

With thanks to Barbara Atack for this report

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