Spending money 18th century style


Among the Harpur Crewe records are a number of 18th century account books of the stewards or agents who were acting on behalf of the Harpur family, and these have lots of interesting entries which show a little light on how the elite spent their money at that time.

One thing that stands out is how often they record payments to the poor and needy. In the extract pictured above for February 1746 (from document reference number D2375/M/277/10), there are references to the giving of sixpence to a poor blind man, sixpence to two poor women, and a shilling to a “Bedlam Man” [referring to a man who is or behaves as if insane, the term deriving from the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem in London, where those with severe mental health problems were housed and treated from the 13th century onwards].They also were also willing to help musicians, as was the case above for a fiddler who received sixpence. Other payments elsewhere refer to money having been given to a singer, two women fiddlers and the waits [a band of musicians] at Ashby de la Zouch.

It is also evident that the Harpurs at this time responded to appeals from individuals who had suffered personal misfortune. A petition (through the Justices of the Peace of Leicester) from a man who suffered losses from fire resulted in a donation of a guinea (£1 1 shilling), and a woman who put in her own petition after losses from fire received sixpence. Payments were also made to soldiers and sailors, some of whom were described as old or lame. Another interesting entry on 21 Apr 1746 is for payments to be given to the tenants of Breadsall “for their losses by the rebels”. This refers to the army of the Young Pretender a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Charlie which had marched south from Scotland to put him on the throne and had reached Derby in December 1745, only for the decision to be made to turn back.

The accounts include a lot of everyday expenditure, such as purchases of provisions, butter, eggs, fish and fowl. Occasionally, more exotic items were purchased, such as pistachio nuts, plovers’ eggs, a chest of oranges, and, as in the extract above, a pot of “charr”, i.e. tea [the drink being fashionable then, but not quite the ubiquitous necessity it is now]. The accounts of wages of staff were also recorded, mostly paid out in annual instalments. They lived in as servants, and as such they were housed, fed and clothed, so the need to be paid more often throughout the year was not considered the way to do it. As can be seen above, the wages of the cook, Mr Rowe, were paid for a couple of months from Christmas. As he doesn’t seem to appear again, we must assume that he ceased to work for the Harpurs. Along with payments to staff are also recorded tips and gratuities given to people who gave service to them. The postman, for example, received his usual Xmas box (2 shillings), a maid at Sir Henry Harpur’s lodging in Bond Street, London, received a generous 5 shillings. and a man who helped to bring back the missing greyhound Nettle all the way back from Lincolnshire got 16 shillings for his trouble.

Among other accounts are those which relate to the bringing up of Charles Harpur, the son of Sir Henry Harpur (doc. ref. D2375/M/264/6). Two entries reveal something of the social priorities of the times. On 7 January 1754 it is recorded that a sum of £6 6 shillings was paid for his school fees, and on the very next line that exactly double that amount (£12 12 shillings) was paid on 22 January 1754 to Mr Denoyer, the dancing master. People who watched the first part of “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” on BBC TV recently (with Len Goodman and Lucy Worsley) might perhaps remember that dancing among aristocratic circles was treated very seriously in the 18th century and that getting the steps and moves wrong was no small matter in terms of one’s social image and reputation. The lessons continued, as another payment of £8 8 shillings was made to Mr Denoyer later in the year on 25 June. Other payments for the young Charles include two pence for a pair of skates, 1 shilling and sixpence for fishing tackle, 5 shillings to attend a play, and, somewhat worryingly, sixpence for a whiplash.

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