A small group of people has been transcribing old wills made by parishioners of Rushden, during the last four years.
We did not make any rules about the transcripts when we started but have now decided that we will transcribe “as in the original” using the original spellings which vary considerably and may vary within the same document. This is because writing used to be done “as heard” by the scribe, so depended upon the educational standard of that particular scribe. If you see a word you don’t recognise then say it out loud and try putting the accent on different letters until you get to something you may understand. The “e” may substitute for “i” or “a”, as may the “y”. Also, to add to the confusion, the letter “i” and “j” were interchangeable and “n” & “u” & “v” all took the same format of two “minims” or down strokes. So if you can’t make a word sound right with an “n” then try it again with a “v” or a “u”. All this makes for much fun in trying to sort out just what they meant! If a will is particularly difficult to decipher because of the strange spellings we may have included a modern English version as well as the true transcript.
Some of the older wills have some rather strange sounding items, but when we think deeply about these we see how they got their names.
A joynt stool was crafted by a joiner rather than nailed together, a table board was a wide plank of wood laid across trestles to become a table that could be put away when not in use. A bed may have furniture & curtains: a four-poster had curtains to draw round for extra warmth and there may have been a step to help climb into the bed, pillows, bolsters and cushions - all might be included in its “furniture”.
In a kitchen there are all sorts of pots and pans, some of which had just one certain use: kimnels, troughs, barrels, vats, porringers, chafing dishes, kettles, pots & pans of all sizes and qualities might be mentioned. The great kettle would probably be the one keeping hot water at the ready all day, a little pan or barrel would be used for mixing or brewing small quantities.
Beer or small beer (second brewing) was the drink of the day because the brewing process would kill any bugs that might be in the water. Meat was preserved by smoking or laying up in a salting trough for perhaps a week or month. In the dairy there would be many pots and pans for separating milk and cream, churning butter and making cheese. Many of these vessels are now only used in business premises but would have been in almost every house before the great changes of the 20th century.
Animals were prized possessions and many would keep just one cow for milk, some would have a horse as transport but those who had several might call each by its colour e.g. a brindle mare, a bay colt, a red cow. The well to do would have sheep perhaps by the score (20) and might leave one ewe sheep to every godchild, or three hoggerels to every grandchild. Bequests to servants “if still with me” may also be some animals, a piece of jewellery or money.
Money was sometimes left to close relations or friends “to make him a mourning ring” or for gloves to wear to the funeral.
The things most prized were often first to be mentioned; the property was often followed by animals, then household “stuff” (linen, hemp or woollen items), jewellery, clothes, pots & pans, lumber in the yard. A tradesman might mention his tools or the farmer his carts and wheels, harrows and his crops, or the stored grain, crops standing in the fields if the testator was on his deathbed in the early summer. Many wills were only drawn up when death was approaching, and we get some idea of how long they suffered by looking at the date when the will was signed and the date when probate was granted. If they recovered the will might have been put away and brought out decades later. Those who owned much property would have made a will as a matter of course; a widow who inherited her husband’s property might be expected to “bring up my children” if the man died young, or to run his farm until the eldest son was of age and would make her own will if her husband had not stipulated the disposal of his goods “after the death of my wife”. Spinsters, who inherited when there was no son, might mention their cousins as well as their sisters and brothers with their spouses and any nephews and nieces, and are sometimes very helpful in establishing relationships.
So there is a great deal of information to be gleaned from some of these wills. This all gives us an insight into the valued possessions of the day.