Sources & Methods
This chapter will examine the sources available for the study of trade in the Wigan area in the early seventeenth century, consider their importance and reliability and the techniques which have been used to glean conclusions from them.
The major source used was the record of the Wigan Court of King's Pleas, (hereafter WCKP), established by one of the charters of the town. The only other towns in Lancashire to have such courts were Clitheroe, Lancaster, Liverpool and Preston. By the period in question, the Court met up to eighteen times a year, sitting over two days. It had effectively become a small debts court, its legal jurisdiction extending over debts above forty shillings, though in practice smaller debts were also reported to the Court. On the first day of sitting plaintiffs from Wigan sought recovery of debts from defendants in Wigan and elsewhere. On the second day cases were brought as on the first day but also by non-residents against Wigan townsfolk, and a few by non-residents against other non-residents. The information given in the record of the proceedings usually consisted of the names, occupation and residence of both debtor and creditor, the value of the debt, the date the case was brought and the action to be taken. In a very few cases the reason for the debt was also mentioned. The records of the Court are kept in Plea Rolls, small bound volumes written in Latin, and survive for the period 1618/19 and 1627 to the early eighteenth century. The majority of cases are from the early seventeenth century, and it is cases from the period 1627 to 1642 which have been included in the study. A Calendar of the cases was produced in the 1930s, summarising the key information from each case, and this was used to extract the case detail.
All those cases which involved evidence of trade between Wigan and a resident of another township were extracted from the records. The assumption was made that these 1400 cases constituted a representative sample of the trading activity taking place between Wigan and other townships. Approximately 5000 cases were considered by the Court between 1627 and 1642, of those over 1400, slightly less than a third, were between a resident and a non-resident of the town. The details of these 1400 cases were input to a computer database, to facilitate the manipulation and analysis of the information. A number of sort functions were undertaken to determine the frequency with which individuals appeared in the Court, the occupations of those appearing, the size of debts and place of residence by these various factors. Much of this information was reproduced on maps of the area using computerised mapping techniques, to show such factors as frequency of reference, and mean size of debt.
The intention was to produce a statistically based analysis of the occupations and residences of those involved in trade into and out of Wigan. However, because of the relatively small numbers generated, for the various trading groups within the townships, although a variety of statistics were produced and used, it was not possible to draw convincing conclusions from these results in isolation.
The absence of detail on those items for which the debts had been incurred was a problem. The assumption was made that the plaintiff had sold goods made by himself to the defendant on credit, and the latter had not made payment to the former within the agreed time. Confirmation of this assumption was sought by further analysis of the information contained in the WCKP records. If the debt were for an "irregular" amount, that is not for round pounds, it was deemed more likely to be a trade debt. If the debt could have represented a "feasible quantity" of goods produced by the plaintiff, it was more likely to be a trade debt. For example, if a shoemaker was owed £4 3s by another person, although the debt was for an irregular sum, the value suggests a debt for something more than a pair or couple of pairs of shoes. It was assumed that debts for round pounds, unless there was evidence to the contrary, were for lent money.
The Court Leet of Wigan was its main local authority, and was controlled by the Burgesses and their elected mayor. [i] It met several times a year and tried a variety of petty assaults, public nuisances, trade matters and considered petitions from townsfolk. Wigan was exempt from the jurisdiction of the Quarter Sessions and the Leet fulfilled some of its functions such as making orders for the maintenance of the highway. Its records contain occasional references to trade, for example, people selling goods in the town at "improper" times, in an effort to avoid market regulations. There is a list of those owing money for the rental of market stalls in 1637, which is a useful source for the study of non-burgess traders. The greatest value of the Leet record is probably in its recording of the occupation of most of the individuals to whom it referred.
Probate inventories have been used extensively and are a major source for the economic history of the period. Fifty two inventories from Wigan from the period 1620-1650 have been used. A further 24 wills or inventories listed in the Calendar of Wills have not survived. Forty four inventories from people living in Wigan's trading region, as identified in the relevant chapter, were also searched.
One of the main values of inventories for a study of this type is the debtors' list which was usually integral to it. The limitation is the fact that the information contained in the debtors' list is often patchy. The "ideal" debtors' list would contain the name, place of residence, occupation, size of debt and reason for the debt. None of the Wigan lists which have survived are so comprehensive, but 19 contain at least one reference to the abode of one or more of the debtors. A database of those debts which also gave the residence of the debtor was compiled and used to determine the areas in which the testator had been trading, and the overall "trading region" of probate debtors.
The trading regions produced by analysis of the WCKP evidence and the Probate Debtors' lists are discussed in Chapter 3. It may be thought that the region revealed by the WCKP evidence merely reflects the geographical jurisdiction of the Court. However, the fact that both plaintiffs and defendants were drawn from a very wide area would tend not to support this view. Further evidence of the significance of the source is the enormous difference in the number of references to individual townships, suggesting the existence of definite trading patterns, and a tendency to trade with some townships more than others.
One of the problems of the economic history of the early modern period is the use of occupational designations. The words "husbandmen" and "yeomen" were extensively used but often described individuals who were substantially involved in other activities, such as weaving. In Wigan, inventories show that men with one occupational designation were often involved in another economic activity. Inventories therefore serve to provide a means of overcoming the problem of inadequate occupational designations. When using inventories, it is important to look at significant items of stock which could indicate a by-employment. Thomas Briggs, a Wigan skinner who died in 1625, had four bars of new iron, and £33 worth of oats amongst his goods. The use of the former can only be speculated upon, but the presence of the latter indicates that Briggs may have been trading in oats as a sideline, although other alternatives ought to be considered: Briggs may have been a small landowner and, as the inventory was written in November, the oats may represent the fruits of the harvest.
The 1642 Protestation Oath Roll for the township of Wigan was transcribed and input to a database. The roll for the other townships in the parish have not survived. The Roll was used as the basis for an occupational reconstitution of the town: the roll itself gave the occupations of those refusing to swear the Oath. To these were added occupations from the WCKP database which had been sorted into alphabetical order to facilitate linkage, and a manual search was made of the Court Leet records of the late 1630s and 1640s to fill in the many gaps. The attempt at an occupational reconstitution resulted in just over 50% of the occupations being found. The problem with this data is they give no recognition of the significance of women's labour in the economy of the town. Whilst women provided essential domestic support for their husbands and fathers, along with children, they were often involved in some of the stages of their husbands craft, such as spinning flax into yarn. There is also a little evidence that they traded on their own account. Ann Platt, the widow of Peter Platt, a candlemaker, had the tools and materials for the manufacture of candles, as well as £3 15s of stock of candles and tallow. Her inventory was written 26 years after the death of her husband, which suggests that she continued his business for that length of time. [ii] There is no evidence of other widows having followed her example.
Another significant problem of the Protestation Oath Rolls is that of multiple names. The Roll lists three Robert Barons, three William Glovers, three Robert Marklands, three James Scotts, and a large number of double repetitions. There is a particular problem with the Ford or Forth families: 26 men shared 11 forenames. For the purposes of the reconstruction, it was sufficient to know that at least one of the men sharing the same forename and surname followed a particular occupation and the occupation was incorporated in the figures used to determine the relative importance of each of the trades.
The Parish registers survive for the period. In certain years, they give the street or township of origin of the deceased or parents of a baptised child, and this was used to estimate the relative sizes of each part of the parish. They do not give the occupations of fathers or decedents except very occasionally and therefore were of no value in the occupational reconstruction. However, they proved essential for the compilation of the brief population history of the town included in Chapter 2. The figures of baptisms and burials were collected from the register and graphed to show the trends. A primitive attempt to back project the population of Wigan, from 1642 to 1580 was used with the 1642 Protestation Oath figures as the base. The technique is described in detail in the notes to Chapter 2.
The rector of Wigan, who was also both the Bishop of Chester and the Lord of the Manor of Wigan, kept a ledger during his time at Wigan. This records his turbulent dealings with the townsfolk and his attempts to restore what he regarded as the ancient rights and privileges of the Lordship. There are a few references to trade and details of tithes collected from Wigan and other townships. Bridgeman also produced a comprehensive rental of the Church lands in circa 1627, and this provides information such the number of shops and mills in the town.
As previously stated, Wigan was exempt from the jurisdiction of the Quarter Sessions, however, the Sessions were held in the town and badgers from the south of the county were licensed there. Details of badgers licensed have been collected and a database of registrations for two years (1636 and 1642) made to determine from which townships they came.
The evidence of the WCKP was used as the initial generator of tentative conclusions. These were subsequently tested using those of the sources above which it was appropriate to use. In the cases where the two sources did not appear to agree, the reasons for this were considered, and these are included in the body of the dissertation.
The next chapter will discuss the features of the economy of Wigan and the area around the town during the period.