300 years ago in England

Once upon a time, about 300 years ago, my British ancestors were farmers, living off the land, battling against nature to support their families through hard manual labour.

Bolton-upon-Swale, Yorkshire

My seventh great-grandparents Allan and Ann Layfield were farmers in the small village of Bolton-upon-Swale in the Richmondshire district of North Yorkshire.

Bolton-on-Swale, St Marys Church
Bolton-on-Swale, St Mary’s Church via geograph.org.uk

They married sometime around the beginning of the century and had four children Mary, Jane, John and Ann who were all christened in the chapel in the village.

Allan died at the age of 54 and was buried in St Mary’s Church cemetery there in 1727. Ann survived him by thirty years but was finally laid to rest at his side in 1757.

Bolton Percy, Yorkshire

About fifty miles to the south, my sixth great-grandparents, Henry and Anne Savage were also farmers and lived at Pallathorpe Farm near the village of Bolton Percy near the river Wharfe.

From the entrance to Pallathorpe Farm off the Tadcaster to Bolton Percy Road
From the entrance to Pallathorpe Farm off the Tadcaster to Bolton Percy Road via geograph.org.uk

They married in the ancient All Saints church in Bolton Percy in 1712, stating their vows in the large structure with beautiful stained glass windows as others had done in the many years since the church was consecrated in 1424.

The pair had at least five children: Robert, John, Ann, Henry and Elizabeth.

Tankersley, Yorkshire

St. Peter's Church, Tankersley
St. Peter’s Church, Tankersley via geograph.org.uk

Some forty-five miles to the southwest of Bolton Percy, in the small village of Tankersley, my seventh great-grandparents Edward and Elizabeth Woodhead were farmers at Pilley Farm. They had at least three children: Sarah, Richard and Georgius who were all christened in St. Peter’s Church in Tankersley.

Norton, Isle of Wight

Far to the south of Great Britain, my Isle of Wight ancestors and sixth great-grandparents, George and Lydia Williams, also farmed land in Brook and in Freshwater at the southwest of the the island.

Bridge at Freshwater, Isle of Wight
Bridge at Freshwater, Isle of Wight via geograph.org.uk

They had at least five children including David, George, Mary, Betty and William. When George Williams died in 1747, he left five shillings to his siblings but his house and land near Norton called Clay House, were left to his wife and their children who continued to farm for a living.

On the Brink of a Different Kind of Revolution

Three hundred years ago, the industrial revolution had not quite begun. Like my ancestors, most of the residents of Great Britain were farmers, living off the land, often in very poor circumstances but that was about to change. Jethro Tull’s invention of an improved seed drill in 1701 allowed seed to be sown in straight lines and his invention of a horse drawn hoe tilled the soil between the rows and slowly, farmers were able to grow food for sale rather than mere subsistence.

Jethro Tull's Seed drill
Jethro Tull’s Seed drill

This precursor to the industrial revolution was what some scholars call the agricultural revolution although there are disputes as to exactly when this occurred and what the key components of the revolution were. However as farming methods improved during the opening decades of the eighteenth century, there is no doubt that food could be produced with less labour than before and with the parallel improvements in ocean travel, imported food products from Great Britain’s colonies became not only possible but also economical. These changes in agriculture set the stage for the industrial revolution that would begin to forever change the way of life for the generations to come starting in the latter half of the eighteenth century.

The State of the Kingdom

In the year 1717, the beginning of January did not mark the start of a new year in England, since Britain still followed the Julian calendar which proclaimed Lady Day, March 25 as the beginning of the year.

Hanover born George I was King of England, having ascended to the throne on the death of Queen Anne in 1714. His first years as King of Great Britain and Ireland were tumultuous ones with riots breaking out in cities across the Kingdom when he was crowned and following year, the Jacobite rebellion of 1715 briefly threatening his reign. But in the general election of 1715, the Whigs secured an overwhelming victory, shutting out the Tory party, many of whom had Jacobite leanings and supported Anne’s half-brother, James Francis Edward Stuart. The rebellion ultimately turned out to be a failure with James arriving with few arms and too little money to win and James fled to France in early 1716.

But that did not put an end to the Jacobite cause. The year of 1717 saw continued intrigue as spies and counter-spies conspired to advance the cause of the Stuart dynasty.

News of the Day

To see what was going on in Great Britain 300 years ago as my ancestors were occupied with farming the land, we can flip open a copy of the Stamford Mercury, that was published Thursday, January 2, 1717. 1Volume XI, No. 1.

Stamford Mercury
Stamford Mercury

This newspaper was printed by Thomas Baily and Will Thompson, in Stamford in Lincolnshire and it’s cost was three half-pence. 2estimates of the worth of 3 ½ pence in today’s money range from £2.06 to £45.96 The Stamford Mercury claims to be Britain’s oldest continuously published newspaper and their archives contain over 20,000 newspapers, some dating back to 1714.

London Bills of Mortality

In London, as had been the custom since a recurrence of the plague in 1603, the General Bill of the Christenings and Burials at London was assembled for the period from the 11 December 1716 to the 17 December 1717.  In all, 18475 babies had been christened including 9630 boys and 8845 girls. More people died in London, however, with burials of 23446 souls including 11924 males and 11512 females although this was notably down from the previous year by 990. The number one cause of death was convulsions at 7147 people. Following a distant second were fever victims, numbering 2940 and smallpox carried away 2211 people. Many, 2011 people in total, died from old age 3the average life expectancy was less than 45 years while an astounding 1250 died from problems with their teeth in a population of somewhere around 650,000 people.


London Bills of Mortality

Disease# Deaths Disease# Deaths Disease# Deaths
Smallpox2211Head mould shot52Canker9
Aged2011Rising of the lights47Horshoehead9
Griping in the guts653Lunatick38Lethargy8
Tiffick289Plurisie32St Anthony’s fire4
Consumption276Sores and ulcers30Spleen4
Stoppage in the stomach233Water in the head26Inflammation3
French pox190Vomiting24Scurvey3
Spotted fever137Surfeit18Gravel2
Mortification125Twisting of the guts17Leprosy2
Suddenly122Purples16Scald head2
Jaundices96Hooping cough15Scarlet fever2
Thrush64Diabetes6Malignant fever1
Measles35Cough4Pain in the head1
Palsie32Head ache4Swelling in the throat1


Some 320 casualties were also listed in the report including Broken arm 1, broken leg 2, bruised 6, burnt 2, choaked [sic] 1, dropt [sic] down dead 1, drowned 62, excessive drinking 5, executed 19, found dead 36, frightened 2, hang’d self accidentally 1, killed by several accidents 61, made away themselves 37, murdered 9, overlaid 70, scorched and burnt 2, starved 1, wounded 2.

One wonders how a person could hang themselves accidentally or how two people might have died from fright but more, the list of casualties seems questionably low for a city with the population of London. And indeed, in the year of 1716, there were in fact 10 men executed at Tyburn on the hanging day of 19 December 1716 with a further 91 men and 18 women hanged in the 6 hanging days throughout 1717. 4Capital Punishment UK

Jacobite Intrigues

As we leave behind the gruesome deaths in London, we learn that on the first day of January 1717, the Count Carl Gyllenborg, the Swedish Ambassador and husband to Jacobite Sara Wright, was arrested in London for plotting to assist the Pretender James Francis Edward Stuart and would be imprisoned for five months. On 4 January, the Dutch Republic, Britain and France signed the Triple Alliance, uniting against Spain. Following the signing of the Alliance, James Stuart left his refuge in France to seek asylum with the Pope in Rome.

War News

It was reported from Vienna that January 1717 that Prince Eugene of Savoy, a general of the Imperial Army, had delayed his visit to to the Netherlands at the end of December as he waited to find out if the Ottomans would agree to the proposed peace and surrender Belgrade after his siege of that city throughout much of the autumn of 1716. From Hamburg on Christmas Eve, it was reported the King of Sweden summoned his Senate to Lunden (London) to meet with King George to discuss whether Sweden would accept the peace proposal extended by the Czar Peter the Great of Russia or to continue to fight the Great Northern War, a conflict between the allied troops of Denmark-Norway, Saxony, Poland and Russia against the Swedish Empire led by the young Swede King Charles XII. There was considerable British interest in the activities of the Swedish monarch because a plot had been uncovered through intelligence circles that the Jacobite supporters were considering making a substantial loan to Sweden in exchange for the launch of an invasion of England through Scotland to restore the Stuarts to the throne. In his book, What if the Swedes Should Come, published in 1717, Daniel Defoe wrote:

But if what we expect now from him should go on; if he should make this most ridiculous Attempt, for such I must call it, I shall believe him entirely demented; considering his own present Circumstances, divested of all his German dominions, destitute of Allies, without Money, at at War with Five Potent Princes already, who are every Hour expected to Land in the Heart of his Dominions: if this Attempt should be made, I shall have no more to say than this, What may not be expected from a King the sleeps in his Boots, and lies in the Straw?

Daniel Defoe

Christmas Flood

As well as the discussion of the intrigues of Britain’s allies and enemies and the war in the Baltics, there was a report of an inundation of water from The Hague with some 50 towns and villages flooded there and in Flanders. This came to be known as the Christmas Flood of 1717 and was the result of a north-westerly storm on Christmas night in which about 14,000 people drowned, countless cattle were lost and in low lying areas, many houses were washed away.

Christmas Flood 1717
The Christmas flood of 1717 was the result of a north-westerly storm, which hit the coast area of the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia on Christmas night 1717.

Giant Skeleton

In London, in the last week of December, workmen who were breaking ground for the new church at Rotherhithe found a stone coffin that contained the skeleton of man said to be ten feet in length. The find was possibly an exaggeration on the part of the workmen, but such a find was not without precedent. A similar large human skeleton was found in Rowen, France in 1509, thought to be the remains of Chevalier Ricon de Vallemont and just a few decades later, Henry Blacker, standing seven feet, four inches tall would tour London, billed as The British Giant.

Henry Blacker

This is to acquaint the curious, that Mr. Blacker, the Modern Living Colossus, or Wonderful Giant, who has given universal satisfaction, is to be seen in a commodious room, in Half-Moon-court, joining to Ludgate. This phenomenon in nature hath already had the honour of being inspected by great numbers of the nobility and gentry, by many of the Royal Society, and several gentlemen and ladies, who are lovers of natural curiosities; who allow him to be of a stupendous height, and affirm him to be the best proportioned of his size they ever saw. He is to be seen by any number of persons, from nine in the morning till nine at night, without loss of time.

December 9, 1752, Daily Advertiser

Escape from Gaol

In another brief story, it was reported that a man named Colthurst who had appeared at the Old Bailey court at the last sessions had made his escape from the Wood Street Compter. This gaol was a small prison in the City of London, often used as a debtor’s prison but also held those accused of minor crimes on occasion. Colthurst was presumably recaptured after his escape and was tried and acquitted in September 1717, even though stolen goods were found at his home, when the victim could not identify him.

Samuel Colthurst of Hesson was indicted for Assaulting and Robbing William Murry on the High Way; and taking from him a Silver Hilted Sword value 40 s.12 Handkerchiefs value 20s. a Silver Snuff Box value 20 s. and 40 s. in Money , the 29th of August last; the Prosecutor deposed he was robbed on Hounslow Heath by two Men who clapped a Pistol to his Breast; but he did believe the Prisoner was not one of them: some of the things were found in a Trunk in the Prisoner’s Lodgings; but there were several Reasons to believe that it was not him but his Brother, so the Jury Acquitted him.

Old Bailey, 11 September 1717.


In another report, a ship from Ireland that had departed Liverpool was lost and it was reported that Nicholas Wogan was among those who perished. Nicholas Wogan was only fifteen when he and his older brother Charles were found guilty of high treason for being part of the 1715 Rebellion at Preston but was afterwards pardoned from his death sentence by King George, presumably in part due to his youth, but more importantly because he was credited with saving the life of an English officer at Preston by carrying him out of the line of fire. His death, however, appears to have been falsely reported, since he was later identified as being deeply involved with the Jacobite cause in France.

Fire and Theft

There were the usual reports of local fires with three breaking out at Charing Cross, the Westminster Horse Ferry and in Southwark but all three were extinguished before they could do much damage. There was also a report of a break in at a silversmith’s shop in Bishopsgate and a theft of about £200.

Arrival of Ship from Vera Cruiz

Also in the news was a report from Cadiz Spain of the arrival of the ship Hermoine from Vera Cruiz which was laden with riches. This ship was a French 30-gun frigate, bought by D. Diego de Murga, Marqueese of Monte Sacro, for private trade with South America. She had left Cadiz in 1716, arriving in Veracruz in August of 1717. The return trip began on 21 October 1717, when the ship left La Habana with the Santo Cristo de Maracaibo and seven other small vessels. The ships arrived in Cadiz carrying 5 million pesos and 1650 kilograms of silver and other goods.

Seditious Libel

The arrest of one Mary Dalton, sister of London printer Isaac Dalton, also made the news. Mary had previously been indicted in July 1716 at the Old Bailey for seditious libel. Her brother, Isaac, was also indicted in 1716 for publishing a tract called Weekly Remarks that was libellous to the King and which supported the Jacobite cause. Mary Dalton was fined 30 marks and sent to prison for a year, despite her claims that the scandalous publication was the work of her brother.

Mary Dalton , who was indicted for a Misdemeanor, in Publishing a seditious Libel, intituled, Robin’s last Shift; or, Weekly Remarks on the most material News Foreign and Domestick, in which was a Paragraph highly reflecting in the most affronting and impudent Expressions, on his Majesty’s Person and Government, and both Houses of Parliament . It was positively sworn, and prov’d upon her, who said nothing in her Defence, but that she did it by her Brother’s Order. The Jury found her Guilty .

Old Bailey 12 July 1716.

The pair were lucky compared to another printer, John Matthews, who would be hanged at Tyburn in 1719 for printing a similar tract calling for the overthrow of King George and restoring the Stuart dynasty to the crown.


As today, newspapers survived not only by selling news but also by charging for advertisements.

Rewards for the Return of Lost or Stolen Horses

In this issue of the Stamford Mercury, the last page sports a series of personal advertisements including several rewards offered for lost or stolen horses.

A coal-black mare disappeared from Rockingham Forrest on or about 20 December. The mare was about 14 hands high, was four years old and had a star on her forehead. She had a G branded on each shoulder and John Wildes of Gretton in Northamptonshire was offering a reward of a guinea for her return.

A mare was stolen or strayed from Spalding Fen in Lincolnshire on 9 December. She was about 13 hands high, three years old and had a bob tail and a clipped mane. William Scottril, the Cooper of Spalding was offering a five shilling reward.

Yet another mare, this one black and 15 hands high, strayed from Peterborough in Northamptonshire. She was five years old, had white feet and a large star in her forehead. Daniel Wildblood of Peterborough was offering a ten shilling reward for her return.

Mill for Lett

The paper and corn mills called Wandsford Mills, with all the contents was being offered for lett at Lady-Day by Mrs. Wright at Stibbington or Mr. Blackwell of Stamford. The current tenant, Thomas Stirk, was set to vacate at the end of the year.

Wine for Sale

A wine cellar on St. Mary’s Hill in Stamford was offering a large quantity of both red and white ‘Neat Old Oporto Wines’ for sale to both retailers and wholesalers. They also had Canary, Tent and Brandy on offer. All could be had in bottles or casks and there was a house available where interested gentlemen could taste the product.


Small two ounce paper packets of ground mustard were available for sale from Thomas Earle at the Shoulder of Mutton in Melton, or from John Palmer, a hatter in the same place or could be purchased from Isaac Harris, a hatter in Leicester.

While the sale of mustard by a victualler is perhaps understandable, one has to wonder why it was also being sold by two hatters!

To Be Lett, New White Hart Inn

Thomas Wallet of Stamford or Samuel Wilkinson in Spalding were letting the New White Hart Inn in Spalding which was built new since a recent fire. It had good stabling and it fronted on the Market Place.

The Great Fire of Spalding started in the blacksmith shop on 2 April 1715 and quickly spread, destroying eighty-four houses and other buildings, and putting about 120 tradespeople out of business. The fire was finally stopped with one of the houses opposite the Old White Hart was blown up with gunpowder, finally stopping the advancing flames.

The Next 300 Years

Over the next 300 years, the lives of my farming ancestors, like many of Great Britain’s citizens, would be forever changed. Most of my forebears moved from their homes in the small villages of eighteenth century Great Britain to the industrial cities of the nineteenth century looking for work in the new factories, ship building industries and metal working centres of the country.

Pocket Watch
Every time you tear a leaf off a calendar, you present a new place for new ideas and progress. ~Charles Kettering


1 Volume XI, No. 1.
2 estimates of the worth of 3 ½ pence in today’s money range from £2.06 to £45.96
3 the average life expectancy was less than 45 years
4 Capital Punishment UK