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Occupations in Lockdown

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November 2021

Isn’t it amazing what some people will do to pass the time during lockdown? A dedicated group of our cousins in America taught themselves medieval Latin in order to be able to transcribe tens of thousands of details from the proceedings of the English Court of Common Pleas. And our own Philip Ashford made a statistical analysis of 200 particular entries, which included name and occupation, pertaining to South Gloucestershire in the 15th century. From this he was able to ascertain the types of occupations our forebears were involved in. Generally these were ones that did not involve a great deal of statistical analysis, but were more to do with the killing of animals.

Interestingly, 14% of people had surnames that reflected their occupation – Butcher, Baker, Dyer, Smith – and nearly everyone had a first name of John. (I think this idea should be revived because I am terrible at remembering names. It’s so convenient, when an acquaintance walks into the pub, to be able to say, “Hi John Statistical-Analyser”.) Over 50% of people in South Gloucestershire were in some way involved in husbandry and animal processing. In the 15th century, if you were to randomly say, “There goes John Animal-Processor”, chances are you were onto a winner.

Philip found significant differences between some of the main communities in our area. Gloucester was a hive of industry, with people working in wool, metal and leather equally. In Dursley, however, 70% of people were involved in processing wool. Thornbury itself was a market town, as it has been for centuries until the very recent past. Many of the people were involved in slaughtering animals and in trade. There were many merchants, mercers and chapmen. A chapman was a travelling tradesman who might have lived in Thornbury but sold his goods within a day’s ride. Thornbury also had 20% of people working for the church. I guess Thornbury folk had a lot to confess. Some things never change.

Two of Philip’s young charges from Castle school were brave enough to present their award winning essays at the Thornbury Society’s November meeting. Holly Nicholas presented her essay on the role of South Gloucestershire in the development of vaccination. A topical subject if ever there was one. Who would guess that in the 18th century the Ship Inn at Alveston was a centre for cutting-edge medical research? And who has heard of John Fewster, mayor of Thornbury and local apothecary? Fewster attended meetings of the local Convivio-Medical Society at the Ship Inn, and reported his findings that people who had undergone Cow Pox could not be infected with Small Pox. Another member of the society had a young and clever apprentice named Edward Jenner, of whom we have heard. If Jenner is remembered today as the “Father of Immunology”, then perhaps we should also remember John Fewster as the grandfather.

Chloe Ross presented her essay on the increase of Gloucestershire crime in the first part of the 19th century. You might think that having defeated Napoleon Bonaparte, Britain would be sitting pretty. For the average John, however, things were not good. Thousands of demobbed soldiers were looking for work in a period when mechanization was destroying jobs. Wages were falling relative to prices. Enclosure of common land was proceeding apace. Chloe’s research shows that most crimes were committed by fathers of families just trying to survive. The response of government was to make the laws harsher. Surprise, surprise, this led to even higher crime figures. After coming close to revolution in the 1830s, the government relented and initiated a period of liberal reform.

Many thanks to Holly, Chloe and Philip for their presentations to Thornbury Society’s November meeting.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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