Dusty documents give us new insights

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Faced with a pile of 17th century legal documents written in an impenetrable script and full of unrecognisable words like swingle trees and hookseams, we might be tempted to think that rewards of deciphering them wouldn’t justify the effort involved.

But as Alan Petford showed in his talk to the Hebden Bridge Local History Society, a study of wills and inventories can illuminate brilliantly the daily lives of men and women in this area over three hundred years ago, writes Sheila Graham.

A group of volunteers have been transcribing probate documents from the ancient parish of Halifax covering the years from 1688 to 1700 opening up a study of these times to other historians.

Inventories were particularly important, as an accurate account of all the deceased’s property was needed in order to assess the total value of the estate.

There is a long established understanding that in the Parish of Halifax there was a dual economy of farming and textiles, and the inventories make it clear that almost every profession had some involvement in agriculture.

The importance of textile production is also confirmed through the equipment listed in the inventories, with everything from the raw wool, through the spinning wheels, looms, tenters, shears presses and pieces of cloth valued by the appraisers.

It is clear that the most profitable part of textile production was the finishing process, which added value to the cloth after the initial weaving.

All the equipment needed for this is found in the inventories. The high value given to this equipment in the inventories points to the profit that such processes could command.

In the course of Alan’s talk it became obvious that information about agriculture and textiles was only the beginning of the insights available from these inventories.

The way the houses were used becomes clearer, with no designated bedrooms but beds found in every room except the kitchen.

We can learn much about the cooking methods from the pots pans trivets and fire irons, as well as the ubiquity of the oatcake with its required bakstones (for cooking) and bread fleaks (where the finished oatcakes hung to store).

Last night, Nick Wilding was set to celebrate the anniversary of Stoodley Pike.