I don’t suppose probate inventories feature among many people’s favourite reading material, but for me they embody, if you’ll excuse the phrase, a remarkable record of the contents of someone’s house from three or four hundred years ago – and the chance to have a good nose round. Inventories were taken for the purposes of assessing the value of a deceased person’s estate and of course they are very personal documents. However at a distance of several centuries, they are one of the best means of learning how people lived, what possessions they had as well as giving us the opportunity to walk round a house and ‘see’ how each room was furnished. It is fascinating to stand in a property with the inventory of a former occupier and try to identify each of their rooms.
When it comes to contents, beds feature largely among the furnishings, each part of the bed being named individually (bedstead, feather bed, pillows, bolsters, curtains, etc) and, sometimes, evidently the one in which the deceased passed away, the room being described as ‘in the chamber where he lay’. Fire tools were crucial and feature strongly: spits, tongs, andirons, bellows, etc and sometimes ‘bacon upon the rack’ (£1 5s). ‘Napery’, or bed and table linen, was also important, as were horses and livestock. Dung cribs were evidently essential and even ‘muck in the yard’ had a value – 10s in 1709.
Once you move into the working part of the house – the buttery, kitchen, bakehouse and dairy – a dictionary and glossary of terms can be called for as one encounters unfamiliar items such as a posnette (cooking pot) and cobbarous (iron bars supporting a cooking spit), and I’m still trying to establish what a whinible might have been. Of course the writing can be tricky and spelling variable, so difficult words have to be transcribed letter by letter turning ‘fyve payre pothokes’ into ‘five pairs of pot hooks’ being one of the easier examples. Despite these challenges, inventories are a fantastic historical resource and you never know whether you may come across a whinible in the attic one day.