A village guide to respectability

Imagine moving to a new neighbourhood and, once you’ve got your belongings unpacked and your new home up and running, consider how you will get to know who is who in the community. Now think how you would feel if someone offered you a house-by-house description of the locals: names, addresses, occupations, their circumstances and, for some, a comment on their character. In writing.

Be surprised to learn therefore that this was the situation in a Worcestershire village in 1829 when the rector’s wife took it upon herself to describe the residents in this way for the benefit of the new incumbent. It was not, I think, a malicious treatise, more a 19th century form of what today we might call ‘speed networking’. Get to know your neighbours in a morning, type of thing.

Here’s a flavour:

‘In the two white cottages in a line with the shop lives a poor miserable woman of the name of Minor, daughter of poor Sarah Knight – her husband far from respectable. Under the same roof with them and next door live a family of the name of Braidley, young and respectable people. He is a labourer.’

‘In the new houses live Turberville the village tailor and a good man. Under the same roof a labourer of the name of Roberts and his daughter, very creditable people. In the third house under the same roof belongs to a person of the name of Knight, he is a very respectable man indeed and his wife a good woman.’

The primary concern seems to have been to identify those villagers who were ‘respectable’, ‘creditable’ and ‘industrious’ to be singled out from those who had none of those attributes. The shoemaker, for example, ‘has lately married a very pretty wife, of whom report did not speak goldenly before she married, but from the little I have seen of her since, I should say she was steady’. Other residents of whom she disapproved included an ‘ill-conducted woman’; ‘a very bad man, as are also his wife and family’; and ‘a most terrible storyteller’.

It is to be hoped that a close guard was kept on this material to avoid any embarrassing disclosures, not to mention potential libel actions. The incoming rector did make use of it and even annotated it to record those people he had seen or visited. And he evidently thought it worth keeping, and at a distance of almost two centuries, we can be glad that he did.

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