Testaments to Craftsmanship

In Pursuit of Digital Records


Christine Casey

25th September 2020

The closure of libraries and archives, restrictions on domestic and international travel, and new safety requirements in the handling and processing of material has had significant impact on research in all disciplines. For CRAFTVALUE a major source of frustration has been lack of access to UK sites and archives. However, an immensely valuable archival resource has generously been made freely available to registered researchers by The National Archives at Kew, namely scanned testamentary records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury 1384-1858 (https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/). This has allowed the CRAFTVALUE team to analyse a rich archival resource by systematically exploring the testamentary records of stonemasons, surveyors, carvers, joiners and plasterers who were active in England in the period 1700-1760. Craftsmen, often known only as names in building accounts, come to life through the details of their last will and testament.  In many cases these documents illuminate the daily lives of craftsmen as well as casting light on professional and family relationships.

The will of Francis Cartwright, ‘carver’, a prosperous master builder of Dorset who died in 1758, reflects a close association with his workforce. Cartwright desired that his body ‘be carried to the Ground by eight of my Labourers to each of them I give half a Crown and a pair of good strong Gloves and that six of my head Workmen support my pall to whom I give hat and gloves provided I shall then be in Business and have Workmen sufficient to perform my Request’(TNA PROB 11-599-105) Cartwright is an intriguing  figure who operated as a craftsman, builder and architect. His monument in Blandford Saint Mary Church in Dorset bears a carved T square, dividers and rule and the incised elevation of Came House in Dorset. Included in both Colvin’s Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840 and Roscoe’s A biographical dictionary of British sculptors 1660-1851, his work as a carver and builder requires further investigation.

     Bequests in the will of a lesser-known carver from Bath, John Plimmer, who died in 1735, specifies in detail the contents of his comfortable dwelling house. Plimmer left to his sister ‘my Beauro(sic) my dressing Table and any of my Looking Glasses which she likes best my Six best Black Leather Bottom Chairs, six pair of my best sheets and 6 pillow bears (sic) and likewise the Bed with the furniture thereto belonging whith I now lye…’(TNA PROB 11-599-105). The will of the splendidly named London joiner, Lazarus Style, made in 1724, together with disposal of his estate and provision for his grandchildren ‘placeing out Apprentice or other preferment in the World’, contained a codicil which specified the division of household effects among his four children, his bed to his son Nathaniel, and to his daughters Susanna and Elizabeth the ‘cabinet’ and ‘wainscot chest of drawers they usually put their clothes in’.(TNA PROB 11-599-105)

Wills can also provide connective tissue between architectural, engineering and craft practice in Britain and Ireland. The Sproule and Omer families who were active in Ireland in the eighteenth century appear to have first collaborated in Bath. Thomas Omer, whose employment by the Navigation Board was satirised in the Freeman’s Journal for his craft background (www.dia.ie), ended his days in Kent. His lengthy will with two extensive codicils bears witness to substantial real estate in Kent, Berkshire and Somerset, including land in the city of Bath leased to John Wood and Andrew Sproule from which he received an annual rent of £157, 10s (TNA PROB 11-1000-308). One of his two executors, his good friend John Bayley, was a timber merchant at Chatham. Omer’s two sons, Daniel and Porter Rowland, appear to have had training in draughtsmanship, the former assisting his father in surveys for the Grand Canal, and the latter responsible for the only surviving survey of the Dublin Parliament House.

Section of the Dublin parliament by Rowland Omer from Thomas Gilbert, An Account of the Parliament House, Dublin. With notices of Parliament held there, 1661-1800 … Illustrated, etc. British Library. Wikimedia.

Was Thomas Omer the expert mason and builder employed at Bath in the 1740s by John Wood and Ralph Allen and whom Alexander Pope sought to ‘borrow’ from Allen for advice on the grotto at Twickenham?[i]

[i] Benjamin Boyce, A life of Ralph Allen of Bath, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1967, pp.90-92

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