7th September 2020
The early eighteenth-century building industry was a male-dominated arena. Craftsmen populated both building site and records of the same; building-craft skills were handed down from father to son, from master-craftsman to young male apprentice, while the industry’s organisational framework, at least in Dublin, centred on the freemen of the city. Female involvement, save unskilled labour in the brickfields, seems to have been peripheral and prominent figures like Eleanor Coade, who was active later in the century, were the exception rather than the rule. But what of the ancillary industries and associated supports within the building trade? Does the overt gender-bias in the documentary record represent a true picture of the reality on the ground, of the role (or lack thereof) of women behind the scenes in the complex, multifaceted mechanics of the early Georgian building industry?
Trawling through the catalogue of Trinity College Dublin’s muniments my colleague, Andrew Tierney and I were struck by the (relatively) frequent appearance of women’s names in the College building accounts.* Between 1700 and 1745 a number of women were involved in the supply of labour and materials to the major building works then taking place on campus, the New Laboratory or Anatomy House, 1710-18; the New (now Old) Library, 1712-32; and New Kitchens, 1719-22. Although these women may have been drawn into the building trade through necessity or the demise of their male relation, several seem to have carried on successful enterprises in their own right.
Jane Spencer, plastering and painting
In April 1715 Jane Spencer, widow, was paid £2 2s. 8d. for ‘plastering worke done in Trinity College Dublin,’ which was measured by Henry Kinder. The bill, which appears to be in Jane’s own hand presumably relates to work previously carried out by the plasterer Nathaniel Spencer, who had worked at the college since 1707. Nathaniel, like several of his contemporaries, carried out works in both plaster and paint (despite moves by the painter’s guild to prohibit this encroachment on their trade), and was admitted to the Guild of St. Luke in 1701 (NLI MS 12,122 ff75r). Nathaniel had submitted his final bill to the College in October 1714 (TCD Mun P/2/26/27), and therefore appears to have died sometime in the intervening six months.
This occurrence is far from unique. The lack of either state support or indeed opportunities for their own gainful employment meant the widows of tradesmen had little or no means of their own, and were forced to pursue their husband’s creditors soon after the latter’s demise, often for relatively small amounts of money. James Ayres refers to an entry in the accounts and letter-book of the English mason, Andrews Jelfe, who notes the paltry payment of 5 shillings to a ‘poor woman att Burrole [Burwell, Cambridgeshire] whose Husband was kill’d in ye quarries’ (Andrews Jelfe, Account and Letter-book, British Library Add MS 27587).
Indeed, building accounts for Powerscourt Co. Wicklow (NLI Mss 3162; Mss 4875) are peppered with such payments to the widows of building craftsmen and suppliers in the 1730s, while the College accounts contain several other instances of such remittance to newly widowed women. Jane Price received 5s. for carpenter’s work in March 1732, presumably relating to work by the carpenter Gabriel Price, who had worked at Trinity, sometimes in collaboration with Isaac Wills since 1700 (TCD Mun P/2/63/18).
In 1705 Alice Banks received 14s. 6d. for plumbers work, likely carried out by her husband John Banks, a plumber who had also worked at the College from 1700, and had last received payment in January 1704/5 (TCD Mun P/2/14/1-2); whereas Ellen Smith continued to submit bills for plastering and painting work for almost five years after payments ceased to the plasterer James Smith, including a large bill of £23 17s. 6d. for ‘painting and gilding the new organ case and pipes’ in 1706 (TCD Mun P/2/15/8).
‘Agnes Heatly, slater’
Between 1707 and 1743/4 Agnes Heatly regularly signed for work carried out by the slaters Abraham and Thomas Heatly (alternately Heatley, Hately). The Heatlys were one of Dublin’s most prominent families of slaters. Abraham Heatly, who had worked at the Royal Hospital had been employed at the College since at least 1686, when he received a yearly salary of £20 for maintaining the College roofs (TCD Mun P/2/3/4).
Over the course of the next four decades Abraham received frequent payments for slater’s work, and on June 24th 1730 signed a new agreement with the Provost &c. for the maintenance of the College roofs worth £45 p.a. (TCD Mun p/2/60). During the 1720s several payments for slater’s labour and materials were made directly to Agnes Heatly, ‘for the use of my husband’ (TCD Mun p/2/47/20), and by 1730 Agnes seems to have taken over management of the slating contract, after which time Abraham Heatly’s name no longer appears in the records.
Agnes Heatly account, Documents concerning College building’s, TCD Mun/P/2/47/20 © Trinity Manuscripts & Archives Research Library.
Joan Delane account, Documents concerning College building’s, TCD Mun/P/2/43/14© Trinity Manuscripts & Archives Research Library
In 1685 ‘Thomas Hately’ received a single payment of £4 10s. for slater’s work at the College, but it was not until 1710 that this individual began to receive more regular employment, at the New Laboratory and the Library. Thomas continued to work at College until 1746, carrying out slater’s work for Richard Castle and John Ensor (TCD Mun P/2/86/11; p/2/90/5). He appears to have taken over Abraham’s maintenance contract in 1746 (TCD Mun P/2/90/7).
Agnes’s relationship to Abraham and Thomas is not directly stated in the records, but it appears that she was the wife of the former, and perhaps mother to Thomas. She certainly seems to have acted as a business or financial manager of sorts for both men, over a prolonged period of time. Women of the mercantile class and above would have been trained to keep domestic accounts, and were usually responsible for household management. It is therefore unsurprising that some of these enterprising individuals would have stepped outside the female domain, to apply their skillset in supporting roles in the business sphere.
‘Joan Delane, glazier’
A similar situation occurs in the case of Joan and George Delane, glazier. George Delane had been employed at Trinity College since the 1690s, when according to Arthur Gibney he replaced William Vizer, carrying out glazing work on several ad hoc projects, such as the gate house in 1705 (TCD Mun P/2/14/7). He was the only glazier employed at the College during this period and worked extensively at the New Laboratory and Kitchens in the 1710s. In November 1720 Joan Delane first makes an appearance in the records, when she signed for work carried out by George (TCD Mun P/2/40/19). This practice continued at regular intervals throughout the following year, until January 1721/2, after which time ‘Joan Delane, glazier,’ began to submit bills in her own right, and George’s name no longer appears, although he may well have executed some of the works.
Over the next five years there were several large invoices submitted, all meticulously set out in Joan’s neat hand, including bills for ‘work on [the] library’ for which she was paid £28 3s. 9d. in February 1723, and a further £30 in April that year (TCD Mun P/2/52/9-10). The last payment made to Joan Delane was in September 1726, suggesting that she had carried on the management of contracted glazing work at the College, for several years after George Delane’s absence from the records (TCD Mun P/2/56/10).
Ellen Jeffers, building supply
The College accounts also offer evidence of female involvement in the supply of building materials, which supports the broader picture emerging of this sector. In 1718 Ellen Jeffers supplied 10 brass sheaves, or grooved pulley wheels, at a cost of £4 12s. 4d. for use at the Library, and a further six sheaves the following year. In 1720 she presented a much larger bill for £29 15s. for a brass boiler and furnace for the New Kitchen. This business seems to have been previously carried on by one George Jeffers, who in 1711 had supplied the College with a copper still for the Laboratory for the sizeable sum of £12 15s. 1 1/2d. (TCD Mun P/2/20/38), while in 1713 he supplied pulleys for the gin at the Library (TCD Mun P/2/25/50). That Ellen was still responsible for the operation some seven years later suggests a less peripheral, and more sustained involvement of such women in this seemingly male dominated environment. Ellen Jeffers was not alone in this regard. At the former Parliament House at College Green Anne Staples was listed as the supplier of ‘nails, &c.’ receiving quite considerable payments of £18 1s. 2 1/2 d. and £27 1s. 10d. in 1730 and 1731 respectively (JHCI Vol viii, f. 68 & 11). These records, however cursory and fragmentary they might be, offer a tantalising glimpse into the role women in the early eighteenth century building industry, and begs the question of how much more these wives, widows and mothers were responsible for, behind the scenes.
* Catalogue of Documents concerning College buildings, TCD Mun/P/2, Trinity Manuscripts & Archives Research Library
We are very grateful to Estelle Gittins and the staff of the TCD Trinity Manuscripts & Archives Research Library for providing us with access to this valuable resource.
- James Ayres, Building the Georgian city, London, 1998.
- Arthur Gibney, Livia Hurley and Edward McParland (eds.), The Building Site in Eighteenth-Century Ireland, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2017