The Mystery of the Missing Miners: Making the Most of Probate Inventories and Wills, c.1614-1780

Matt Pawelski | Lancaster University

A view near Matlock, Derbyshire with Figures Working beneath a Wooden Conveyor, Phillipe-Jacques de Loutherberg (1785).
A view near Matlock, Derbyshire with Figures Working beneath a Wooden Conveyor, Phillipe-Jacques de Loutherberg (1785).

For generations of historians Probate Inventories and Wills have represented a mainstay in the analysis of early-modern society, economy and culture. They have been used to analyse subjects as diverse as early-modern conceptions of material culture, identity, and consumerism, to the evolution of living standards, consumption patterns, and fluctuations in commodity prices. As a historical source, they are unique in offering a deep insight into the lives of individuals and populations from across the British Isles, whilst also granting the opportunity for local, regional and national level studies. At the same time, however, they have been a source of frustration for historians seeking definitive answers about past societies. At first glance, this “census-like” encyclopaedic record of the various “goods, chattels, wares and merchandise” of the deceased, appear to offer an abundance of relevant data and evidence, but as you venture deeper in pursuit of those promised riches, they all too often fall short of expectation.

The limitations of the probate record have been widely discussed. Perhaps the most significant of those limitations has been the divergence observed in the materials owned by the deceased during their lifetime, with those that ultimately find their way into the probate listings. While this will be relevant in the third and final article in this brisk canter through early-modern Derbyshire, the limitation we are most concerned with here is the bias in the record toward certain categories of people in early modern society, and the distorted view this engenders of local populations (as discussed in part 1 of this series in the September 2020 issue).

Table 1: Occupational spread of inventories and wills for Wirksworth, c.1660-1730.
Table 1: Occupational spread of inventories and wills for Wirksworth, c.1660-1730.

This bias in the historical record is clearly demonstrated in table 1, which shows the occupational spread of inventories and wills for the town of Wirksworth, in Derbyshire, between 1660 and 1730. As can be seen, certain categories of people, such as ‘gentleman’, ‘yeoman’, and ‘widow/spinster’, are found in abundance, whereas others, such as ‘labourer’, ‘husbandman’, and manufacturing trades, appear to be underrepresented. Wirksworth was the epicentre of the lead trade during this period, and so its comparatively high incidence in table 1 is reassuring, though the figure remains lower than might have been expected given the prevalence of the industry and the numbers that were likely engaged (see part 1). Part of an explanation can be observed in table 2, which uses the 1670 Hearth Tax assessment for the town of Wirksworth, to compare occupational descriptors to the number of hearths assessed for named individuals.

Table 2: Comparison of Probate Inventories (1670-1730) and the 1670 Hearth Tax assessment for the Town of Wirksworth.
Table 2: Comparison of Probate Inventories (1670-1730) and the 1670 Hearth Tax assessment for the Town of Wirksworth.

It shows that many of the miners referenced in the inventories and wills were what might be termed ‘chief inhabitants’ of the town, or parish. In terms of the number of hearths assessed, they were on a par with service and mercantile trades and, on average, better off than their ‘husbandman,’ ‘yeoman,’ and labouring counterparts. Even compared with other manufacturing trades, the lead miners referenced were doing better.

That said, while a significant proportion were assessed for two and three hearths, there are also a large number of single-hearth households. This indicates that the lead miners were a highly stratified group, perhaps not quite to the same extent as the yeomanry, but certainly more than husbandmen, labourers and manufacturing trades.

The large number of single-hearth households also hints at another cause for the comparatively poor showing of the lead mining community, both in the case of Wirksworth and more generally in the county-level analyses discussed previously. Namely, that those miners who appear in the inventories, wills and hearth tax assessments represent ‘the cream of the crop’ – those independent entrepreneurial practitioners who were of sufficient means, and had reached a sufficient level of prosperity, to require an inventory of their possessions at death and qualified for the hearth tax.

In addition to these mining elite, we must also consider the large numbers of labourers, farmers and landless cottagers who worked at the mines for wages but did not identify themselves as miners. This group were likely far larger than those included under the label ‘miner’, but due to local custom and the guild-like hierarchies within the industry itself, few would have been permitted to describe themselves as members of the mining trade.

At the other end of the social scale, many prosperous farmers, landowners, local tradesmen, and merchants, drew extensive incomes from investments in the mining trade. These individuals would have sat on shareholder boards, participated in the trade in lead, and played significant roles in the governance and oversight of the lead industry, and yet this involvement does not come across from the occupational descriptors provided in the inventories and wills.

Therefore, the overall number of lead miners recorded in Derbyshire’s inventories and wills between 1614 and 1780 (see figure 1) represents a highly conditioned view of the mining community, which requires careful consideration of local economic and social structures, as well as customary practices, to interpret correctly.

In the case of the lead mining region of north Derbyshire, the label ‘miner’ appears to have referred to a comparatively small number of elite practitioners at this time.

To make matters worse, what this descriptor meant socially and economically also changed over the course of this period. As such, to have been a miner in Wirksworth during the seventeenth century would have meant something very different by the nineteenth century. Great care must therefore be taken when deploying those occupational labels and conventions derived from nineteenth-century sources and studies to earlier periods, as they will inherently misrepresent or distort (see part 1).

In the third instalment of this series, we will attempt to delve deeper into the inventories and wills to explore ways in which this wider group of participants in the lead industry may be assessed using the contents listed in the inventories themselves, alongside other evidence sources from the period. We will also reflect on the lessons that may be drawn from this example when studying local populations through a national lens and draw some conclusions regarding the shape and extent of the local mining population.

The mystery is nearing its finale!


Further Reading

  • M. Spufford, ‘The limitations of the probate inventory’, in J. Chartres and D. Hey (eds.), English Rural Society, 1500-1800 essays in honour of Joan Thirsk (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 139-74

  • L. Orlin, ‘Fictions of the early modern English probate inventory’, in H. Turner (ed.), The Culture of Capital: Property, Cities, and Knowledge in Early Modern England (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 51-83

  • M. Overton, J. Whittle, D. Dean and A. Hann, Production and Consumption in English Households, 1600-1750 (London: Routledge, 2004)

  • For study arising from the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, see: S. Keibek, The male occupational structure of England and Wales, 1600-1850 (PhD dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2017)

Primary source material

  • Derbyshire Probate Inventories and Wills Index 1610-1780 (Staffordshire Record Office)

  • D. Edwards (ed.), Derbyshire Hearth Tax Assessment, 1662-1670 (Chesterfield: Derbyshire Record Office, 1982)

Dr Matthew Pawelski carried out his doctoral research at Lancaster University, completing his thesis in 2019, under the title: The Local Origins of Industrialisation: The Case of the Derbyshire Lead Industry, c.1700-1830. He now works in Higher Education research administration and management, and continues to write, read and explore a variety of historical subjects in his spare time, from the local industrial history of Derbyshire to the history of finance and the Bank of England.