Chief inhabitants and their areas of influence: local ruling groups in Essex and Suffolk parishes 1630-1720.
French, Henry Richards
University of Cambridge
Faculty of History
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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French, H. R. (1993). Chief inhabitants and their areas of influence: local ruling groups in Essex and Suffolk parishes 1630-1720. (Doctoral thesis). https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.11581
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Recent studies of the social structure of seventeenth and early eighteenth century English society have laid much emphasis upon the collective identity of a 'middle sort of people' existing as a definable group between the gentry and the poor. This view is apparently sa~ctioned by contemporary usage of the term by commentators describing trades, occupations and landholders of moderate prospenty, particularly during and after the civil war period. However, this thesis argues that no consistent connection has been established between this apparently contemporary terminology, and a well-defined set of occupational or income categories. In particular, the term 'middle sort' does not appear to have been employed in the area of northern Essex and southern Suffolk examined in this thesis. Instead, the social order is repeatedly categorised as being divided between 'chief inhabitants' and other 'inhabitants'. The thesis explores the implications of this alternative language by examining the social position and identities of the principal inhabitants of the area. Chapter One establishes that the area of northern Essex and southern Suffolk studied in the thesis functioned as a distinct economic entity, due to its participation in the production of woollen cloth. This also produced a distinctive social structure. The area was distinguished by the high levels of poverty and households dependent solely on the cloth trade. The middle ranks of these parishes were also swelled by the rewards from this trade, when compared to neighbouring agricultural parishes. Chapter Two establishes that within this economic region the status of the 'chief inhabitants' was restricted to the immediate hinterland extending five to ten miles around each town. In this area, in which, the majority of land holdings, business contacts and familial connections were maintained, the 'chief inhabitants' were the most important, socially influential residents. They possessed a status which was dependent upon the existence of such a truncated social milieu, in which they were not overshadowed by their actual social superiors among the gentry. Chapter Three examines how this ruling status was manifested in parish office holding. It shows that the group which termed itself 'chief inhabitants' represented a number of the highest officers in each parish. Such people often formed ruling cliques, through their control � of parish or borough forums, which acted as the institutional expression of their elite status in the locality. Chapter Four extends this analysis by looking at personal wealth as recorded in probate inventories. It shows that a scale existed, broadly corresponding to the hierarchy displayed in the possession of local office. The owners of the newer, status-carrying items of furniture or decoration tended to be among the wealthiest group of office holders. The thesis argues that this . most socially visible group of 'chief inhabitants' was expressing its aspirations to gentility through such ostentatious consumption.: This was a means of consolidating their social position, and extending their role as a local elite. The final chapter concentrates on this highest group. By examining a variety of individual cases, it shows how this drive for gentility marked a desire to extend the status as a 'chief inhabitant' within a truncated social scale. It was not the expression of patterns of stereotypical 'middle class' behaviour, as some studies have claimed, despite its similarity to the consumption and acquisition patterns of the later eighteenth century. This chapter shows how this gentility was combined with local standing and occup~tions to produce the hybrid 'gentlemen-tradesmen' so ridiculed by Defoe at this ' I time. This thesis finds little evidence for the existence of a widely-based ' middling' identity in the seventeenth century. Instead, it argues that a different social identity existed, in which this 'middle sort' actually saw itself as the social elite within heavily restricted social and geographical spheres. It argues that the recognition of this identity brings us closer to an understanding of the social perspectives and position of such groups in this period.
This record's DOI: https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.11581
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